What is Hope Notes?
SD: At the start of this year, I interviewed 10 refugees who shared with me their stories of survival and hope. Displaced and estranged from their families, these testimonies left me with a deep sense of gratitude for the roof above my head and for a place to call home. In response I wrote a collection of songs to weave between their voices. My arts charity Soumik Datta Arts, assembled a diverse team of musicians, psychiatrists, dancers and filmmakers who came together at Southbank Centre to develop a new show around these stories and songs. Layering vocals, strings, electronica and animation with the 19 stringed Indian instrument I play (sarod), we made HOPE NOTES to raise refugee and migrant mental health awareness. The show now launches during refugee week, as a series of 7 digital episodes – a sensory feast of concert footage, bespoke animation and dance.
Tell us more about the first episode, Qismat:
SD: Qismat means ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ in Urdu and Hindi. It’s a powerful word for people who had to change their lives in order to stay alive. In the media, we often hear about refugees as nameless people on boats and lorries. It’s a very one-dimensional perspective. These are human beings who had homes, families, jobs and dreams. Most of us go through life making choices and expecting certain outcomes, like the promise of a career path. When you are suddenly at the mercy of fate, you need to learn to survive, and it can mean that everything you planned and hoped for suddenly changes. In this sense, Qismat (destiny) is a good introduction to the themes of Hope Notes.
How does it feel to be on camera as well as involved in the production of the film?
SD: Despite being a musician primarily, I’ve always been fascinated by visuals. In 2016 I made my first film series for Channel 4 “Tuning 2 You” – where I directed and presented a travelogue about the plight of rural musicians in small towns across India. In 2018 I presented “Rhythms of India” for BBC4 around a similar theme. During the pandemic, my brother who is a filmmaker, Souvid Datta and I created a 6 part youtube series – ‘Silent Spaces’ where we opened the doors to the British Museum, Royal Albert Hall and other UK cultural spaces that were shut during lockdown. Inside, we filmed new art and music videos engaging out of work musicians and dancers responding to the ongoing mental health crisis. Visuals will always be an important aspect of my work and I’m lucky to have had the freedom to push the boundaries even further with Hope Notes.
We’re currently hearing a lot about refugees and deportations in the media. Did current events inform your creative process?
SD: There was a lot of talk about the Nationality and Borders Bill when we were making Hope Notes. It gave border patrol the immunity to do whatever they deemed necessary to stop refugees from entering the UK. These are vulnerable people in search of safety. I was pretty horrified when I heard that. Also, the bill identifies UK citizens like me as migrants. It’s like the UK is cutting itself off from the people and countries around us, and it’s frightening.
One of the interviewees, Mo from Syria who is featured in episode 2, told me about being on an overcrowded boat. When they came across a cruise ship, they thought help was in reach, but the cruise ship sent a delegation of armed soldiers who threatened to burst the refugee boat. It really made me think about how we as a society treat those who need our help most.
What are other challenges that came up in the interviews?
SD: I think another thread is invisible challenges, like mental health and perception. Being a refugee can be stigmatising, when in fact they are just humans who come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and situations like the rest of us. The emotional labour involved in carrying the refugee label and in having to prove that you are good enough to stay – not a threat – and worthy of citizenship, can be immense. But there is also something to celebrate there – resilience, widened perspectives and new connections.
It’s pride month. Did you hear any stories from LGBTQ+ people?
SD: Yes, in fact, 3 out of 7 episodes are based on LGBTQ+ stories. For example, we hear from Diana from Kenya in episode 7. She shared with us beautiful memories of her childhood and her home, which she had to leave because she was gay. I am happy to give these stories more visibility and at the same time, I want to be careful when it comes to labels like refugee, gay etc. I would love for people to be able to sit together without judgement, to depolarize, to find threads between differences and maybe also between assumed similarities.
What surprised you most during the project?
SD: Probably that despite having similar experiences and similar trauma, the stories I heard were vastly different. Every refugee had a unique story. If you watch a few episodes, you’ll see what I mean, and that we’re probably only scratching the surface in these 7 episodes.
Last not least, where can we watch Hope Notes?
SD: We have been releasing one episode per day on my YouTube channel during Refugee Week (20 – 26 June). We decided to make everything available for free so that we can reach the biggest number of people possible. If you feel like you’d like to contribute more – I did a fundraiser for OneFamily earlier this year and I suggest you donate to them. Among other projects, they support Sea Watch in doing rescue operations in the Mediterranean.