Research in Film Award Winners: You Can't Move History
What makes a place special? Not necessarily anything that you might expect is the answer that emerges from short film ‘You Can't Move History’, which won the Best Research Film at the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Research in Film Awards.
This remarkable piece of work challenges easy assumptions about heritage and creates a fascinating portrait of contemporary urban outsiderness in the process.
Through beautiful still and video photography the film captures the essence of skating as a sport and an art through a group of skaters fierce love for 'their place' – a concrete undercroft on London's Southbank – and their passionate campaign to stop it being developed and turned into a coffee shop.
“The aim was to make a film that gave the skaters a space to express themselves, either through words, images or digitally, and take them to an audience that they wouldn’t normally have access to,” says Dr Polyanna Ruiz, from the University of Sussex, who collaborated on the project with fellow academics Dr Tim Snelson, from the University of East Anglia, Dr David Webb at Newcastle University, and Rebecca Madgin at the University of Glasgow.
Giving a voice to the skaters was particularly important to Dr Ruiz and her colleagues because they believe that skating is still widely overlooked and written off as nothing more than a refuge for unruly outsiders.
This certainly seems to have been the opinion of Lambeth Council who in 2013 as part of a redevelopment initiative, requested closure of the Southbank Skate Park.
“The expectation is that, the skaters are young men, and young men are apathetic; they’re monosyllabic, they’re not interested in anything and just want to hang around,” says Dr Ruiz.
“I’m not young. But I work with young people. I see young people. I’ve got children and the truth is rather different. These young men are really bright and creative and passionate and have a huge interest in the world around them; it’s just that our lives don’t normally overlap in a way that we see that.”
As an academic, Ruiz says that she and her colleagues were used to being seen as “the experts”. But for this project they deliberately stood back and let the skaters step in and direct the creative process.
“When we first thought about making the film I think we thought that we would be doing the talking. But it wasn’t like that,” she says. “In fact, I think it was [the skaters] involvement that ultimately made the film so accessible.”
‘You Can't Move History’ uses highly stylised filming and a mainly black and white colour scape to capture the artistry and skill of skating, set against a threadbare rhythm of clicks, echoes and the sound of hard wheels rolling on concrete.
This is cut in with a series of vox pops that explore the reasons behind the skaters determination to save the park.
“Throughout the film-making what I was really surprised about was how slick the skaters were, how savvy – how good at campaigning. They were experts at using Facebook, Instagram and social media and they ‘got’ very quickly that, if they were to broaden this out and appeal to a wider group of people, then that would bring pressure to bear on the Southbank centre and the planning process.
“These men weren’t necessarily politicised before they began the campaign but they became politicised though the process.
“They don't just care about the undercroft because they skate there. They were able to draw in issues around gentrification, about having space that is not organised, controlled and privatised, and thought of only in terms of what it can produce economically.”
Dr Ruiz also praises the way that the skaters worked together, both on the campaign and the film. “They were an inspiration,” she says. “Such articulate, intelligent, creative people.
“It gave all of us who were involved such hope in what can often seem quite dark times.”