While Pride & Protest may be Blaise Singh’s debut directing a feature-length documentary, Singh is no stranger to the art of filmmaking, having assisted in over 500 filmmaking projects as part of his company, Make a Difference Entertainment (MADE).
A half-way point between film school and charitable organisation, MADE integrates members of the LGBT community from minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds into a filmmaking industry that would otherwise fail to represent or include them. This is the story of Pride & Protest, a powerfully unique depiction of the grassroots movements of LGBT liberation and the intersectional struggles showcased through protesting – a key form of activism since the days of Stonewall and its creation of the pride movement.
Premiering at both LGBT and non-denominational film festivals, Singh continues to break barriers for some of the most vulnerable groups in the UK today.
At Scottish Queer International Film Festival 2020, Singh discussed his aspirations.
The documentary opens with you planning to attend a nearby protest, over the inclusion of LGBT relationships in school sex education. What was it that inspired you to create a film centred around the controversy?
While those protests were going on, we were running a project called Rainbow Films. We were meeting on a weekly basis, and we would run sessions with the participants. While that was actually going on, this story broke. We got really frustrated – just watching and listening to some of the protesters talk. We had seen things on the news and some of the things that they were saying were deeply offensive, and it was quite clear that they were coming from it from a place of homophobia, as opposed to informed information. We thought, why not go down to Birmingham, and we could maybe make some videos to raise awareness, and get different opinions?
It just so happens that one of the counter-protesters had applied to our project. We said, ‘look, we’re going to be there, why don’t we meet up and, you know, get in touch with us?’, that was the voicemail that you hear in the beginning. What you see is a product of us just going out there, just wanting to make some online video content and recording that. As a result of it, in fact, the police had contacted us, and they told us that they wanted to use that footage as a critical piece of evidence because they had seen it online. They then took our statements and took my statement, and they use that video in court. As a result, the protesters actually got stopped because of it, so we thought it would be a great addition to the film.
That triggered our desire to talk about intersectional issues, because our group was predominantly queer people of colour. We were very interested in talking about the different layers of discrimination and prejudice we face on a daily basis. We didn’t just want to make it about the homophobic people. We wanted to make it about us, our team and the people who are doing great work, to counteract that homophobia.
Did your background in teaching inspire you to try filmmaking and to create Rainbow Films?
I was a filmmaker, first and foremost anyway, and it just so happened that I then became a teacher as well for one year. The school opened near my house and I was actually offered a job by the principal who knew of the work that I was doing. I was very nervous about doing it because I had experienced homophobia in school myself, so to go back to that environment, it was almost like kind of like bringing up those old wounds to the surface.
When the students found out [about my sexuality], I found that most of the students were lovely, but a few of the students stopped saying hello to me in the corridors, and stuff like that. When I kind of encountered that note that was put on my desk [featured in the documentary], one thing that kind of disturbed me was the handling by the school. I obviously told them about it, and they kind of turned around and said, ‘Oh, we spoke with students, none of it was none of them’.
I just thought, well, if that was a student, how would a student feel if you if they came to you with a genuine fear about getting homophobic microaggressions? How would they feel about the way you think you’ve handled that? So when it came to deciding whether or not I should renew my contract, I just thought, you know what, I really do want to continue the great work that I’m doing that made so I decided to do made full time, which is the charity I work for.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a surge in LGBT representation in film, did you feel that the experiences of People of Colour were being overlooked by mainstream media?
Definitely. I think even when I did start Make a Difference Entertainment (MADE), in 2016, even in the short space of a few years, I think we have drastically come a long way, but there’s still a lot more work to do. One of the reasons why I started MADE was because at the time, the creative industries was massively underrepresented PIC. In London, they made only 7% of people employed in the creative industries, but London is actually almost 50% BAME. So there was a massive underrepresentation just not only just on screen, but also behind the scenes. That’s why I decided to do something about that I wanted to create a charity where we could give support and help to people in the grants grassroots level to give them training.
I think that in the industry now, there is there is change, but I think we do still need to go forward. And I think the way to do that is by having people of colour queer people of colour in those creative leadership roles, which is authentic and truly represents our community.
What different experiences do people of colour in the LGBT community face in comparison to their white counterparts?
It’s going back to what I was saying about intersectionality. Those multiple layers – people who are white, who probably experienced homophobia, but people who are people of colour will also experience racism within the community. I think that hurts a lot more as well, because you’re going into a community, which is seen as inclusive and embracive, but if you don’t look like everyone else, you’re kind of rejected. We see it online, we see it in bars and clubs, and I think POC just generally don’t feel welcome in queer spaces.
I think that’s an element that contributes heavily to why queer people of colour create their own spaces. Events like the UK Black Pride exist because we do need to find our tribe in a way in the same way to improve in the gay community – and I think the people of colour community do find strength in that unit, to be able to find other people who are like them. So that challenge of racism is definitely something that is an additional layer of discrimination and marginalisation that we as a community do face.
What I really enjoyed about your film is that it depicted the experiences of queer people of faith – why do you think such a significant part of the LGBT community lacks representation?
I think it is a lot to do with fear. I think people who are religious, I mean, I’m an atheist, but I think there is a fear that when you’re putting yourself out there. You’re constantly told in your religion, that you cannot be you cannot exist – it’s impossible for you to be queer and Muslim, it’s impossible to be to be Christian and gay. When you’re constantly told that, I think there is a fair there is an apprehension for people to come forward and for them to kind of, you know, be out in crowd, so to speak.
We’re seeing that with people like for Han and people as Sunnah, who are featured in the documentary, who are very much visible and very much willing to go out there and represent their community, but also say, ‘look, I am queer, but I’m also Muslim. And these two can coexist, and we can prove that to you’.
How have you found the audience reaction to your film? Have people reached out to you about their experiences?
When we put the film together, we were just really unsure about how people were going to turn to react, because even the participants hadn’t seen the documentary, so I was really unsure about how it was going to be received. I knew there were some great moments in the documentary, but when we got the feedback from the first screen that we did, we were just completely blown away.
I had a WhatsApp group as that I used with the participants, so they were giving me their feedback. At the same time, we were receiving comments were getting tweets. We were getting people saying, ‘Oh, my God, I can still relate to Manpreet’s story, I can still relate to this story’, and just hearing that, for us was just so heart-warming, because we just felt like we had done the work that we had intended to do.
People were saying that they were in tears at moments, or that they were angry, seeing the homophobia, and they were inspired. The main aim of this documentary, first and foremost, was that it was intended to be made by us, and for us. Anybody else coming along on the journey would be able to see what our experiences are like, and we could change their perspectives, and I feel that we’re well and truly on the way to doing that.
We’re actually screening the film at the South Coalition of South Asian Film Festivals, which isn’t a queer festival at all. It’s a straight or wider community festival, so to speak, and it’s South Asian as well. In terms of impact, that’s who we really want this group to be shown to, and change their prejudices that may exist within themselves and change their points of view.
But overwhelmingly, the response has been great. We’ve got great reviews as well. I’m just so humbled and proud that that’s actually happened. And we’re just looking to continue the success by just touring it and taking it around – getting more feedback and get more people to watch it.
This year, we’ve seen this huge reconsideration of Britain’s racial identity and due to large scale protests, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you think people are more open to engaging in protesting compared to a few years ago?
100%. I recently attended five different protests. Rico, one of the people featured in the documentary, was given another documentary called Black Rainbow. We decided to get out there and film, and just from seeing the amount of people who were there, supporting the cause and were vocal on it, it was just really emotional to see how many people are now supporting that.
Having people protesting, and through the content that we’re creating, can make a difference and impact people’s lives. Now we’re looking at the Black Lives Matter movement from a queer perspective, and looking at what challenges people are facing and making their voices heard – we went to a Black Lives Matter protest, but we also then went to a Black Trans Lives Matter protest.
There we encountered loads of people who were from the queer community there, who were, you know, waving pride flags, and also had Black Trans Lives Matter banners and everything like that. So I think there is a lot more kind of emphasis on protesting now, because people can see for themselves that it is leading to change. Because of what happened in America , I think people are very, very aware that sometimes you need to protest in order to make a difference, and if you keep silent, you are also complicit.
Obviously, a lot of pride celebrations have been called off this year. As we look to the future of pride, what should be the primary focus in defeating hatred and creating a fairer society?
I definitely think it has improved over the years. When we attended last year, it was actually the most inclusive pride ever held, because they had Muslims marching at the front for the very first time and made it quite apparent that they were welcome there.
I think overall, we need to focus on inclusivity, and we also need to focus on uniting the communities, as there’s a lot of divisions that are within the communities – not just on a racial level, but also within the LGBTQ spectrum.
It’s great that we have all these separate groups, because we do need our individual spaces, but I think pride should be that one event that unifies all those groups and brings everyone together. Moving forward, that’s the only way we I feel we can achieve equality overall – when we do come together, we can be in together in one space and coexist, and have a great party at the same time as well!