Filmwire Spotlight: Sonita Gale
Born in Wolverhampton as part of a working class migrant family from India, director Sonita Gale has an insider’s view on the immigrant’s experience in the UK. Her sobering new documentary Hostile examines the Conservative government’s ‘hostile environment’ approach to immigration, one which – as we discuss with Gale below – actually has its poisonous roots in Birmingham.
So what was the initial idea that produced Hostile?
An idea about my parents' experiences as migrants has been brewing in my mind for a long time. They migrated to the UK in the 1950s, almost a decade after their lives had changed dramatically after the partition of India and Pakistan. Their story of migration, and of eventually making a home in England, became the seed of an idea to make a film about the experiences of migrant communities. When lockdown began, I started to see a rising number of people who were unable to get their basic needs of food and shelter met. It all made me think of my childhood growing up in the Midlands with Sikh parents, and the support network we had amongst our mixed community in Wolverhampton. I’d actually filmed an interview five years ago with my mother Sovetra, just to capture her story and her relationship to partition and the British Empire. I hadn’t realised that I would be using that very same interview in my debut film many years down the line. It’s clear to me that if my parents came to the UK today, they would have found it very difficult to integrate, to start careers, to buy a house, to contribute, and to raise a family.
It’s stated in the film by interviewee Patrick Vernon that Enoch Powell’s infamous 'rivers of blood' speech, delivered in Birmingham, is ground zero for immigration policy in this country. Would you agree with that?
What’s key about Enoch Powell is that even though he eventually became the black sheep of the Conservative Party, he gave voice to ideas that were previously unsayable. What Patrick is saying is that Powell was successfully able to normalise this view of immigration – a view which says there is a certain type of immigration that is good, namely immigration from white majority countries, and other types which are less desirable. People who felt the same way were eventually able to voice similar opinions, and lawmakers could argue there was an appetite for immigration policies that addressed the fears of Powell and like-minded voters. It set the stage for decades of immigration policies that used migrants as scapegoats. I actually discovered that former Labour leader Clement Attlee was also deeply complicit in this racism. I chose not to go back that far with my exploration of immigration policies, but there’s compelling evidence that the Attlee government was systematically racist in its immigration policy. Even as the Windrush was docking, the Labour government was figuring out how to try to stop them.
What’s your own experience of growing up in Wolverhampton? Did you always feel at home there?
My family moved to a place called Bilston and we were all born in New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton. I lived on Bradley Lane, which was predominantly white working class, and I went to the local primary, the nearest secondary school and later the closest college. I come from a family of 10 and I had a great, free-spirited childhood in many ways. All different communities and ethnicities hung out together. But things weren’t always straightforward - my father passed away when I was five, leaving my mum to be a single parent, so the shop was sold and my mum had to work in a factory. I felt we had a strong community spirit and I lived not so far away from the Gurdwara and our extended Indian community, but you had the National Front in my area, so there was definitely racism. As a child, I would be called racist names. I would be scared walking to and from school. I was chased a few times and was injured once. Very minor, but it happened. I would talk to the people that didn't like me and try to understand why they didn't like me, because I felt that was the only way to overcome my fear. I actually felt the pain they carried and I could see that maybe they were struggling in their own lives. We were unfamiliar to them and they were lashing out, so I felt that by having conversations, it really helped break down barriers. That’s an attitude that’s continued with my work today.
One of the contributors in the film mentions the current Home Secretary Priti Patel. How do you feel about somebody like Priti, who you might imagine would be more empathetic towards immigrants, yet it often feels quite the opposite?
We do touch upon the fact that Priti Patel might not even be in this country under the current laws, given she was born to Gujarati parents who fled Uganda in the 1960s, and she may not have received the number of points necessary under the Points Based Immigration System. That said, I didn’t want to focus too much of the film on Priti, other than the fact that she’s the current Home Secretary in a long line of many who have strong anti-immigration views. The issue is so much bigger than any one person. It’s a systemic issue in the way that migrants and people of colour are treated which has been present for decades, from both sides of the political spectrum. And the reality is that people who are from overseas make easy scapegoats, so politicians gain from enacting these policies rather than addressing the real issues that affect many of their voters who feel left behind by the direction this country is heading in. Investing in our communities, investing in the NHS, reducing inequality - these things would do far more for Britons than turning around dinghies and sending them back to France.
You touch on the pandemic and how in an ideal world it could lead to significant positive changes in society. But do you think this government has taken it as the perfect distraction to try and push divisive legislation through Parliament?
The pandemic definitely revealed the fragility of our infrastructures with regards to looking after the most vulnerable in our society. Among those most affected were poorer and migrant communities, but it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for these inequalities to be realised. By revealing the cracks, we saw what needed to be fixed, so in that sense the pandemic was an opportunity for positive change. But instead there have been a number of government policies introduced during a very short period of time that could have severe consequences with regards to the way we live – things like the Points Based System and the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill. Other policies we don’t cover in the film are the 2021 Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, or ‘Spy Cops Bill’, which authorised criminal conduct by covert human intelligence sources, and the Nationality and Borders Bill, which could make a large number of refugees and asylum seekers ‘illegal’ and see people stripped of their British citizenship without warning.
Do you think the idea of protest has been diluted with the advent of the internet and ‘clicktivism’?
There were a lot of protest movements in 2020 which were sustained and significant in scale, like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, NHS Fair Pay Protests and Kill The Bill, and all these continue today. Just the other week I was at a Kill the Bill/Nationality and Borders Bill protest. Social media has sparked conversations, raised awareness of protestors and helped people get involved and take to the streets. What's great is seeing different organisations coming together and uniting. There’s definitely an element of clicktivism on social media, but now it's about how we continue to take these movements from the screens to the streets. I feel that as artists and filmmakers we have a big part to play in that process.
The film ends with the May 2021 incident in which Glasgow inhabitants Lakhvir Singh and Sumit Sehdev were freed from an immigration detention van thanks to the protests of their neighbours. Did you finish with that intentionally, to try and end with something positive after a fairly upsetting narrative journey?
Yes. The message at the end of the film, with Lakhvir Singh and Sumit Sehdev’s release and the support they received, brings the story back to the very idea of community which inspired this film to begin with. We’ve seen over the last couple of years that so many people can come together in times of need, whether through protesting or supporting the local. As Zana Khan says in the film - ‘We are a country that is inclusive, not exclusive’. I really hope this film makes audiences appreciate that, and inspires them to work together towards a kinder and more inclusive society. We need to feel that there is hope in order to be inspired.
This interview featured in the latest edition of Filmwire, a roundup of film happenings in the middle of the country sent direct to your inbox. Sign up for the Filmwire newsletter.