by Dunya Kalantery
In 2019 I devised and directed You Are What You Eat 2 with 40 eleven year olds from Earlsmead Primary School, Tottenham. Both seasons were the outcome of a 2-year project, built on learnings from Chicken Town – a childhood obesity intervention that ran from 2015-2017, and a particularly close relationship with the teachers and students of Earlsmead Primary School.
The aim was to create a peer-to-peer health and wellbeing project, putting children’s voices at the heart of a discussion about their own health. Health which, from my perspective, encompasses physical, mental, and social wellbeing, security in identity, environment and community.
While it is acknowledged widely that obesity is a complex issue, my experience of the cultural analysis of contributing factors were that they were frequently based on assumptions (for example, that children from deprived areas were unfamiliar with vegetables), muddling a public health crisis up with a fat-phobic culture, and making too little space for a deep understanding of the relationship between the political, social and individual decision making over an individual body. With an over-emphasis on ‘one’s own (individualised) body’, and a lack of nuance regarding who has the power to make genuine decisions about said body, and what empowers – or disempowers – those decisions.
Over the years working within a childhood obesity intervention, I had been very frustrated with adult assumptions that they had the solutions for young people and childrens’ problems – solutions which were rooted in altering their behaviour, top down, without listening to their needs and desires and involving them in the design and decision making of interventions. To me, this at meant the interventions felt at best irrelevant to their target audience, and at worst disciplinarian, taking away the power from children that could be used to support confidence, determination and genuinely beneficial behavioural change. I don’t pretend to have any scientific answers for obesity, but I do know the importance of self belief and confidence when challenging adversity.
London communities and environments are going through precarious and difficult times, and children in places like Tottenham are feeling the brunt of it – both because of their histories and their present. If we want to create empowering, supportive environments for change in the face of this (seemingly unwavering) precarity, without having the power to transform the political and economic environment, we need to do so by recognising, de-stigmatising and reinforcing what the children do have – in their communities, families and environments – so that they can stand strong in accessing their personal material and their resilience as fuel to push themselves further than precarious environments might allow, to create change for themselves.
It goes without saying that children are hilarious and intelligent creatures that have an enormous capacity to learn, and comprehending how their behaviour has an effect on their own lives and environment is a vital part of their development and building resilience. And so, I decided to make two series of films with the children of Earlsmead Primary School, so that they could represent themselves, and see how much they contribute to their culture and environment. Expanding conversations with them about health beyond eating salad and excercising, to understanding how their culture, their environments, their communities and their bodies support them in being healthy.
Having seen the outcome – both on and off screen – of You Are What You Eat 1, I knew I was right about the self-affirming potential of the project. And so for this recent series I was determined for it to be a child-led process. In the first year, I set the overarching content and structure, with multiple spaces for the children to devise their own skits and stories. For the second series, I began the process by asking the children to interview each other on the issues that were most effecting them at the time. We then went on walks in the local area, taking photographs, collecting found objects and buying ingredients from the South Asian, Carribean, African, Latin American and Turkish shops surrounding the school. These images, objects and ingredients formed an archive, through which the children told stories about themselves. We related those stories back to the issues that were said to be most facing 11 year olds to create the form and content for the episodes, and then collaboratively devised, filmed and edited each episode with a team of storytellers, actors, set designers, producers and editors.
The process was a dialogical one – with me creating structure, reacting and responding to the children’s ideas, and then feeding structure back to them. At times it worked better than others, and I was able to see clearly that my own ideas were creating structure for the children, rather than being imposed on them – a tricky line to tread when aiming towards a pre-conceived outcome.
I was working with far more children than before, with less of the incredible support I was used to available from the school – thanks to a three-form entry year and the inevitable strain this put on already stretched resources. This meant a lot of time managing groups and schedules, which very honestly led me to being too wired to build equal relationships with each of the children and to respond as well as I had to small nuggets of genius and humour. I felt very much what teachers struggle with constantly, and was even more admiring of them than ever. And what I learnt from this process was that, while I am – we all are – enabled by the community I am part, I am also limited by it, and I can’t expect to successfully break the boundaries of those limits, Guinness world record in hand, without being effected by them too.
Watch the films here.