People locked in poverty, speaking for themselves

Jacqueline Edenbrow is an Executive Producer at The Guardian working on documentaries. Here she blogs about why The Guardian and JRF joined forces to make the film Fighting Shame, and a JRF podcast to further explore issues raised in the film.

For me, the power of documentary is its very real ability to change people’s perceptions and prejudices – and poverty is an issue that is wrapped up in centuries of shifting attitudes. It’s not right that 14 million people in the UK are locked in poverty, and we need to tackle this head on. We all want to live in a society where we look after each other, and everyone can thrive. This is why The Guardian and JRF were so keen to join forces and humanise what’s happening by giving life to these statistics through authentic and disarming documentary.

As commissioners, we wanted to create a participatory film, where the women who shared their experiences of being locked in poverty could frame their stories in the way they wanted. They decided to do this by choosing eight objects that illustrate the difficult choices they make daily. From being forced to choose between either using the kettle or putting the heating on, this is the stark reality for many people being pulled under by a rising tide of costs and a diminished social security system. 

All stories have their emotional underpinnings and it became clear to the film-makers through speaking with their contributors that shame was the hidden emotional context that poverty creates. Shame has its own insidious power, further serving to restrict people who are already seriously struggling to stay afloat. In our podcast our contributors spoke about the very particular sense of shame that comes from the inter-generational transfer of poverty. The sense that they don't have the resources to nurture the potential in their children, and that they are then judged for it, creates a deep-seated and pervasive shame. As if the experience of poverty wasn't bad enough, they are made to suffer further from this constant additional and exhausting burden, compounded by judgement from political and media elements that this is a ‘chosen' life.

But shame is also a relatable emotion. We all know how it can slowly but surely seep into our lives. From a film-maker's point of view, this seems like a natural way to give an emotional shape to the story of poverty in 21st Century Britain. And from the point of view of The Guardian and JRF we knew our contributors could speak to audiences with their warmth and honesty.

I’ve been extremely moved by our contributors being so open and candid. By definition, this is difficult emotional territory and unpicking the various ways in which shame affects their lives has taken a real strength of will. The feedback we’ve had on the film so far has really confirmed that JRF’s approach is an effective one. It’s the human details that are resonating with audiences, because whoever we are, we can all relate to those awful feelings of dread, despair and shame. Stories like those in the film are not exotic or obscure. This is the real lived experience for millions of people locked in poverty. I hope that this film can be part of a conversation that amplifies these voices. That conversation needs to encourage decision makers to engage directly with people locked in poverty - in changing policy and in inviting a more nuanced portrayal of poverty in the wider media. But don’t take my word for it, watch the film for yourself here. You can also listen to these remarkable women discussing the issues raised in the film in JRF’s latest podcast.