DigitaLENS Breaks Down Stereotypes about Surrey Youth

Twelve films screened at KPU Surrey’s Conference Centre

KPU professor Katie Warfield (Aly Laube / The Runner)

While it’s easy to stereotype Surrey youths as a demographic entrenched in gang-related violence, the DigitaLENS storytelling project, screened at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Surrey conference centre on May 11, set out to prove those stereotypes wrong.

The project was suggested by KPU professor Katie Warfield and directed by her, Aisha Amijee, Surya Govender, and Deepak Gill. Each of them worked directly with 12 students from Princess Margaret Secondary to help create a dozen films about their lives as residents and individuals in Surrey.

After receiving a “substantial financial donation from Telus,” the directors began to design a program that “gives [Surrey youth] the cameras and lets them tell the stories, to challenge these outside cameras that often come in and tell stories about them, for them, without having the lived experience of what life in Surrey is really like,” says Warfield.

“A lot of people inform their opinions about Surrey youth from what they see in the media, so it’s really important to have stories coming from them directly and not from the top-down,” Amijee adds. “We really wanted to promote critical thinking by giving them the agency to grapple with these issues and asking them what they think.”

The program was also an opportunity to give a voice to youth in general, who, according to Gill, are rarely encouraged “to share their experiences and tell their stories.”

“It was really empowering for them to open up, regardless of what their age is, and get really comfortable, because they’re discussing some really mature themes,” she says.

After being told about DigitaLENS, the students from Princess Margaret volunteered to join the free program on their own accord. Most of them were interested in developing their skills in digital storytelling, social justice advocacy, and journalism. Novice photographers, writers, musicians and artists aged 13 to 18 came together to create their videos, which they worked on from last fall until this May.

Aly Laube / The Runner

The students say that the experience has increased their interest in digital storytelling and prepared them for their future as post-secondary students.

“I was always nervous to come to university, thinking that it’s so big,” says Meeshal, one of the student filmmakers. “Instead, now, I’ve experienced university and I won’t be that nervous when I step foot into university classes.”

Meeshal also hoped to address the media’s portrayal of Surrey as a gangland city.

“Honestly, I think that Surrey is a really great place. Despite the gang violence and the shootings, I don’t think it happens just in Surrey. It happens everywhere.”

Her fellow classmate and filmmaker, Harleen, adds, “I feel like we start to see ourselves the way that people see us. You know, if someone says you’re stupid, you’ll start to believe it, and I feel like the way people outside of Surrey see Surrey is negative. We’re stuck with that mindset.”

Another Princess Margaret student, Kinga, believes that “a lot of people focus on the bad parts and completely miss the beautiful parts of Surrey, such as parks and recreational centres,” while program participant Talla praises the municipality for its cultural diversity.

Warfield, Amijee, Govender and Gill are proud of their students’ profound insight. After months of “building rapport with them, getting to know them, and touching on social justice themes,” they connected personally with each of the twelve filmmakers.

Govender, who taught the students the technical skills of narrative storytelling, comments that the group represents “the wide diversity of people” and that “their voices are strong.”

The films screened covered everything from accounts of everyday life in Surrey to personal stories, comments on youth representation, and explorations of gender, body image, racism and artistic expression. Films were presented as original songs, poems, and speeches set to footage that many of them took themselves.

“They’re not just these sort of passive people that are going to absorb these representations and stereotypes,” says Warfield. “In fact, they’re these active storytellers who can take the lens themselves and narrate what their experience is like here.”

The program will be running again this fall with a different group of students, but it is currently uncertain which school they will be from

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