Monday, 31 October 2016

Field of Dreams

I recently had the pleasure of making a short film for the Rwandan Cricket Stadium Foundation, supporting their fund raising campaign to build Rwanda's first international cricket ground. It's a worthy cause that's building on the positive impact cricket is having on Rwandan communities since the genocide.

Cricket was largely unknown in Rwanda before the 1990's. Despite its popularity elsewhere in Western Africa, Rwandans had been spared the very English pastime due to being ruled first by Germany, and then by Belgium. They dodged the reach of the British Empire in the 19th century and therefore avoided cricket as a tool of colonialism.

Rwandan Cricket Stadium Foundation's vision of a new stadium

Rather than from Britain, cricket came to Rwanda a century later via Kenya and Uganda courtesy of Rwandan refugees. Many had fled to these neighbouring countries when tribal tensions exploded in 1994 and then returned to Rwanda bearing the gift of cricket.

The scarily recent genocide from which they had fled - during which 800,000 people were slaughtered over 100 long, bloody days - lives on in the memories of Rwandans and continues to haunt every day life. 20% of the entire population were murdered. 

Currently, Rwanda's national cricket ground is on the site of one of the most horrific massacres of the genocide, upon which thousands of people were hacked to death with machetes. Until recently, it was common for players to come across human bones during play. It's perhaps somewhat fitting that I'm writing this on Halloween, given how gruesome these details are.

The Rwandan Cricket Stadium Foundation have recognised the role cricket is playing in Rwanda's healing process. As cricket brings people together they are keen to harness the unity that Rwanda's fastest growing sport is encouraging. Therefore, they set out to raise £1 million to develop a stadium with modern facilities so Rwanda can begin to host international games and attract more young people to the sport.

As part of the fund-raising efforts Rwandan cricket captain Eric attempted to break the world record for net practice by batting continuously for 52 hours. This short film, comprising of GoPro footage shot on the day, tells Eric's story:

You can help them raise the remaining funds required to finish their field of dreams here.

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Humanitarian Film Festival

The Humanitarian Film Festival begins today and my short film The Other Human was among the 12 films selected to feature. The festival, in support of the UN's World Humanitarian Day this month, is showcasing films that exemplify compassion and empathy for all human beings.

I shot The Other Human on a trip to Athens at the height of the Greek Depression, and just as refugees had begun arriving from across the Mediterranean in high numbers. I met Kostas - the kind, warm-hearted Athenian in the film - and joined him as he cooked "free food for all" on the streets of the Greek capital.

There are many desperate, hungry people who have benefited from the compassion of Kostas, a man who truly believes that "no victims are necessary".

The Other Human was originally shared on Destination: Utopia last year, my platform sharing ideas and initiatives that inspire positive change. Please follow D:U on Twitter @DestUtopia or visit the website here.

You can watch the film on the festival's website here... and if you think it's worthy, please vote for it here.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Panic on the streets of Coventry

In the days leading up to the English Defence League's 'national demonstration' in Coventry, the notorious far-right wing group announced they wanted to "reclaim" what had become a "Muslim ghetto". In response to this, anti-fascism activists and disgruntled Coventrians made it clear to the EDL that their message of hate and division was not welcome.

Welcome or not, over a hundred EDL supporters from as far north as Newcastle and as far south as Devon descended on Coventry - a city most of them knew nothing about - to tell all the white working class locals that they should be angry with their Muslim neighbours.

I was there to cover the day's events for Brace Club and alternated between the EDL's demo - confined to the edge of the city centre - and a counter-protest organised by Unite Against Fascism on the town square. The police meanwhile, out in huge numbers, attempted to maintain a semblance of calm.

The EDL, well aware of their public image as violent, knuckle-dragging hooligans, have made recent attempts to clean up their act. Messages on social media pleaded with supporters not to get too drunk and volunteer stewards in EDL-branded fluorescent jackets stood by at the demonstration, seeking to discourage anything that might paint a damning picture.

Unfortunately for them, their bigoted hate-filled rhetoric speaks louder than any attempt to be taken seriously. When regional leaders announce their disgust that a "bloody Muslim" can be voted as mayor of London and points to this as evidence of them "slowly taking over", their true colours come to the fore.

Meanwhile, the counter-protesters were keen to remind everybody that Coventry is "one of the most harmoniously multicultural cities in the country", and with that in mind, support from locals for the EDL was always going to be thin on the ground. Coventry, after all, takes pride in being the birthplace of the UK's ska revival in the late 1970's, with multi-racial bands such as The Specials preaching racial unity.

Raising concerns over Islamic extremism and talking about how to tackle it is not Islamophobic and labelling it as such cheapens the term when used to rightfully describe the actions of the English Defence League. Not only are they Islamophobic, they promote hatred, violence and disunity, and though the principle of free speech should always prevail their message must continue to be countered.

The short film I made for Brace Club in Coventry is online here:

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Britain's dark secret everyone should know about

Just north of Bedford - quite literally in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by fields - lies Twinwoods Business Park: home to a pet crematorium, the world's largest skydiving simulator and, tucked around the back, Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre. It's a very odd place.

Yarl's Wood looks like a cross between a prison and a conference centre; the sort of place you might expect David Brent to hire for meetings. Run by private firm Serco, it specialises in the detention of women, housing up to 400 asylum seekers and migrants at any one time.

I went along on Saturday to document a demonstration, part of a national day of action calling for the closure of the eleven detention centres around Britain in which thousands of detainees are held. Somewhat alarmingly, Britain is the only EU member state in which asylum seekers can be legally detained indefinitely without charge

Protester at the Yarl's Wood demonstration
Some people, including women at Yarl's Wood, have been inside for years. Most having never committed even a minor crime. Despite accusations of poor conditions, sexual abuse and the branding of it as a 'torture prison' by former detainees, these privately run centres are allowed to run with little scrutiny and muted public outcry.

This is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all, that these detention centres have somehow managed to retain an air of anonymity. Sufficiently out of sight and disturbingly out of mind.

Wherever you stand on the complex issue of immigration, you can't just ignore places like Yarl's Wood. You have to ask yourself where you stand morally on the indefinite detention of people fleeing persecution and wars, seeking a better life. And that's the crux of it for me: this shouldn't be a political issue. It's a moral one.

Check out the short film I made at the Yarl's Wood demonstration here:

Friday, 6 May 2016

Rum, drums and rocking chairs

Simply put: Cuba is incredible, and you must go now. Incredible because of the people, their attitude to life and the island's Caribbean lushness. And right now, before up to 110 daily flights begin arriving from US airports.

I'm not saying American influences are going to taint everything that's wonderful about Cuba, I'm merely suggesting that you shouldn't wait to find out.

Trinidad © Ryan Chapman

Right now, Cuba is a traveler's paradise, and it's the Cuban people themselves who are largely responsible for that. Take typical Irish openness, Islamic hospitality and Latin American warmth, put it all together and you'll have something approaching the average Cuban.

Add to that: you're on a Caribbean island, it's still pretty cheap and, if you avoid resorts, you have the perpetual feeling you're traveling off the beaten track. No wonder the secret is out.

La Boca © Ryan Chapman

The heart of Cuba beats to frantic Afro-Caribbean rhythms from rumba to reggaeton, but life itself is relaxed and unhurried. A Cuban's day is more likely to involve several games of dominoes than present any problems that kicking back in a rocking chair with a bottle of rum can't solve.

The truth is, Cuba is not the failing communist nightmare it's often purported to be. By providing a high standard of healthcare and education; subsidising essentials such as food and electricity; and fostering crime-free neighbourhoods, Cuba is clearly in a much better state than many other Latin American countries. Haiti and Honduras being the obvious examples to the other extreme, both struggling with poverty, inequality and violence.

Plaza de la Revolutción, Havana © Ryan Chapman

I'm not saying Cuba doesn't have it's problems (democracy, for example, is an area that could use some work...) but you'd be hard pressed to find a happier bunch of people. Today - with the more pragmatic of the dictatorial Castro brothers in charge, and an improving relationship with the USA - change is rampant, and Cubans are looking to the future with cautious optimism.

"We like President Obama, but we will never forget the history. It's what makes us Cuban”, explained our host in the very town on the Bay of Pigs where the USA-backed invasion failed in 1961. "Sure, there are things we could do better, but there are big things we don’t want to change and I don't think we'll get a choice. America wants to own everyone."

Bay of Pigs © Ryan Chapman

Sorting fact from propaganda is something that's particularly precarious when dealing with the history of US-Cuba relations, but it's plain to see how the trade embargo has held the island nation back. However, with 191 of 193 United Nations member states recently condemning the USA for its continued stranglehold, Obama has been actively attempting to normalise relations. (Side note: the only country not to condemn the superpower, other than itself, was Israel).

Obama's efforts are welcome in Cuba, where many problems can be directly attributed to the blockade. "No one is homeless in Cuba, everyone gets housed by the state", another host told me between sips of rum, "but because of the trade embargo there is a shortage of building materials. So the government can't build enough homes and often four generations live under the same roof. Overcrowding is a big problem... mainly thanks to America."

Havana © Ryan Chapman

It remains to be seen how this coming together of ideologies will impact Cuba: an island where poverty is seen as a social problem, with social solutions; an island where, as our host on The Bay of Pigs put it, "people have little, but share everything from the heart"; a communist-led island in a sea of capitalism whose people are proud of their socialist values.

Maybe the best of both worlds will prosper and a unique brand of democratic socialism will thrive, like some kind of Scandinavian-Caribbean utopian hybrid. Or maybe the once forbidden fruits of wealth and riches will prove too enticing and Cuba will become another territory of the United States of Capitalism.

Whatever happens, it's happening now.

Havana © Ryan Chapman

If Cuba has been lingering towards the top of your bucket list for a while, I'd make it a priority and plan that trip, while keeping these things in mind:

Stay in casa particulares

Most hotels in Cuba are rated from average to awful, but casa particulares (somewhere between a home-stay and a bed and breakfast) allow you to stay with locals, put your money directly into their pockets and enjoy the fruits of Cuban hospitality first hand (quite literally: the fresh fruit at breakfast was a consistent highlight).

We didn't stay in a casa that wasn't excellent, but we did research them first using sites such as and the old favourite, Trip Advisor. I'm sure there are bad ones around, but avoid them by booking ahead. 

Two favourites were Duniel & Maite's Hostal El Barbero in Playa Giron, and Guille & Viola's Hostal Buenavista in La Boca.

Havana © Ryan Chapman

Skip the resorts

Varadero receives more tourists than anywhere else in Cuba, but it's about as Cuban as a steak and ale pie. Most people come here - or other resort towns on the north coast - and don't leave. Yes, the beach is exceptional, and yes it's worth a day or two, but if you want to experience Cuba any day spent in Varadero is a day wasted. 

If you insist, at least stay in a casa particular.

Assume information is out of date

Things are changing so fast you need to take everything you read on the internet and in guide books with a pinch of salt because it's probably out of date.

Bus about

Viazul buses are clean, comfortable and air-conditioned. They're also far cheaper than hiring a car. The only downside is being bound to fairly irregular services (often one departure a day), but if you have time on your side the bus is the way to go. Don't even think about the train.

La Boca © Ryan Chapman

Fall in love with La Boca

La Boca was my personal highlight. Cubans chill in the Caribbean shallows sharing rum and laughter; others smoke cigars and play dominoes on upturned cardboard boxes. Children climb trees, pausing on high branches to watch friends play football on the sand below.

As the sky begins to glow pastel shades of pink and purple, fishermen row out towards the horizon, silhouetted against the setting sun. 

La Boca is a small fishing village just minutes from the relative bustle of Trinidad. Find your favourite rocking chair and spend at least a few days here. Adapt to the pace and allow it to soothe your soul.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

[Film] Saving Venice from the Sea (and other films)

There's something darkly romantic about a city being lost to the sea. Unless, of course, you happen to live there. Minds will inevitably wander to Atlantis, but Venice's problems are far more subtle than Plato's (supposedly) imagined onslaught of fire and earthquakes.

Venice © Ryan Chapman

Despite its persistent stubbornness, Venice is slowly succumbing to two simultaneous phenomena: subsidence and sea-level rise. The subsidence is due to a number of factors including tectonic activity and the sheer weight of the city causing the mudflats upon which the original Venetians built their settlement to slowly sink into the Adriatic. Historically, this was the biggest problem but today climate change induced sea-level rise, along with an increased frequency of storm surges, mean flooding occurs at high tide more often than ever.

Not only do these high tides make popping to the shop for some Prosecco more of an ordeal than it ever should be, it erodes brickwork; effects business; hinders emergency services; and is ultimately forcing residents out of the city. The hoards of tourists already outnumber the locals in summer months and it's easy to imagine a future in which Venice is maintained exclusively for the industry of people taking selfies in front of things.

One man trying to alter the path of destiny is Giovanni Cecconi, who I had the pleasure of meeting to hear about what's being done to prolong Venice's life (for a Destination: Utopia film coming sometime in the spring). Giovanni, a long-term Venetian himself, is the former manager of the giant multi-billion Euro flood-barrier project which is now nearing completion. He is brimming with knowledge of Venice's unique predicament and passionately bursting with ideas for the future of the city.

Giovanni, mid-inteview, distracted by a singing gondolier

I started Destination: Utopia's Twitter page over a year ago, aiming to share inspiring ideas and initiatives from around the world, and it has since amassed over 2,000 followers. As well as sharing hundreds of titbits that have caught my eye, this will be the third film of the year to be shared on the platform. Look out for it @DestUtopia on Twitter. Meanwhile, here are the other two...

Exhausted: Exploring Car-free Ghent

I was in the charming and often overlooked city of Ghent just before Christmas with the intention of drinking multiple vats of mulled wine in some vague attempt at being festive. At least, that was the plan, until the second or third helping of insipid, lukewarm cinnamon juice and I remembered all the reasons I don't much like mulled wine.

Another reason to be in Ghent was to make a short film on the success of the car-free initiative. Being fully aware that a film about the benefits of a pedestrian zone is unlikely to rank alongside Making a Murderer for watchability, I made it short and snappy for y'all:

In short: it's clear there a lot of advantages to designing cities without the car in mind. Personally, I can say this worry-free since I sold my last car seven years ago in order to fund student living and haven't had the inclination to drive since. However, objectively speaking, I don't see a place for cars in the city centres of the future. And neither does Ghent.

Ghent © Ryan Chapman

Travel tip: If you want to go to Brugge, consider Ghent instead and day-trip to Brugge for your fill of over-priced waffles and abundance of lace shops. Ghent is arguably the better of the two cities for a whole host of reasons but most pertinently: it's just more Belgian. There’s a richer cultural scene, a more diverse range of bars and restaurants, and there are far less annoying tourists to get in your way whilst you're busy being an annoying tourist.


One aim of Destination: Utopia - as well as to share good ideas - is to show inspiring people doing amazing things. One of those amazing things is Foodcycle, an initiative which puts would-be food waste on to plates and runs seamlessly, thanks to a team of dedicated volunteers.

It’s criminal how much food is thrown away by British supermarkets with so many people going hungry. It literally is criminal in France to do what they do here, their government having made it illegal for supermarkets not to give it to charity (which seems to be an ever-growing trend).

Saving a couple of sacks of produce a week from a single supermarket may not seem like a solution to what is a huge problem, but as you’ll see in the film it makes a huge difference to the community.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

[Film] Meet the Moonies

Towards the end of last year I was asked to make a documentary with rare inside access to the Unification Church, following a day in the life of a second-generation Unificationist - or, Moonie - called Michael.

Michael is 21 years old and a life-long member of the Church. Known for its cult-like tendencies, the Unification Church is perhaps most famous for its belief that world peace can be attained by marrying everyone off into couples and forming "true families". Just last year, Michael himself was matched at a mass-marrying ceremony in South Korea and is now eternal partners with a Japanese girl of similar age.

Left to right: Michael, Jake (the producer & presenter) and a fellow member, praying in front of a sacred tree.

The term Moonie derives from the name of Sun Myung Moon: the founder of the Church in 1954 and believed by members to be the second coming of Christ. He is known as the True Parent and is idolised as the personification of absolute perfection. 

I attended their Sunday service in North London before meeting Michael again at his home in a Moonie commune to make this film...