It is not easy to describe a person with so much talent and who has been involved in so many creative projects that help marginalised communities and support migration and diversity. We are talking about Marion Vargaftig. She is a programmer, designer, leader, producer and has founded the organisation Manifesta, which facilitates marginalised communities in using arts and film-making to promote social change. Manifesta was co-founded with Colin Prescod, an eminent figure and personality in race relations, arts and culture.
Marion left France 22 years ago and since made London her home. There were two reasons for crossing the channel. The first was love, as her partner, and now husband, is British and got a job back home. The second motive to come to the UK was work. In France, Marion had been working on the representation of minorities on TV in Europe and had written a book on the subject. Coming to the UK, she was very interested in working with BBC and Channel 4 because they were more representative of minority communities compared to any other TV channels in Europe. She had thought it was a matter of ‘just a change of geography.’ But when she came to London, Marion felt she had to start her professional life all over again.
“It wasn’t easy at all when I arrived in London and I had to prove again what I could do. I had to start again as though I just had to begin my professional life; it was a shock.” Marion explains that it was a hard, lonely experience because she didn’t know many people. But fortunately being full of great ideas and enthusiasm, she had the drive to make things happen. With an independent approach she thought maybe it would be better to rely on her own projects, where she could help others and do things she believes would bring positive changes to the society. “I think my upbringing gave me the drive. I had to be independent from very young age, helping to looking after my brothers and sisters, my mother wasn’t well and my parents were divorced.”
Marion also had other inspiration for her decision to work with migrants and other marginalised communities. “Migration is a part of me. It is part of my life. Part of my family were also migrants; my grandparents were from Russia and fled the pogroms, and my cousin Feiga was in a concentration camp, but survived”, she explains. “I think for me, everything I do is about belonging.”
When she worked in London she did a lot of consulting work and reports but Marion wanted to get back to doing things on the ground, get back to doing projects.
“I created Manifesta because I needed an organisation to make my projects happen… What I have been doing before and after Manifesta is to give a voice to people who don’t have one, to address anti-racism, cultural diversity, exclusion… I like working in urban locations in London and other cities, marginalised locations, with participants from marginalised backgrounds, and most are immigrants”.
Manifesta’s process is about going directly to the community. It is a work specialised in using digital media, creative means and public space to give people a voice and to address racism, exclusion and injustice. For Marion it is a creative way of telling a story instead of in a ‘flat way’. The work mostly involves teenagers and it is very ‘compact’ in its scheduling. “It is a very energetic process; it is fantastic to see each of these persons making a film in five to seven days…I am interested in testing things, exploring. We don’t know how the result will be because it depends on the participants.” The films are shown in the local communities, international festivals, online and in museums. Marion explains there are so many examples of teenagers being transformed by the experience. Some of the movies have won awards, and one young man was given an award in New York at the United Nations; it was a life changing experience for him. Other teenagers have gone on to become filmmakers or to study photography or editing.
One of the projects Manifesta was behind is Belonging, which has taken place in three capital cities in Europe (London, Lisbon and Paris). The project explores what makes a person feels she/he belongs to a place and how young people manage multiple, flexible identities while belonging to more than one place. It also showed that there are different ideas of belonging in the three places.
Another project is Breaking into the Museum in partnership with the Museum of London. It worked with young people who didn’t usually go to museums and engaged them in each producing a film around an object in the collections. Challenging notions of history and heritage while learning video-making and curation, the young people produced films, which are now showcased in the museum.
Most recently came the project In My Footsteeps, which engages with local residents directly. Participants created their own walking routes in East London which can be accesses in an app: “They had the opportunity to show their neighbourhood from their own eyes, something which is important to them. It can be an event, a church, it can be anything, but it has to be in the area and the story must mean something for them”, Marion explains.
Marion is the woman behind Manifesta, and her projects, drive and enthusiasm have and is still inspiring many living in London and other cities. When asked about her motivations, Marion explains that people motivate her on daily basis, she enjoys helping them to find their voice through creative expression, helping people to find a place of belonging.
It seems that Marion has found her place as well. “I like being in the UK. I have done things here I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. London is home for me. I like the energy and this energy comes from the fact that there are so many people from different countries. There is a palpable energy. People here are creative and manage to do things against all odds. It fascinates me. There is more freedom of expression here.”