Best Doctoral Award or Early Career Film Winner: Unearthing Elephant
Unearthing Elephant is the result of a profoundly personal research journey.
The RIFA 2017-winning film documents and questions the imminent demolition and regeneration of the Elephant & Castle shopping centre in south London, which functions as a hub for the local community – and a home-from-home for filmmaker Eva Sajovic, who moved to the area from Europe in 2001.
“When I first came to London I knew only a few people and ended up spending quite a bit of time in the Elephant & Castle shopping centre,” she says.
“It was a very different place and experience from any that I knew before. The Elephant struck me as vibrant. But also it was non-judgemental and made me feel that I could have a place there – I felt I could belong.
“Through my observations I started to notice that people inhabit the place like it was a public space rather than a privately owned shopping centre.”
Eva describes the centre as being a place “shaped by its users” with their routines of shopping, meeting on a bench, in a café, at the hairdressers. Over time she became more-and-more interested in the characters she encountered, and in 2006 started photographing them.
“I felt it was important to create a document of this place at a time of transition and before it changed,” she says.
“I wanted to evidence the rich life and community that existed in the area and convey a positive picture of this community place that outsiders often described as a monstrosity.”
Eva went on to produce Home from Home, a book of portraits and stories, several exhibitions, an artistic residency and a trail of photos installed through shops in the area, in collaboration with the lead researcher Sarah Butler. She then started work on Unearthing Elephant, which was a collaboration between Eva, Sarah Butler and Rebecca Davies.
She describes the film as “just one output of nearly ten years of continuous research and building on working towards a better representation of the shopping centre and its community”.
“When we initially started working on [Unearthing Elephant] we didn’t have a script,” says Eva. “For about two years we just filmed the area, the changes, along with interviewing people we wanted to talk to and that we knew were an important part of the community.
“Once we started editing we began to understand that for the story we wanted to convey, another voice was needed.
“Different people we worked with referred to ‘the Elephant’ as a person and that helped us devise the Elephant as a character in the film. Gradually our voices were also built in and provided the structure that we then filled in with what the people in the interviews were saying.”
For a film with community right at its heart, the reaction of local people was vitally important to Eva. “Although I don’t want to generalise, the people we have shown the film to found it emotional and easy to relate to the characters, their stories and also to the bigger themes that talk about the system we live in and its pitfalls.
“We also hope that even if in a small way, the film could contribute to individuals’ regaining trust in their voices, as powerful tools in fighting against the forces of capital and corporation,”
“Locals have been sharing the film, it is now online – and this is becoming an important part of the campaign.”
But beyond the local, Eva hopes the film makes a broader, bigger political point about what she describes as “the ruthlessness of capital that is shaping our cities, our futures and the importance of using one’s agency to rise against this and say no and express what we want as locals and as citizens."
“This award is recognition of those voices, but also shows the value in this way of working – it has been a true collaborative effort. Not just between us who made the film, but with those who are in the film. These are relationships that have formed over years of working in the area.
“The way we weaved different voices together was to create a discussion around the current situation but also to point to possible solutions that are not talked about.”
But there's one group of people - those with wealth and power - that Eva particularly hopes will watch Unearthing Elephant.
She hopes the film will show them a different side to life, help them get closer to the powerless and create "a common link of humanity" between them.
Read more about the winning films from the 2017 AHRC Research in Film Awards.