Kaleidoscope: Q&A with filmmaker Billy Dosanjh

In two films, 'Year Zero: Black Country' and '1965', visual artist and filmmaker Billy Donsanjh uses archive footage, original interviews, and “the elusive temporality of cultural memory” to tell the forgotten stories of the South Asian diaspora in his West Midlands hometown. Niloufar Haidari interviews him.

Kaleidoscope, Somerset House (2019/2019) by Photography: Tim BowditchSomerset House

What was the inspiration behind the projects?

I'm obsessed with stories that are at the nook of regional migrant experiences, particularly in industrial towns around Britain. I think linking the nationwide influx of new migrants to three-dimensional, fully fleshed-out emotional narratives is really missing. A lot of the space about the experiences of uneducated migrant workers is dominated by journalists, and sociologists and historians, but not necessarily artists, or storytellers, who use emotion as part of their palette. I wanted to reconstruct a faded memory of life at that time using the archive and local anecdotes. I set off to look for archive in the Black Country in the Midlands, and I ended up finding many more hours than I ever expected.

I really wanted to get under the skin on the inside stories, the comedy, the pathos, to create a new version of British immigrant history with love and emotion and feeling. You’ve got all these people thrown into a vast open sea, with no navigation charts,having all of these discoveries. There are winners and losers, there are people who rejoice in the opportunity there are people who drown in it. I just never see that side of it explored and I think mental health around migration is a grossly overlooked theme. Families that struggle across generational lines to adapt is something that the wider public has really little awareness of, but it's absolutely a feature of life where I grew up.

Heaven-Hell by Billy DosanjhSomerset House

Was there a personal impetus behind it?

I grew up in a town that had 90 factories in five square miles in the early 60s, and 10,000 migrant men turned up to work. At a certain point in history, it was the industrial centre of the world. Then all those jobs went in the 80s - and with it a lot of dreams and a lot of family structures fell apart. My work was led by Punjabi culture because they were the dominant group in the area that I grew up in. My dad arrived in ‘67, aged 14, on his own. His wife - my mum - came over in 1980 for marriage. A lot of family structures had this lopsided quality where the men came over to the UK quite a bit before the wives, and so our mothers never really became literate with Britain. So I’ve got a massive personal connection.

Year Zero: Black Country (2013/2013) by Billy DosanjhSomerset House

The history of the industrial workforce in the UK has been characterised as being the preserve of the white-working class. You don't normally see stories about migrants, or black and brown people also having been in these communities and then having to deal with the fallout in the 80s that you hear so much about. We know it destroyed white, white-working class communities, but you never really hear about how it also impacted migrant families and what that was like for them.

It's completely true. I mean, just the politics of the factory floor - if you look at some of the frames from the film, you'll see that all the foremen are white and wearing clean clothes; all the hard labour is being done by new migrants. Some men joined that system in the 60s and worked in it until they retired. It became who they were. That's obviously created a legacy - they've had children, the children
are here in Britain, they're living their lives. Many of them are part of the 3 million strong South Asian British community that exists.

The UK needed newcomers from Empire to come into industrial areas and populate them, to become factory workers in a factory towns. Really, they needed entire villages to uproot and migrate - that's why we have villages from Kashmir that were completely uprooted and dropped off in Lancashire. And because of the nature of their journey they remained at a substantial disadvantage for decades - because they had less qualifications, less knowledge as a group. It was understood that their families would struggle, but there was never anything actually created to help them, or to support them with their emotional adjustment. They had to deal with it themselves. For me that is really fascinating, the sort of damage of the journey, the difficulty of the voyage, and these consciousnesses that really are marginalised in British culture.

Heaven-Hell by Billy DosanjhSomerset House

There’s a quote at the beginning of the film that reads “I once heard that genetics have memory, that a shock in one generation can echo through to the next”. Can you elaborate on that concept?

What I'm interested in is ‘could the experiences of that first generation scar the DNA of the next’? What can be more challenging than travelling 8000 miles and trying to recreate your life in another corner of the world? I was really interested in unusual levels of fear and stress, and cultural protectionism. When you’re faced with new customs in a new world - how that can affect the future generation. In a way, the film is like a scrapbook of scars that grows indefinitely. I collected testimonies from 40 local residents and hundreds of hours of archive footage - I wanted to get away from the rose-tinted view; to get into the idea that thousands of people made this type of journey and created this great personal upheaval, and they created communities that have this amazing depth.

Kaleidoscope, Somerset House (2019/2019) by Photography: Tim BowditchSomerset House

Why do you think these stories have been being left out of the dominant narratives about economic migration and industrial work?

The filmmakers in Britain were going abroad to shoot documentaries about other people. They weren't documenting the ‘other people’ here - it was a complete cultural myopia. It was easy to turn the other cheek. Maybe there's a deep cultural narcissism at the core of British society that means that if you're brown that means you're just ‘brown’ - not of a particular caste or ethnicity, just ‘brown’. And likewise if you're black. The myopia means there is no cultural shorthand, and people don't see what you see if you're from these types of backgrounds. The lived experience of lower working class newly arrived migrants has been completely lost in British storytelling and that’s a problem, because that's the birthplace of modern Britain.

One of the reasons these stories take so long to come out is because a lot of people within this world who could tell these stories don’t have any interaction with any of the storytelling infrastructure in Britain, and no-one from part of the storytelling infrastructure is seeking their stories out. There's a distance - that's why these experiences are just kept within families and not part of any meaningful national conversation. They're preserved within communities.

What do you hope people will take away from the films?

What I want with my kaleidoscopic approach to this film is to give people an insight into the emotional psychogeography of this great journey, and to sort of immortalise it. I want spectators to witness the full complexity, to try to rationalise these often buried histories, these moments of huge upheaval, these collisions. I just think that they're full of amazing stories of that era, and I also think it speaks crazily to modern Europe.

Heaven-Hell by Billy DosanjhSomerset House

Interview by Niloufar Haidari

Year Zero: Black Country features in Kaleidoscope at Somerset House, 12 June - 8 September 2019.

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