Illustration: Two hands, megaphone, camera and eye

Changing the Story – Youth Empowerment Through Arts

“If this planet has got a future, we can’t ignore young people” says Paul Cooke. How to amplify their voices in conflict-affected areas worldwide? This question is central to the research and empowerment programme Changing the Story.

The interview was conducted by Miriam Karrer.

How to start a deep discussion on matters that are important to young people? Arts can be an important door opener. In South Africa, you worked with film in different ways...

Paul Cooke: I showed young people a range of films, saying: This is what I get to see of you on the cinema screen. Is this you? And if you had the means of production: What would be the stories you’d like to tell? So that was the starting point for our project ‘Changing the Story’.

And how did they change the story?

Cooke: Stories that circulated internationally at that time, in 2015, were frequently about apartheid and Nelson Mandela on one hand, and on the other, there were lots of ‘problem films’ about violence in South Africa, the AIDS pandemic, gender-based violence, xenophobia and particularly about townships as dangerous places. They said: Well, that violence stuff is kind of a true reflection of what’s going on. But the one problem is: All those films have got sad endings. So they made this film about gender-based violence — a big issue in the communities they live in — but they gave it a happy ending. To them, this was a way to reframe the reality of their lives: This is us trying to change the story.


Digital Storytelling in #ImagingOtherwise @ Changing the Story

A key element in many of the projects you’re involved with is often a community showcasing event, organised by participants and designed to increase the visibility of issues that young people care about. How do the films made work in this context?

Cooke: For example, we made a series of documentaries with kids from Safe Parks in Ekurhuleni, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. A Safe Park is a secure place where young people can go before and after school. One of these Safe Parks consisted of a shipping container — one box, that’s it. 

The young people who used this space made a film about the projects they’d done there and showed it to a local counsellor, saying: Look, this is what we’ve achieved with nothing. Imagine what we could do if you gave us some support. The first thing he did was to give them some land and helped them to build a community centre there. Before, the counsellor thought that those kids weren’t able to do anything. 

Through film, he got an insight in what they were achieving and how their organization worked. So it’s not only changing the story of how their issues are represented within communities, but also the perception of what people think those kids are like and what they are capable of.

Another focus of Changing the Story is to help ensure that the narratives of marginalized groups are represented in national histories. In 2016, after more than 50 years of civil war, the Colombian Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition was set up. An important task of the Commission is to capture the testimony of former child soldiers who were recruited by paramilitaries to fight in the war, but whose experiences haven’t yet been fully represented in the national historical archive. How did you capture those voices as part of Changing the Story?

Cooke: I worked with my colleague Matthew Charles from El Rosario University, a journalist and academic. We developed this project where young people aged between 15 to 17 interviewed former child soldiers who are now in their 40s. On the one hand, this work was about recording their testimonies in order to preserve the past. But it was also about making their experience in the past real to the kids, in order to stop these kids being in danger to be recruited to similar organisations now. This kind of recruitment is still going on by paramilitaries and drug gangs.


Animated: On a black background is written in white letters "All I heard was `Run and save yourself`".
Screenshot from the animated films @ Changing the Story

The results were a range of animation movies. Why did you choose this format?

Cooke: This was all Matthew’s idea. We were concerned about How to turn the testimonials into something visual. Our priority here was safeguarding. We had to make sure that everyone was anonymous. So, alongside learning how to do interviews, the kids were also trained in animation techniques and the animations were then voiced by actors. In the end, our testimonies became part of the national archive in Colombia. And that means that historians for generations to come will be able to use this resource when they work through the history of the conflict.

The former child soldiers interviewed by the young people were members of the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In the past, the Colombian Army attacked a FARC battalion in an operation called Operación Berlin. How did the perspective of the child soldiers come into the story the project told?

Cooke: Mat interviewed the head of the former Colombian Army and the former head of the FARC battalion involved, telling the story of Operación Berlin. We then punctuated these interviews with the experience of the child soldiers via animation.


"Operación Berlin" - Trailer with English subtitles


One key challenge today is a demographic change in developing countries, where currently 90% of youth live and 500 million people in total live on less than two dollars a day. The heart of all projects in the context of Changing the Story is youth empowerment, using arts in different ways. How do young people perceive their empowerment? What has been their feedback on the project?

Cooke: We are trying to generate projects where young people are the driving force behind them. But there is also a flip-side to this: That can also be seen as a kind of disengagement to young people: You are telling me that you are empowering us, but what we feel like is we are being marginalized. You are only doing that, because you want to make us find a solution for ourselves. We’ve actively tried to avoid that perception. The main focus of these projects has been to make the voices of young people the heart of conversations. We have tried to create projects where young people not only control the way projects are designed, but also how they are evaluated, and to ensure that this evaluation is central to the way subsequent projects are conceptualised.


Prof. Cooke gave a keynote speech “Changing the Story – Building inclusive civil societies with, and for, young people in post-conflict settings” at the 2022 ICRRA conference Culture In Security – International Cultural Relations as an Enabler of Peace through Engagement. The full recording of his keynote can be found on ifa’s YouTube Channel


About the Author
Portrait of Paul Cooke
Paul Cooke
Professor at the University of Leeds

Paul Cooke is Chair of the Center for World Cinemas and Digital Cultures at the University of Leeds. He is engaged in a number of projects that examine the use of participatory arts in various public health and community development contexts. For example, he is currently the main researcher in the project "CREATE - Creating Research Ecologies to Advance Transdisciplinary Learning". As a filmmaker, he has already produced a number of participatory documentaries with marginalized groups in Germany, South Africa, India, Bangladesh, Australia, Cambodia, Iraq and Lebanon.

ICRRA – International Cultural Relations Research Alliance

Researchers and practitioners exchange views on questions of international cultural relations through the International Cultural Relations Research Alliance (ICRRA) network. The network sees itself as a bridge builder between practical cultural work, academic reflection, policy advice and the media. It supports the transfer of research-based knowledge into politics and society and promotes evidence-based discourse. Find out more on the ifa website.