x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Dubai volunteers give youth in Dharavi slum a chance to tell their story

Dubai volunteers are travelling to India to give a group of children in Dharavi slum the skills and equipment to tell their own video stories.

Children in Hebron take part in the Handheld Stories workshop held last year. A similar initiative will take place this summer in Mumbai. Courtesy Rashid Al Marri
Children in Hebron take part in the Handheld Stories workshop held last year. A similar initiative will take place this summer in Mumbai. Courtesy Rashid Al Marri

Mid-monsoon in one of the world's biggest slums might not be everybody's idea of a summer foreign jaunt, but for a group of Dubai-based filmmakers and teachers, that's exactly where they'll be headed this August.

Handheld Stories, a volunteer-based educational collaborative, is taking its next project to Dharavi, the vast and densely packed Mumbai slum with more than one million residents that featured heavily in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. The main aim of the organisation, which last year went to Hebron in the West Bank, is to give the youth in under-represented and marginalised communities the skills and equipment to tell their own video stories, which is what they'll be doing with a group of 10 to 15 children in Dharavi in the first couple of weeks of August.

"About five or six people are going over," says Rashid Al Marri, an Emirati filmmaker and graduate student who will be taking part in the project during his summer break. "There'll be three people directly involved in the video workshops, actually teaching kids. And then two or three others, including myself, who are there for support."

Al Marri, who is currently reviewing the curriculum of the courses, taking advantage of the fact he's studying media education as part of his MA, says that the workshop is going to involve class-based activities, alongside hands-on experience out and about with the equipment.

"The first three or so lessons are going to be spent watching films, with a discussion alongside it so the kids can see how a story is structured. In Hebron, I think we screened Monsters Inc, but this year we're going to be looking at a lot of web videos on YouTube and Vimeo, so that they can understand the video media landscape as that's where their work is going to eventually go."

By the end of the workshop, the aim is to have a series of videos from the children, which can be about any subjects they choose. "Handheld isn't intended as a political thing. We're doing it in a slum, but it doesn't mean that the videos are going to be these hard-hitting documentaries about issues," says Al Marri. "If the kids want to do something like a music video, or if they've seen something funny online and want to do something similar, they've got the opportunity to do so."

Last year in Hebron, despite the apolitical intentions of Handheld, the videos produced by the children did help illustrate what daily life is like for those living under Israeli occupation. One showed the struggle the students have of simply attending school, with army searches along the way, plus the threat of settler attacks and the increasing confiscation of school land such as playing areas.

These videos are now available to watch online, and this is an area Al Marri wants to emphasise with the students in Mumbai. "We're looking towards giving them the opportunities to set up their own accounts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, to help promote their work and also be able to share it with others, and see what other students around the world have done."

As it did in Hebron, Handheld is going to partner with an organisation or community leader who knows the situation on the ground and can help find the children in Dharavi who would be interested. "We don't just go in, show up and start picking kids randomly off the street. We're looking at different organisations who are based there."

There's also a legacy aspect to the project, with hopes that the skills - along with the cameras and computers Handheld take over - will stay in Dharavi and continue to be used after they've left.

"One of the issues that we found in Hebron was finding a permanent place to keep the equipment and actually have someone involved in it," admits Al Marri. "The main concern for me is that if we leave the equipment there, is it actually going to be used and is there going to be someone there who is going to do those workshops? If we can find people or an organisation who are willing to do that, then definitely."

Al Marri, along with fellow Emirati filmmaker Moath bin Hafez, will be creating a short documentary about the workshops that should help explain the importance of running such a project in an area like Dharavi. "The kids' perspective is their perspective, we don't want to affect that," he says. "But sometimes the viewer needs to have a bigger idea of what's going on."

There are also plans to bring the videos to the UAE, linking up with some of the schools here. "Emirati students could see what it's like for kids in India or Palestine, and then make their own video and try to understand the differences," says Al Marri. "But this is just an idea for now."

To help get Handheld to Mumbai and source the equipment it needs to run the workshops, it has set up a campaign to raise US$5,000 (Dh18,370) on crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo. To contribute, or to see how you can get involved, visit www.handheldstories.com