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Filmmaker Paul Sng: ‘My new book shows diversity can make Britain stronger’

Documentary filmmaker Paul Sng has experienced racism throughout his life but hopes his new book shows equality, diversity and inclusion enrich Britain.

London, 1982. I am five years old. A mixed-race only child in a single-parent family from a council estate in pre-gentrification Peckham.

My understanding of what it means to be British is limited to patriotic cliches and caricatures. The Second World War ended more than three decades ago, yet for the dads and grandads and the boys waging war with plastic toy soldiers, victory over the Nazis still demonstrates how great Britain is.

The cries of “two world wars and one World Cup” ring hollow to my young ears. Margaret Thatcher, mass unemployment and the miners’ strike are to define my childhood more than past glories won in honour of the British Empire. Great Britain is a place that exists only in history books and old films.

Yassine Houmdi, Portobello Image: Alicia Bruce

I experience racism for the first time that summer during the school holidays. Marcus, an older boy at my childminder’s house, types the word CHINK on keys of his ZX Spectrum, a word that then appears dozens of times on the monitor.

I will never forget that moment. It will come to define much of my childhood.

The howls of laughter from the other kids. My impotent rage and burning shame as I run to the toilet, refusing to let them see my tears. I will remember the childminder’s indifference and the whitewashing when my mum arrives to collect me: “He got a bit upset. It was a joke. You know what kids are like.”

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Simon Tyson, Dereham Image: Jim Mortram

From now on racism is a regular occurrence in my life. Sometimes it’s directed spitefully and designed to injure me.

Other times it happens in jest and as so-called banter. It always hurts. The insults are mostly verbal. The abuse is sometimes physical.

On one occasion, my assailant smashes a chair over my head, which requires a visit to the hospital for a few stitches. Whichever way it comes, the impact is always violent. The bruises heal, but the mental scars always remain.

Working on the book, I gained a greater understanding of not only what divides us, but also the ties that bind us together as a nation

Britain, 2021. As we attempt to comprehend and navigate the long-term impacts of Covid-19, the polarisation in our society exposed by Brexit, Black Lives Matter and rising levels of race hate crimes continue to divide us.

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While politicians struggle to agree on how to address each of these issues, sections of the media frequently present one-dimensional narratives around immigrants and what it means to be British, which serves to deepen hostilities in an already divided nation.

As a documentary filmmaker, I’m interested in untold stories about people who challenge the status quo, an approach that led me to work on a narrative photography book in 2018, Invisible Britain: Portraits Of Hope And Resilience.

Raj Budoo, London Image: Amara Eno

The project focused on the stories we don’t hear, the places we don’t know about, the people we don’t see, and included a range of first-person testimonies (each accompanied by a photograph taken by a different documentary photographer) from people contending with issues such as austerity, deindustrialisation and cuts to public services.

Stina Fisher, Glasgow Image: Margaret Mitchell

For the next book in the series, I wanted to explore our relationship with nationhood and what we can learn about identity and belonging in Britain in 2021.

This Separated Isleis the result of two years of research, interviews and image making to take a snapshot of the most turbulent period in modern British history.

Kristie de Garis, Perthshire Image: Kirsty Mackay

As a collection of stories and images, the book explores our concepts of national identity via a range of opinions and understandings about the meaning of Britishness, a term I remain deeply sceptical about, given its ambiguity.

When planning the book, the team and I made a conscious effort to hear from people across class, race, geography and opportunity – many of whom hold wildly opposing views – to present a portrait of a nation where equality, diversity and inclusion are essential qualities for a healthy society.

Working on the book, I gained a greater understanding of not only what divides us, but also the ties that bind us together as a nation, both in the past and the present day.

Diana Yates, London Image: Faraz Pourreza

The ubiquity of social media can amplify opinions that view society through a prism of them and us, which is less concerned with who and what we are than with who or what we are not.

Yet while it may seem like our society has gone backwards in recent times, in This Separated Isle we meet people who reflect our disparate and multicultural society, and tell us that acceptance and respect are values to strive for over tolerance.

I hope the book shows how the divisions within society are often created through ignorance and fear, and that British culture is enriched due to the diversity of ethnicity and nationality in our communities.

Rabbi Herschell Gluck, Stoke Newington, London Image: Andy Aitchison

This Separated Isle: Invisible Britain, edited by Paul Sng, is out on September 21 (Bristol University Press, £20) 

@paulsng

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