Sonita Gale on Hostile, her documentary about migrant experience in the UK

Executive produced by Nitin Sawhney, Hostile is an impactful look at how the lives of four Black and Asian migrants have been affected by the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ policy.

4 March 2022

By Abiba Coulibaly

Hostile (2022)

Hostile is first-time filmmaker Sonita Gale’s exploration of the ‘hostile environment’ policy, offering a humanising portrayal of those caught in an utterly dehumanising system. The policy, which has expanded over the last decade, has seen the increased criminalisation and marginalisation of undocumented migrants, with a focus on making their lives as difficult as possible through reduced access to basic services and heavier policing.

While focusing on a contemporary UK policy, Hostile pans out historically and geographically, weaving together present-day stories with those of colonialism and the postwar period, and experiences spanning the Commonwealth. The result is one of the most comprehensive accounts of how we arrived at our current immigration system and legislation, meriting the film a place not just in cinemas across the country but in classrooms and courts of justice alike. 

Gale’s subjects are her peers: working-class migrants and their children who settled across Britain in the postwar era. She explains: “I grew up in a Black and brown community in Wolverhampton. My parents arrived here from India, after partition and during the postwar wave of migration. It was a time of great social change, and in a way Black and Asian communities were at the forefront of this.” Hostile hones in on this social change in the context of an increasingly intolerant political landscape.

Introduced by the Conservative government in 2012, the hostile environment policy has gone on to provoke the Windrush scandal and mistreatment of human trafficking victims, most recently manifesting itself in the Nationality and Borders Bill, which has come under direct fire from the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. Yet the rife xenophobia detailed throughout the film, and in many instances ratified by law, emanates from all sides, and Hostile evades placing blame exclusively on the ruling party, also detailing Labour’s complicity. Gale notes, for example, “the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act was pushed through by Labour home secretary James Callaghan. It subjected all holders of UK passports to immigration controls unless they, their parents or a grandparent had been born, adopted or naturalised in the United Kingdom.”

Gale points out that this law coincided with the expulsion of Uganda’s sizable South Asian population at the order of dictator Idi Amin. This South Asian presence in east Africa feeds into the personal background of Daksha, one of the individuals the documentary follows, who lovingly masterminds a voluntary kitchen to provide upwards of 2,000 meals on a daily basis to people lacking guaranteed access to food. But it also embodies the intersecting experiences of Black and Asian communities that animate the film, which engages a host of such voices from Brixton to the Midlands. 

“Growing up in the 1970s, I remember a lot of good spirit between the two communities,” says Gale, while noting the differences in media portrayals of the two groups. She talks of her frustration at the media’s neglect of the political organising initiated by South Asian migrants and their children throughout history, often in collaboration with Black communities, such as Bradford’s United Black Youth League. She’s hoping to centre her next film on these complex and under-explored encounters, which span the Caribbean, east Africa, the Indian Ocean, as well as urban hubs of postcolonial migration like her native Wolverhampton.

Hostile (2022)

These encounters between cultures are reflected in the documentary’s musical direction. The film’s executive producer is musician Nitin Sawhney, who has a committed track record of supporting human rights both within and beyond his musical output. Gale remembers the impact of hearing Sawhney’s seminal 1999 album Beyond Skin and its track ‘Immigrant’, which uses audio from his father coming to the UK. “His perception of the country really stuck with me. It was wonderful to document the migrant experience in another format such as music.” In 2021, Sawhney released the album Immigrants, which spurred Gale to interview him. “Our conversations continued, and I asked if he wanted to be an executive producer.” 

Also on the soundtrack are British-Jamaican musician, composer and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson, and award-winning British-Ugandan George the Poet. As music and poetry are perhaps the most prominent means of diasporic self-expression, they are key in Gale’s desire to “change the narrative around how we speak about migrants”.

Depicting political and economic orders with an ever-expanding appetite to exclude – first migrants, then their children, soon the white working class – Hostile reaches the dystopian conclusion that all humans risk being entirely reduced to their value and productivity through a capitalist lens. It’s a bleak verdict, but one offset by the fact that the film’s very existence and timely release have the potential to provoke change. “Films connect different communities, organisations and demographics, and I have seen that during the making and release of Hostile,” says Gale. She’s keen to maximise the reach of her film, acknowledging “there is a current market for more immersive and inclusive experiences within film, with the pandemic demonstrating how we can open our doors to audience participation from all over the world.”

She’s actively engaged in off-screen action, creating an accompanying campaign which is “all about bringing awareness of the issues in the film, and seeking solutions to them.” Her hope is that Hostile can have an impact not only in the cultural sphere but in political and legislative ones too. “Our endgame is a screening in parliament and the UN, with the hope of bringing about actual policy change.”

Hostile is currently on a nationwide Q&A tour with Sonita Gale, including a screening at BFI Southbank on 15 March.

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