'The fury pours from the screen': the Windrush Betrayal film made in lockdown

A damning report into the Home Office scandal was published just as the pandemic took hold. So 50 actors made a film about the victims, with words taken from the Guardian

Normally, newspaper articles have a very short shelf life – quickly read on the day of publication and subsequently either entirely forgotten or left to linger vaguely in the readers’ subconscious. It is rare for news reports to inspire an artistic response, and almost certainly unprecedented for a piece to result in 50 actors reading out 50 paragraphs from a Guardian article.

The anger about the treatment of Britain’s Windrush generation remains so intense, however, that a group of actors collaborated during lockdown to organise the recording of 50 mini-biographies of people whose lives were shattered by the Home Office scandal. The resulting half-hour film – Windrush Betrayal – offers a powerful insight into the intensity of mistreatment by government officials, amplifying the voices of those affected with a much more potent emotional punch than the pared-back article I wrote in March could ever have done.

A few days before Britain went into lockdown on 23 March, a forensic 275-page official review into the Windrush scandal was published. The Lessons Learned report by Wendy Williams set out the scale of what went wrong and all the steps the government needed to take to ensure that the Home Office’s mistakes could never be repeated and that justice was secured for thousands of UK residents who were wrongly classified as illegal immigrants, with catastrophic consequences. Unfortunately, concern about the worsening pandemic meant that the report received scant attention.

Watch the first part of the film.

Lanna Joffrey, a London-based Iranian-born actor, was so dismayed at seeing the issue comprehensively buried that she embarked on an ambitious project. She worked with the actor Martina Laird, who was born in Trinidad and is familiar from numerous television roles, to persuade 49 other black British actors to record a very tight summary explaining how each individual had seen their life upended by the Home Office, with some facing deportation and others homelessness and destitution. It took the words verbatim from an article published in the Guardian to preview the report, headlined “Lambs to the slaughter”: 50 lives ruined by the Windrush scandal.

Joffrey took on the role of Margaret O’Brien (one of the few white people misclassified as an illegal alien), alongside actors such as Paapa Essiedu (currently starring in the TV drama I May Destroy You; he also played Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company), Paterson Joseph (who had a leading role in the TV dramatisation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts + Crosses) and the Harry Potter star Alfred Enoch.

It is an unusual project, probably only made possible by lockdown, during which actors saw months’ worth of projects cancelled. Joffrey, Laird and the actor Lewis Hart, who edited the film, were happy to immerse themselves in the exercise to replace the disappearance of their professional lives.

The restrictions of lockdown somehow add to the power of the project, with each actor memorising their lines and recording straight to camera in their homes, traces of their bathrooms and kitchens in the background. Laird describes it as “lockdown aesthetic”, characterised by the limitations of recording a clip from your home.

“It’s an extension of how social media empowers individual voices, so that you are able to put out material that has been home-recorded. There’s a certain look that people respond to, without it being about great lighting or sound. There is a sincerity because it is so immediate and unfiltered,” Laird says. The fury and incredulity felt by the actors at the absurd and cruel treatment meted out by the Home Office pours from the screen in each short clip, delivering one blow after another to viewers. I found it painful to watch.

Joffrey was driven to launch the project because the experiences of those affected chimed with the difficulties her family went through after fleeing Iran – first to England and later to the US – and never feeling fully accepted. “These people were betrayed by the country they settled in,” she says. “My family experienced racism in the UK and in the States during their complicated immigration history. These experiences are repeated all over the world.”

actor Martina Laird voices the story of Jocelyn John
‘Immediate and unfiltered’ … actor Martina Laird voices the story of Jocelyn John Photograph: Produced by Lanna Joffrey, Martina Laird and Lewis Hart/ValiantTruth/YouTube

It was easy to persuade people to participate. Although most actors were aware of the scandal, they had missed the publication of the Lessons Learned review. Laird emailed people she had worked with or admired, telling them: “The Windrush report was released just as lockdown was called, which distracted from the indictment of government that it contained. It means that these stories have been largely overshadowed and the destruction to people’s lives is still unaddressed.” Almost everyone agreed immediately.

“So many people had not seen the review and that’s what hurt. So many people did not know what their own community was going through; that’s partly down to pride and shame, which is a very powerful tool. Parents don’t want to go on about the negative experiences that they went through,” she says.

Many of those involved were very moved by the apparently simple act of reading out a few sentences. The uncle of Jessye Romeo (who appeared in Idris Elba’s semi-autobiographical comedy In the Long Run) was one of those affected, and you can hear her anger as she reads a summary of his experiences of being told he faced arrest and removal to Antigua, a country he had left 59 years earlier. Another actor revealed that his brother was in the process of trying to gather documentation that he was here legally, after decades in the UK.

“It was taxing for them emotionally and it is arduous to sit and watch from the beginning to the end,” Laird says, but she stresses that there is a clear purpose to the disturbing nature of the content. “I’m sometimes troubled by the exploitation of black pain and how it is used in entertainment, when we see racism on stage and television without regard. We hope the pain here is not just exploited for some kind of diversion, but that it is directed by the appeal for something to be done. It is absolutely meant to engage people with these stories and people’s lives and make the viewer feel that something must change.”


Amelia Gentleman

The GuardianTramp

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