A Tribute to David Morris

One of the portraits that Silvia Jahnsons created of David as part of his Together! project.

One of the portraits that Silvia Jahnsons created of David as part of his Together! project.

The late David Morris (1958-2010) was the Mayor of London’s Disability Adviser, in which role he founded the GLA’s Liberty disability rights festival and led work on External Inclusion for London 2012 until his sudden death in 2010. In the last two years of his life, David also created an extraordinary body of what he described as “filmed poems”, about his lived experience of disability. These were shot by David’s PAs using a domestic camcorder, and edited by David using voice-activated software. Many were filmed in East London, while he was living in Limehouse and working on the Isle of Dogs. Tonight we only have time to present a selection of his work, curated by Together! 2012 Artistic Director Ju Gosling aka ju90.

“David Morris was a campaigner, an advocate, a champion, a film-maker, a poet, a singer, a chef. His archive of films demonstrates his passions for human rights, London, life and art. David was born to a working-class family in north London. His experiences of residential school, and the subsequent elation in finding independent living en route to university, shaped his all-embracing inclusivity of life and his fundamental belief in the rights of all people to freedom and equality. We all have a catalogue of stories relating to our experiences of disability; David had the capacity to turn his experiences into films to share. Experiences that led David to channel his creative flow into film-making, as he explored and developed concepts based on his perceptions of living in his adopted home of Limehouse. Through David’s films the viewer will experience an exceptional insight into the mind of a charismatic man who believed very strongly that ‘Together We Will Change Our World.’” Katherine Araniello and Tracey Jannaway

“As one of David’s former PAs, I always thought it very interesting how David directed us, his PAs, to get the footage he wanted for his films. If — like me — his PA wasn’t as artistic side as he would have wished, he worked with the material he had, exploring all the faults and weaknesses it had to derive a very personal style. I think this is a theme that occurs in many places in David’s philosophy: What is different, what isn’t as sleek and perfect as the mainstream idea of perfection, is all the more interesting for it and has got its unique, diverse contribution to make. I think David’s films are a great big encouragement to us all to explore what’s inside us; to create art, culture, in our very own, personal, “diverse” way. Just to put our own art out there, to share, to get into a dialogue.”
Ursula Hoermannsdorfer

In the spirit of the Red Jesus gatherings, please feel free to come and go and chat quietly during the course of the evening!

Together! 6 minutes, 2010.

Ju Gosling writes: David Morris began making films less than three years before his death, during a period off work between his position as the Mayor’s Adviser on Disability and his secondment to London 2012 as Head of External Inclusion. Directing his PAs to operate a low-budget camcorder before editing the footage with voice-activated domestic software, he created an extraordinary body of work that he described as being ‘filmed poems’.

In many ways, film was Morris’s natural medium, allowing him to bring together still and moving images with music from his eclectic collection and, very often, with his beloved poetry and politics. His roots in the punk era meant the guerrilla style of film-making that circumstances forced him to use suited him perfectly, and as with any ‘limitation’ he faced, Morris used it to blossom creatively.

Morris had moved to Limehouse in East London to be close to his work, and the landscape features continually in his films. Most strikingly, opposite his high-rise apartment he could see a bright red statue of Jesus on top of a neighbouring church. This he used to name the salons that he ran regularly for disabled people and other friends, and also his fledgling film company, Red Jesus Productions.

Made for the UK Disabled People’s Council, Together! was Morris’s first professional commission, albeit extremely low budget. It was also to be his last film, and as with much of his material, was never completed to his satisfaction. He particularly wanted to include more Deaf interviewees; Morris was always a supporter of the Deaf community.

However, in less than ten minutes he creates a snapshot of the Disabled People’s Movement and its reason for being, arguing passionately his own belief that “Together we can change our world!” The film begins with an introduction voiced by Morris over photos of historic protests and campaigners (many now also deceased) and, most strikingly, portraits of himself and members of his wide circle of friends by his collaborator the artist Silvia Jahnsons, created with environmentally friendly paints and processes.

(Morris intended the project with Jahnsons to grow into something separate and more ambitious. Today, following his unexpected death, the portraits remain incomplete, needing funding to replace the resources provided by Morris from his salary. Morris was not only enormously influential among disabled Londoners; he was also – with his comparatively modest public sector salary – relatively well-off, having a rented apartment and few personal possessions. With a system that had first condemned him to die in childhood, and then in adolescence – his family was denied a grant to make their home accessible on the grounds that he would not live long enough to make it economical – Morris saw no reason to save, either.)

The film moves on to interviews with the disabled people Morris met in the course of his work; looking at the issues preventing equality and the importance of Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) in changing them. The film ends simply with a range of disabled people – though not, and Morris would not have thought it good enough, a BSL user – agreeing that “Together!” we can change our world.

 Beijing, 45 minutes, 2009.

Beijing is David Morris’s road movie — or would have been. Morris continually reworked and ‘republished’ his work to friends before he decided on a ‘final’ version – a version that he later intended to work on again in a friend’s studio; in a real sense, none of the films being shown here are ‘finished’ as he finally envisioned them. Morris did complete a much briefer version of Beijing, which was screened at the Liberty festival in 2010, but was never to have the opportunity to return to this.

The material is not yet in final order; the music/sound balance is rough. It is also not yet subtitled – though as with much of Morris’s work, most is unvoiced. Morris liked to show, not tell, and often accompanied his images with some of his favourite tunes — here mixing a range of Western styles with traditional – and some remarkable Cantonese hip hop – Chinese music.

But it is this longer version that leaves the most haunting impression of Morris’s journey to the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. Aside from athletes, he was the only disabled East Londoner to visit the Games, so many of us could only join in vicariously through this footage. Morris’s experiences, too, were to shape the experiences of many disabled visitors to London 2012 for the better.

Viewing it today, the film allows us to compare and contrast Morris’s experiences with our own recent memories of the London Paralymics. Watching Morris descend into the depths of the Beijing underground strapped to a stairclimber — determined as usual to exercise his right to use public transport, and accompanied by numerous uniformed personnel — is as terrifying as it must have been to experience. Similarly fascinating, though for different reasons, is the footage of his trip to the Great Wall of China (rather than hiding behind the excuse of ‘heritage’, the Chinese put in a lift), and his last-minute stint as a Paralympic Torchbearer, with tourists queueing up to have their photographs taken with him.

With Morris’s films, however, it is best not to be taken in by the tourist-style images — shot, of course, by PAs whose only experience of film-making was as actual tourists. As well as documenting experiences that non-disabled tourists would never have, Morris directed his PAs to shoot material that ‘ordinary’ tourists would never have noticed. His editing, too, is anything other than conventional. Acid colours and ‘Windows Movie Maker’ ‘paint’ and ‘distort’ filters (later he was to move to a slightly more sophisticated editing programme) tell the viewer from the start that they are entering an altered state of consciousness — a state that persists even when the footage reverts to a more documentary style.

Morris’s editing also highlights and celebrates the limitations imposed on him by the impossibility of running professional editing programmes with voice-activated software. (Had he lived to 2012, as he had expected, the vast improvements in voice-activated software for the Mac OS would have offered Morris a professional palette for the first time.) As well as a documentary in its own right, this version of Beijing shows all the hallmarks of the style that Morris would continue to develop over the following 18 months.

Narrowthon, 12 mins.

Narrowthon takes as its subject the London Marathon, where runners race through East London on their way from Greenwich to the Mall. Like many locals, David Morris traveled a few streets from his home on a sunny April morning to watch the event, missing the ‘serious’ runners, but arriving in time to watch the vast majority: the ‘fun runners’.

At first this simply appears to be a fairly amateurish attempt at recording the day, as he and his PA watch the runners in their colourful charity fundraising costumes. As the film progresses, though, the choice of imagery and music tells another story too.

The whole world appears to be represented among the ‘runners’ — many at this stage are strolling — but not Morris and his peers. As the final sub-titles tell, only ‘elite’ wheelchair athletes are allowed to compete. Morris is banned from taking part, because he is a ‘health and safety risk’ and ‘does not display athletic endeavour’ — both statements which might sound reasonable, had they not been juxtaposed with footage of hundreds of athletes who could more easily be put into that category.

Instead Morris is destined to be the subject of the charity the runners are running for, the beneficiary of other people’s good will — with the ultimate goal, of course, of preventing people like him from being born. Nonetheless, some of the final shots show him disappearing up the street after the rest of the competitors, as he defiantly and characteristically joins in regardless.

Morris would have been pleased that this film is a favourite in Albania. Morris visited the country in his role for London 2012, and was proud to persuade the government to send a team to the Paralympics for the first time. In 2012, Narrowthon was a highlight of an international human rights film festival there.

Rocket Art, 22 mins, 2009.

Rocket Art tells the story of a community art project led by David Morris’s great friend and collaborator, the artist Silvia Jahnsons. Jahnsons leads a group of all ages to make the flags for Winchester’s Hat Fair, as Morris tells the story of Jahnsons’ life and work. It is clear from the footage that this was a magical day, the best kind of community based arts workshop.

A village hall is strung with jewel-coloured, part-painted triangular fabric flags, in a host of different designs based on the windows of Winchester Cathedral. The villagers arrive to continue to complete them. A guitarist, drummer and singer entertain the rest; a child joins in on the piano. Jahnsons enthusiastically explains the intricacies and benefits of her overlocking sewing machine, before Morris switches to an impromptu shuffle through and description of Jahnsons CV portfolio. The loving detail with which Morris presents the project reflects his commitment to celebrating the creativity in everyone, as well as his understanding of the work and experience that lies behind ‘community art’.

Torn, 32 mins, 2009.

 Torn sees David Morris in his darkest mood, a meditation on life and loss. Autobiographical in nature, it contains many of his later poems, as well as a written section that Morris does not voice, preferring to let the writing, music and imagery all tell the same story in different ways.

As with much of his work, the Limehouse landscape as viewed from his high-rise apartment is used to illustrate his present, with the Thames always playing a key role. Morris alternates this with over-saturated 1960s childhood photographs, with his impairment more or less hidden — sometimes standing, sometimes using a wheelchair; or cycling, but using a tricycle instead of the more usual bike. These happy ‘memories’ contrast with his poetry and writing about the harsh reality of isolation and institutionalization.

Although his personal taste in film was wide-ranging, Morris’s aesthetic style has far more in common with European Arthouse and Artists’ Films and Video than with traditional filmmaking. Among other things, he provides space for the viewer to contribute their own response between narratives. This becomes most uncomfortable when Morris switches abruptly towards from a poem about love and loss to imagery of the Holocaust, reminding us forcibly and graphically of the wholesale slaughter of disabled people in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

Would this eventually have become two films? At the time Morris said not. Morris was a passionate campaigner against the ‘right to die’, and his outpouring of information about the Holocaust here underlines the depth of his feelings. He shows us that some bad childhood experiences and the pain of unrequited love, while making life almost intolerable at times, still provide no better reason to end life while it can still be lived than the loss of mobility itself. In Torn, Morris is unafraid to expose his personal pain and grief, but his passion for life continues to come through.

Narrow, 6 mins.

 Narrow —  also filmed near Narrow Street — reflects David Morris’s growing love for and interest in his adopted East London home and the ever-present Thames. Video footage of the river and his immediate neighbourhood from his weekend walks are accompanied by Morris reading Thomas Burke’s 1916 descriptions in Limehouse Nights, before he segues into his own poetic responses in Burke’s style. Accompanied by Morris’s characteristic use of video filters, the work highlights the darker undercurrents masked by the ‘new’ Docklands.

Suicide Tourist, 19 mins.

As this records Morris during one of his last Christmases, Suicide Tourist is now as interesting for being a document of his personal life as it is for its content. At the time, though, Morris solely intended it to be a humorous take on the topic of assisted suicide – or as he named it, euthanasia – collaborating along the way with his friend the artist Katharine Araniello. The fact that this theme pre-occupies them both during the festive season underlines the impact on disabled people of continual media representations of our lives as not being worth living.

Unusually, Morris appears here as the narrator, characteristically costumed for the festive season with a long colourful wig, red suit and flashing fairy light necklace. (Morris believed in taking the role of the clown on social occasions, particularly when he was host, in the belief that it helped to put people at ease.) Here he ‘reports from the frontline’ on how ‘poor cripples’ celebrate the festival, as he pays seasonal visits to friends.

Morris was born on Christmas Day, so it had a particular significance for him, and as with so many disabled people, was often a difficult time. In his last years, though, the festive season allowed Morris to express himself through film. (He ends Torn by pointing to Craig Ewert, who was filmed ending his life at Dignitas, and stating “Craig could have made a film, like me, instead.”

One of Morris’s close friends was born on Boxing Day, so she is the first to feature, along with her son, assistance dog and various PAs. The scene where Morris riffs on themes of child carers and the over-selling of assistance dogs’ qualities by charities to describe the son as being ‘raised by wolves’, and the young teen whimpers and scratches himself solemnly to camera, is particularly hilarious. Throughout the film Morris is ably supported by his cast — all helped on by a little festive spirit!

NB: The copy we have here is one of two marked ‘rough cut’ and is the shorter by seven minutes — no doubt other versions exist too.

Limehouse Frogs: All You Need is Love, 3 mins.

David Morris acquired the nickname of ‘frog’ early on, and typically made it his own, complete with a collection of all things frog (mostly bestowed on him by friends). In Limehouse, where he often gathered friends around him to make music accompanied by a friend or PA on the guitar or keyboard, he named the subsequent grouping the Limehouse Frogs, and delighted in recording their efforts and uploading them to YouTube. Many videos feature Beatles songs – Morris reasoned that everyone had a sub-conscious memory of the words and so had less excuse to refuse to join in (many of us would say later that we had been hypnotically compelled to sing along).

The videos – there are over 30 publicly available on YouTube – feature Morris and his friends in a variety of the wigs, masks and costumes that he kept to break the ice at the social gatherings he organised regularly. Since Morris took the view that everyone had the right to be creative, and to celebrate that, whether or not anyone sung in tune was of little interest to him in this context. It was the creativity, and the celebratory, that he enjoyed. The use of accessories enabled the wearers to break out of their own norms, often against their will, and no one came away unchanged.

Ultimately, David Morris believed that all it takes is love.