Ed Webb-Ingall: ‘I am a product of lesbian history and a child of section 28’
The video-maker talks about working with communities, his current work, We Have Rather Been Invaded, about section 28, which prohibited schools from promoting homosexuality – and the difference between being a parasite and a Trojan horse
by ROSANNA MCLAUGHLIN
Video-maker and writer Ed Webb-Ingall, born in London in 1982, started out working as a researcher and producer on documentaries and music videos. Aware of the rigid hierarchies that govern much of the film industry – and the often-problematic power dynamic between those behind the camera and those on it – he began to look for alternative structures. While he was doing an MA in the history of film and visual media at Birkbeck, University of London, he learned about “community video”, a method of video-production, based around a model of collective authorship that enables communities to take control of the way in which they are represented.
He has since produced a number of community video projects, the most recent of which explore the legacy of section 28. Introduced by the Conservative government in the UK in 1988 in the midst of the Aids crisis, section 28 decreed that local councils and schools should not “promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. In effect, this created a blanket silence on the subject of homosexuality in UK schools until its repeal in 2003 (2000 in Scotland).
Webb-Ingall’s video projects have been shown at numerous film festivals and art galleries, including at the British Film Institute’s LGBT Film Festival, Showroom and Studio Voltaire, as well as in community centres and classrooms. His current project, We Have Rather Been Invaded, takes its title from the words uttered by BBC news presenter Sue Lawley when, on 23 May 1988, the BBC’s Six O’Clock News was invaded by a group of lesbian activists protesting the introduction of section 28.
Rosanna Mclaughlin: We Have Rather Been Invaded is the third of three moving-image projects that explore the relationship between queer history, modes of representation and your own genealogy. The first of these is Raising Hell (2010). What got you started?
Ed Webb-Ingall: Raising Hell was made with the dual purpose of investigating the personal and political history of children with LGBT parents, while giving myself a lesson in the theory and techniques used by queer film-makers in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. I felt that the first film I made should be about something I had experienced first hand. I made Raising Hell, which is about the children of gay and lesbian parents, because I have a lesbian mum. At the time, there were very few films about the experiences of children from families like mine. I wanted to make a video that gave these children time and space, and didn’t position them as flag-waving figures of promotion. It was important that room was made for criticism and reflection on what it’s like to be a child with a gay or lesbian parent. I wanted to collect and share stories that highlighted the differences and similarities in experience, because, in my own experience, this can be a strange role to occupy.
Raising Hell Teaser Trailer by Ed Webb-Ingall
RM: The question of how we understand the concept of “family” is central to Raising Hell. In addition to interviewing the children of gay and lesbian parents, you interview a number of specialists on this subject, too.
EWI: The first person I interviewed was gay activist and sociologist Jeffrey Weeks, whose work I really admire. When we met, he used the term “the logical family”, rather than “the biological family”, which I loved and could relate to. I had become interested in those people involved in activism or politics who had had an impact on my personal biography, people who are not my family, but who have been important to the formation of what I think of as my family. As well as putting out a call for children of lesbian and gay parents through friends and family, I interviewed an amazing woman called Susan Golombok. She produced the first long-term study of lesbian parenting, which was subsequently used in court to defend lesbian parents in custody battles. I also interviewed my mum’s solicitor, Gill Butler, whom, I believe, won one of the first lesbian custody battles in the UK.
I don’t appear in the film, except in home-video footage and old family photos, but my brother and sister do. Looking back, Raising Hell was my first community video. I was really aware of the access I was able to have because I’d experienced similar things to the people in front of the camera.
RM: Can you give an overview of what community video is?
EWI: The establishment of community video coincided with the availability of portable video recording technology in the UK at the start of the 70s. This made it possible to record and instantly play back moving images that looked like television. The technology appealed to artists and activists because it enabled a form of moving image production independent from top-down modes of communication and representation. It also enabled those otherwise excluded from these processes of image-making to engage with the medium on their own terms.
RM: Are there specific examples of films that have been influential to your research, and which typify the genre?
EWI: One example I often refer to is Starting to Happen (1974) by Liberation Films. In the film, we see a self-organised community action group, who are encouraged by Liberation Films to learn to use a video camera to carry out interviews, document their neighbourhood, and make and screen a video about local issues in order to change them. The protagonists are a group of mothers, brought together by their shared experience of raising children near a busy road, in a neighbourhood with few resources for young children.
One scene takes place in the living room of a female participant. She is shown instructing the Liberation Films team on how the group wants it to edit the video, while her child watches from the doorway. The language she uses replicates that of the professional editor: “Cut here,” “Great shot.” That a woman is dictating the action to a group of men, and that the scene takes place in a domestic setting, shows the multiple roles and spaces that community video allows for.
RM: The arrival of portable cameras in the 70s made it possible for people to take the question of representation into their own hands. Today, the potential to make yourself visible using a smartphone is greater than ever before. How much is visibility still the issue?
EWI: Of course, some people have cameras on their phones and they make videos on them and share them, but not everyone has a smartphone, or has the knowledge, confidence or desire to make and share a video. To assume everyone has a smartphone is often to reveal your own privilege, and a lack of awareness that other people might not have the same access as you.
Groups such as Black Lives Matter, Sisters Uncut and Movement for Justice have used mobile-phone footage to document, share and encourage activism, which has been really important in growing their movements and exposing injustices. There is a real and specific urgency to it, but it is very different from the video projects I work on. The community video projects I initiate are often carried out over a series of workshops and long periods. I always use a single camera that everyone has access to, and it is important that it looks like a camera and not a mobile phone. This helps to de-centre ownership, and sets apart the production of a community video as something different from what might be expected from, or made with, a smartphone.
Primarily, though, the difference is a matter of audience. A community video project has a built in audience, which everyone involved is aware of from the beginning. This is true whether the intended audience is the people in the room with whom you made the video, a community centre, a gallery, or a cinema. When I start a project, I usually begin by creating an agreement with the group that anything that is recorded belongs to everyone in the room, and cannot be shown unless we all agree to it.
RM: Popular documentary-makers often assume the role of tour guide. I’m thinking of the way in which Louis Theroux plays Mr Reasonable, exoticising his subjects and making allies of his audience. Is there a specific ethical code of conduct you apply when making community video? For example, does the film-maker have to belong to the community that is being filmed?
EWI: Not necessarily. When I made Raising Hell, I was an insider. This was also the case with Reframed Youth, a video project I facilitated at the BFI film festival with an LGBTQ youth group, and with my most recent project We Have Rather Been Invaded. As an insider, you are more likely to have a shared language and a feeling of intimacy with the people you are making the film with.
Reframed Youth Trailer, 2013 by Ed Webb-Ingall
There are other approaches to making a community video, too. I might get invited as an outsider to work on a project with a particular community, because my knowledge could help to further their skills, or because I can help with the production of a video on a specific issue. In 2012, I made a video for Lambeth Women’s Project, a voluntary, not-for-profit organisation dedicated to women’s services. They were based in south London, near where I lived, and were being threatened with closure. In response, they occupied the building. They suggested that I make a video, which I did. I get asked to perform this outsider role quite a bit, and it is important in these situations that I am careful how I negotiate my position. It is complicated, and I often think the efficacy of a project rests on a certain amount of slippage; for the outsider to become more of an insider, and vice versa.
RM: Is this to avoid cultural appropriation?
EWI: There is also a third kind of video-maker, which could be referred to as the colonial video-maker, who picks a group and says: “I think you would really benefit from this project, and I’m going to make a video about you whether want me to or not.” This is something I strongly avoid.
I am interested in thinking more about the kinds of relationships and roles involved in film-making. There are complications in viewing these positions as fixed, because it means you end up assuming certain things about your own identity and other people’s, too. It is possible for someone with no experience of a community to make an interesting and important video about them, but this isn’t an approach I have been invested in, or have spent time developing a means to work within.
RM: You facilitated the video project Reframed Youth in 2013, which was shown at the BFI London Lesbian and Gay film festival. The project takes as its starting point Framed Youth: The Revenge of the Teenage Perverts (1983), a documentary made by the London Lesbian and Gay Youth Video Project. In it, a group of queer teenagers investigate public attitudes towards gay and lesbian sexuality.
EWI: Framed Youth (1983) is one of my favourite videos of all time. It has all the energy and excitement of being young and queer with something important and urgent to share. The voices and points of view are so honest and varied; you really witness the participants giving voice and visibility to their identities. The year 2013 marked its 30th anniversary, so I approached the BFI and persuaded it to give me three days to make a film in its basement, and a slot at the film festival. Rumour has it that I was the first person ever given a slot at the festival who hadn’t actually got a film ready to show. The idea was very simple. I would screen Framed Youth for a group of LGBTQ young people, and it would act as a trigger to make a video in the present.
Framed Youth: The Revenge of the Teenage Perverts, 1982
RM: How did you go about selecting the group, and ensuring that authorship was shared?
EWI: That year, Metro Centre – an LGBTQ youth service in Greenwich, south-east London – were doing a survey asking 16- to 25-year-olds what it means to be LGBTQ in 2013. They were really excited about the project as it was a way of bringing some of those people together.
I used certain exercises with the group that I adapted from those used by community video makers in the 70s, such as passing the camera around, and playing games that get everyone used to the camera, in order to diffuse authority as best as I could. We talked a lot about visibility, and what happens when someone doesn’t want to be on camera. One person in the group was transitioning at the time, and, at first, she didn’t want to be filmed. As a group, we discussed finding a way that her voice could be heard that she felt comfortable with, so that she didn’t perpetuate her invisibility. We invented techniques that meant everyone would be heard, but not everyone would be filmed. The camera moves around a lot, and there are lots of shots of people’s feet and hands, and so some of the time you can’t tell who is speaking.
RM: Your current project, We Have Rather Been Invaded, was partly commissioned by Studio Voltaire, London. The title is a quote from a BBC news presenter, explaining on air what was happening when a group of lesbian activists interrupted the Six O’Clock News in 1988 to protest about section 28. Can you tell me about the significance of this event?
EWI: I was drawn to the invasion because of how analogous and symbolic it was of section 28. Section 28, also known as clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, banned the promotion of homosexuality as a “normal” family relationship in UK schools. It was about invisibility, silence, and shutting people off. When these four women invaded the Six O’Clock News, they weren’t visible on camera – you could only hear their voices, and see the impact on the faces of the news presenters.
That invisible invasion became the news, featuring on the 10 o’clock news on both channels that night, and in the newspaper headlines the following day. As someone interested in activism and video-making, I find it endlessly fascinating how much work that single action performed. The protesters managed to undo their silencing, while their invisibility symbolised its impact, too.
RM: Your research unearthed some of the headlines in the UK press following the invasion, which are astonishingly misogynistic. “A gaggle of screeching, lesbian harridans tricked their way into the BBC’s Television Centre”, “Beeb Man Sits on Lesbian” …
EWI: I found these headlines at the Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive at Bishopsgate Library, where they have an amazing and important collection. The headlines were so shocking and sensationalist. They were particularly offensive in their framing of women. Most of the political activism around section 28 was organised by lesbians and, with this project, it was really important to think about this. There was the group that abseiled into the Houses of Parliament, and the group who chained themselves dressed as Suffragettes to Buckingham Palace. Did you know about the lesbians who occupied a booth at the Ideal Home Exhibition? They had a massive banner that said: “The ideal home is one without any men in it.” It was always women.
As a gay man, I am cautious about speaking on behalf of lesbians. But I do feel very much a product of lesbian history, just as I am a child of section 28. Having a lesbian mother makes that history part of my identity, from the books I read, the films I watch, to the friends I make.
We Have Rather Been Invaded is still being made. One of the final pieces of the project will be a video recording of a round-table discussion between me and a number of people who were working in the public sector during the time section 28 was in force, people such as librarians, teachers and council workers. This will enable me to record and document the different experiences people have and the different roles people play, and my relation to them. By bringing in these other voices, I am trying to find ways to be honest and transparent about how I represent different positions.
RM: I am often surprised at how little awareness there is about section 28. As a student at art school, I can remember being taught about Aids activism in the US, but section 28 was never on the syllabus. Even now, when there is an increasing cultural interest in queerness, section 28 is rarely mentioned.
EWI: Sometimes I think this is because section 28 is not that interesting on paper – essentially, it was a bit of policy, and, as far as I know, only one charge was brought under it. Also, it was about a lack, about not doing something, which is something that is often hard to represent or make visually manifest. Almost my entire education took place under section 28. I was six when it went through, and I was 21 when it ended in 2003.
A lot of people whom I have interviewed about their experiences of section 28 said that it brought them out of the woodwork, making them more visible than they had been before. It became a call to arms. It was a real moment of solidarity between lesbians and gay men that worked alongside Aids activism, and it created a huge shift in terms of being visible.
RM: One of the key issues that comes up around section 28 is how do we begin to speak of an experience of being silenced and redacted? How can we quantify its impact, and the impact it still has on children being taught by teachers who grew up in silence?
EWI: This is where video-making can become exciting, because it can be an aid for thinking of new ways of being. It can help to represent those things that didn’t exist, but should have. One of the exercises I introduced to the final workshop for We Have Rather Been Invaded speaks to this directly. The group was made up of young people I had recruited through social media and call-outs through mailing lists. I got everyone to think up lessons they were never taught at school, and to think in a utopian way about this idea. They suggested things like, “that time we went to Hebden Bridge to learn about lesbian history”, “that time our art teacher took us on a trip to a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition”, “that time I was allowed to dress up as Madonna to go to the school disco”, “that time when my school introduced non-gender specific toilets”. It’s so simple, but it is a way of speaking to what wasn’t there, while at the same time imagining what could have been, and what could be.
This exercise also opened up a discussion about the Prevent programme in schools, a government policy that involves training educational staff in how to spot and eradicate extremism in educational institutions. I was at a vigil for Chelsea Manning this morning, and I got talking to a woman there who works in a school. She told me that she didn’t want to do the Prevent training, but was told she would get into trouble if she didn’t because it is mandatory, and not doing it would cause alarm. That kind of thing is really, really worrying. The policing of language in schools that is happening with Prevent, and the way Prevent has been rolled out, is very evocative of section 28. I am hoping that this project might encourage more discussions, so that we can avoid repeating what happened with section 28 in terms of silencing important conversations, and develop methods to recognise and understand difference.
RM: You are clearly extremely careful not to objectify communities when approaching them. How do you, as a queer person, deal with this situation when galleries and institutions approach you?
EWI: There are things I try to do, as someone who is queer and visible, to try and avoid being the queer one in the room who is helping to tick a diversity box.
My friend, writer and academic Laura Guy, and I have talked about this a lot. Of course, it is complicated by individual experiences, but I often think about there being two positions one might potentially occupy: a parasite and a Trojan horse. When invited into an institution, you can do your best to pick holes, to draw attention to structural problems within institutions by being there. But this also might involve potentially being instrumentalised by that institution, because, by having you there, they are able to say: “Great, we’ve done our bit of institutional critique for the week.” Whereas being a parasite means that you take the money and run. It means using that institution’s resources to do your own work, using your energy to do everything you can to avoid being instrumentalised. Even if it doesn’t work, even if this approach can end in failure sometimes, it’s important to me to hold on to that intention.
RM: What are you working towards now?
EWI: I am in my third year of a PhD programme at Royal Holloway, University of London, on the history and practice of community video in the UK. I also run the public programme for the London Community Video Archive, which was established last year. As I mentioned, I am in the process of doing my last bit of filming for We Have Rather Been Invaded and I am looking for librarians, council workers and teachers who were working during the time of section 28 and have memories of it. Perhaps I can use this interview to recruit some participants?