RADA teacher and filmmaker Lucinda Cary is putting the youth failed by society in front of the camera with Farm and Abdullah; films that will highlight their journeys and, in the case of Abdullah, hope to reunite a son with his lost mother in Yemen, writes John Underwood.
In 2007, a joint paper issued by the Department of Health and Arts Council England asserted that ‘arts have a major contribution to make to wellbeing, health, healthcare provision and healthcare environments’. However, nine years and a recession later arts funding has been slashed across the board, with more than £56 million cut by local authorities alone since 2009.
We’re familiar with the economic arguments for maintaining the arts – that an area with a rich artistic scene encourages growth and investment. Just look at the gentrification of Shoreditch and, before it, Soho, where no struggling artist could possibly afford to live any more. But what of the social benefits? Can involvement in the arts really change the direction of a troubled young life?
Lucinda Cary on set
One person who thinks so is Lucinda Cary. Since 2012, RADA teacher Cary has poured her spare time into an innovative project called Shootstraight, which has seen her work with dozens of disadvantaged young people to produce stark and compelling short films based on their own experiences. The twelve completed films cover various subjects and styles, although there are recurrent themes; relationships, loss and, more recently, the idea of a looming, unseen authority figure.
Cary attributes her rapport with young people to her own unusual background. ‘When I was young I started an apprenticeship, learning to edit – then I had my children really young and moved to Spain, to the mountains.’ Technology advanced and Cary, trained on tape-to-tape editing, taught herself to use the new software, making films with her children and their friends as practice.
‘I moved back to London and started getting editing jobs; meanwhile my children were getting older and our house became the house that the teenagers who had run away from home came to. I found it was quite easy for me to have a rapport with those kinds of young people – if you look them in the eye and laugh at their jokes, they sort of melt.’
Encouraged by these early connections with struggling teenagers, Cary contacted local schools and offered to run free workshops with students on the brink of exclusion. ‘It worked really well, those kids that are kind of imaginative but angry and a little bit extrovert, it’s just perfect for performance.’ The project then found a semi-permanent home at Goldsmiths, where a lecturer wrote an ethnographic study on Cary’s work with young offenders.
Having been into so many schools and having worked with dozens of disenfranchised young people, Cary is confident that her Shootstraight alumni can stand up to the next generation of graduate actors. ‘I’m teaching the same course to these drama students at RADA, who are the cream of our young actors, and then I’m teaching young people who are excluded or young offenders.’ Any lack of technique is, she insists, mitigated by a ‘raw ability’ that can appear in the unlikeliest places.
‘It’s almost always the kid that has the hardest story; they’re the one that’s growing up in care, that’s been in forty different foster homes. There’s a weird connection between how far they’re excluded from society and this camera presence.’ Of the six actors who have migrated from Shootstraight to Cary’s next project, three are former young offenders and three grew up in social care; one, Aimie, had a child at fifteen. All are now pursuing careers in drama.
Aimie, now eighteen and with a three-year-old to take care of, is taking up her own place at Goldsmiths this year; Tariq, who was homeless and facing a weapons charge when he first encountered Cary, is at Brighton University. ‘He stood up in Parliament,’ Cary says, ‘and said that the energy he used to put into planning robberies, he now puts into writing scripts’.
Having finally wound up Shootstraight last year (‘I never got enough money into it’), Cary is now moving onto perhaps the only thing more challenging than working with young offenders: crowdfunding a film budget. A fundraising campaign launched this week aims to raise £25,000 to make two films: a feature starring the core Shootstraight company, and a documentary focusing on the life of one of the players, Abdullah Alhalaki (pictured below).
A confident and extremely quick-witted young man whose Shootstraight performances have been both absorbing and deliciously funny, Alhalaki certainly seems to bear out Cary’s theory about hard lives producing good actors. Repeatedly shuttled between the UK and his native Yemen as a child, he eventually discovered that his ‘parents’ were in fact his uncle and aunt and that his father was killed before he was born and his mother disappeared before he was a day old.
After spells in social care, as a young offender and on the streets, Alhalaki drifted into Shootstraight via a theatre course. ‘When I first met Lucinda, it wasn’t too confusing, it was just us being us. Face expressions, body language – everything that we’re doing on camera is actually exposing how we felt at a certain point in life. She got it out of us. Instead of us using that energy and anger in a bad way, she said “use it in front of the camera”.’
Despite his taste for improvised roles rooted in his own experiences – ‘I like “different”, I like something I can enjoy instead of the same old safe thing,’ Alhalaki is preparing one of the theatrical world’s best-known speeches for perhaps the most important performance of his life: his upcoming RADA audition. What’s it like to go from ‘different’ to ‘to be or not to be’? ‘What I’m trying to do is come out of my comfort zone. Instead of it being me and my poem and my story, I’m actually writing someone else’s story by trying to understand where he was coming from. When I read it, I actually thought it was good.’
What with preparing Hamlet, studying (Theatre and Politics at the Royal Court Theatre) and running deliveries on his scooter to pay the bills, it’s hard to believe Alhalaki’s got the time for something as ambitious and exposing as Abdullah, the documentary he’s making with Cary about his search for his true background and, of course, his mother. In fact, he says, the hunt could never have begun without that basic level of structure. ‘As life got easier and I started growing up, I sorted out my money, housing, job. When you’ve sorted out all of that and you’ve got your head resting, you start to think about certain things.’
Going from ‘find your roots’ to ‘make a documentary about finding your roots’ is still quite a leap, but Alhalaki is preternaturally calm about the project, perhaps due to the succour he has found: ‘Wherever I go, I like Lucinda to be around. She’s my teacher, but she’s the one who gave me that confidence, that boost, and when she is around it does make things easier for me.’ What about the intrusion of a camera? ‘I didn’t think about it twice, I did not mind at all. It’s a story.’
For Alhalaki, finding the release of acting sounds almost like a religious experience or therapy breakthrough; echoing Cary, he explains that finding something to engage with made it easier to slip the bonds of his former existence. ‘I didn’t think about changing my life, or quitting smoking, or quitting drinking, or making life harder for myself as it’s already hard. But as I had an activity that I really liked doing [it] kept me away from things without really even knowing, so it didn’t feel hard. You don’t even realise you’re running away from your past.’
Auditions permitting, Alhalaki’s next project will be Cary’s upcoming short film Farm. Intended as a stand-alone short but also the first segment of a planned feature length film starring the former Shootstraight company, Farm (as in Broadwater Farm estate) will feature Alhalaki’s character, Mo, fleeing the country to Paris after being wrongfully denounced as a terrorist sympathiser. Chillingly, this story arc was one conceived before any of the terror attacks that hit France in the past eighteen months. Cary says her young actors, who are mostly of BAME heritage, are uniquely well-placed to address the topic of terrorism.
‘For young people, especially young Muslim guys growing up in London, the whole terror thing, even if they’re not religious, is making up the backdrop.’ When he was struggling to find a job, Cary says Alhalaki jokingly proposed changing his email address to ‘Abdullah Alhalaki (I am not a terrorist)’. ‘It’s just there, so that’s part of how that story came out.’
After making all Shootstraight’s previous films with no budget, Cary is hoping to produce Farm and Abdullah to a much more professional level, with roughly £12,000 (or half of whatever is raised) going towards each project. With luck, Farm will be a calling card for the company as a whole, getting them one step closer to finding a backer for the feature-length film as well as establishing the individual actors.
‘What I’m really hoping will happen when we get [Farm] into festivals,’ says Cary, ‘is they’ll all get agents and other things will start to happen for them, getting them launched on their own careers.’ If she can find the right group of young people and the right funding, she may just start the whole process again. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a more tempting opportunity for a philanthropist with interests across the arts and social mobility. With no funding, premises or full-time staff, Shootstraight has taken a handful of young people who had been comprehensively failed by society and put them on the path to success.
Focused, driven and in every respect a man with a plan, Alhalaki is testament to Cary’s method. ‘I’m really excited in what I do, and I’m really happy in what I do, so I try my best at all times.’ Few people, one suspects, can say that and mean it.
You can crowdfund Farm and Abdullah here.