All in it together? Are benefits ever a lifestyle choice?

Dole AnimatorsChurch Action on Poverty’s new Poverty Media Unit is working to make the stories of people in poverty more widely heard. As we make our plans, we’ve had interesting conversations with lots of people – including Leeds’ Dole Animators. We invited two of the Dole Animators, Isobella and Susan, to write this guest blog together with Ruth Patrick of the University of Leeds, who has been working with them.

Last year, we worked together to make a film about the lived reality of life on benefits in times of welfare reform.  We initially came together as we had all been interviewed for a research project at the University of Leeds looking at the lived experiences of welfare reform.  As well as publishing reports about these findings, we thought it was important to create something which would reach a wider audience and challenge the ideas about benefits as something people choose; a ‘lifestyle choice’ in George Osborne’s words.  Our aim was to dispel some of the negative impressions that politicians create about people who rely on benefits for all or most of their income.

Through a series of workshops facilitated by the researcher, Ruth Patrick, and a filmmaker, Ellie Land, we worked together to direct, produce and launch a short animated film about our experiences on benefits. In all, seven of us worked together to make the film – we were all on out-of-work benefits, and had direct experiences of issues such as sanctions, reforms to disability benefits and the Work Programme. We were from all different ages and backgrounds, with lots of different opinions, so making decisions was not always easy. We had to talk things through to try and reach agreement, and often make compromises along the way.

In the workshops, we had the opportunity to try out animating, to think about what we wanted the film to say, and how we wanted the film to look. We chose the type of animation it includes; a mixture of ‘Claymation’ like in Wallace and Gromit, and collage. We also thought about our plans for launching the event, and how to make sure it reached the widest audience possible. What we really wanted was to find a way to make David Cameron watch it. We don’t think we managed that but it has now been viewed over 10,000 times on YouTube, and we have almost 1,500 followers on Twitter. The film was launched at the House of Commons and we also had a ‘red carpet’ launch event at a theatre in Leeds. We decided to call ourselves the ‘Dole Animators’, and are now well known by this name.

We think the film is real and watchable, with many people able to relate to our experiences and concerns.  What’s been really great is hearing from other people on benefits who have contacted us via our website to give us feedback on the film, and to say how much they have valued seeing a more positive and realistic portrayal of what life is really like when you are relying on benefits. There’s so much in the papers, on TV and from Government about being on benefits, but so little actually comes directly from people who have experienced it themselves – the real experts on the benefit system, and the consequences of welfare reform.

Being involved in the project was a great opportunity. Sharing our stories with each other gave us comfort, and we were very open and honest as a group, and able to offer support to one another. The feedback we got when the film was released made us realise that not everyone is critical and judgemental about people on benefits. The process of making the film also helped increase our self-confidence and self-esteem, which for many of us, had been undermined due to the changes in the welfare system which caused us ongoing anxiety and stress.

The film was launched over a year ago, and we still get invites to talk about the project, and to screen the film. We’re hoping to do more work together. Who knows, perhaps it’s time for Dole Animators: The Sequel. Watch this space!

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