Last autumn Allison Kenny had just finished a post-graduate course in women's media studies at the University of Swansea in South Wales. Her original degree begun at Mercyhurst College Pennsylvania, USA, continued at University College, Cork in Ireland and completed at Swansea University, was in politics which she studied because she wanted to learn how to make a difference to society. Now she felt led to make a difference by working on films about peace, reconciliation and renewal. But there seemed to be very few producers making such films. She spoke to the youth pastor at her church in Wales and he showed her a copy of the Christian Handbook where she looked up film and TV companies. Her eyes lighted on an entry by MRA Productions who
make documentary films and videos dealing with social and moral issues from a Christian perspective. She picked up the phone and dialled their number.
Meanwhile, at the offices of MRA Productions in London, Alan Channer had just returned from filming in Kenya for the video 'Is he my brother?' about a former Mau Mau guerrilla fighter and a white commandant of a detention camp for Mau Mau prisoners. The phone rang. It was Allison Kenny, asking if MRA Productions could use any help with their films - she could edit video tape and was ready to work as a volunteer. Alan needed someone to start straightaway. It was Friday afternoon. "Can you come up for an interview on Monday?" he asked. Allison was intrigued. She came - and stayed. Since then she has not only edited the Kenya film, released in August, but has worked on several others too. Allison told me her story:
I originally came to the UK from the States on a student exchange programme. I didn't like life in the USA because of the level of violence - in the city where I lived, and on TV. My father is a detective and that may have influenced the amount of violence I was exposed to. But that did not later the fact that the violence was happening. I had seen too much while growing up and had vicariously experienced things I don't think any young person should have to experience. I just wanted to get away from it. My education gave me the means to get away. I came over here to find some community which I didn't have in my city. And I found it - in Ireland and in Wales. The Welsh people took me in and were incredibly generous. I felt safe in Wales. I could walk down the street more or less when I wanted to and not be afraid. There was no fear of guns. I could relax. I was very happy and did well at the University. So I pressed to be allowed to stay and finish my degree in Swansea, which I did.
When it was over, I was reluctant to go back to the USA because I did not want to fact the violence there. Once back in the States I fell apart. I became afflicted for the first time with depression and anxiety. Now I feel for anyone who suffers from that, because you break down; things shut off and you can't think straight; you can't do the things you used to do. Finally I just collapsed on the floor on Thanksgiving Day. The ambulance came. I was almost paralysed. I couldn't eat or speak. There was no hand co-ordination. It was a very empty time - for a long time I could hardly get out of bed, was constantly in tears, and couldn't even go to the bank or do any other simple tasks, without hyperventilating. I just wanted to die.
But I decided I wanted to die in Ireland! I felt it was a very spiritual place and that was where I wanted to die. So I took all my money out of the bank for a one-way ticket to Ireland and enough money to stay in a convent. I figured that if I was going to die, a convent would be the best place to do it! Feeling very weak and sick I got on a plane to Ireland. The nuns greeted me. Within two days I was back to normal again - it was almost too amazing to be true. I said to God, 'I'm alive! I'm me again and now I can do something.' My voice came back - it was wonderful. So I returned to my friends in Wales and took a course in media studies.
I did video production because, upon reflection, I realised that all the problems I had faced in America were compounded by what I saw on TV when I got back from school I was blasted by all the horrible images - very dramatically presented - on TV. It was overwhelming. A doctor said to me after my breakdown, 'You collapsed because of fear. You are so afraid that it is paralysing you', and added that if I went back to Ireland or Wales, to an atmosphere where I was no longer afraid, I would be healed. And she was right.
In America the breakdown of the family has been accelerated by the media. American consumer ideology tells you that you are only to think of yourself; that you must be competitive; only the best survive; guns are sellable; we are just products. Plastic surgery is a billion dollar business and TV adds to this body-consciousness.
One thin I have really benefited from since coming to work with MRA Productions is the quiet time - meditation - stilling the mind. For someone who has suffered from anxiety this has really helped - to be quiet, to calm down. When you are in cities like New York, you just want to say, 'Calm down!'
The other thing I have learned is that change starts right here, with myself. All the complaints I had about life in America - that TV was wrong, my parents were wrong, school was wrong, guns were wrong - all that is still valid. But when I came here I realised that I had a problem with arrogance; that I myself was a very aggressive person and was quick to judge. When I tried to change all that - and I am still working on it - then positive things began to happen. I became a more loving person - and people respond to love.
It is very therapeutic to be working here and to be able to say, when there is something horrible or exploitative on TV, 'Well I am doing this. I am putting these positive messages of peace and reconciliation on the screen.' And for the future, I want to keep on providing this alternative.
Allison is in no doubt about the size of the task. She likes to quote from a recent edition of 'Glamour' magazine in the USA in which Dr Mary Anne Layden, a professor of psychotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says: 'Television has tremendous impact on the way we see ourselves, our bodies and our sexuality. I've seen a lot of depression, sexual insensitivity and body self-consciousness that I think can be traced to TV's unhealthy messages.' And the article continues, 'What's more, dozens of studies point to the societal damage caused by the endless on-screen stream of blood and guts. Among the concerns: people (especially children) will mimic violence, become desensitised and may grow overly fearful for their safety.'
Allison recognises the truth of that from her own experience. That is why she wants to make films that will help society rather than harm it. She has the vision and the passion - and is fast gaining the experience and expertise that will enable her to do it.
Hugh Williams, UK