Tarnia Mason is a campaigner, educator, social care practitioner and aspiring documentary filmmaker. It all connects.
One spring I went to San Gimignano, Italy, with a close friend. For a few days we soaked up the most delicious sunshine. We wandered around tiny galleries and local shops with gelato piled high and dribbling down cones onto our hands and summer dresses. We danced in open fields, drunk on moonlight and wine. We gorged on pasta, rabbit stew, fresh cherries and asparagus, surrounded by rolling hills and below blue skies. It was like we were on the most glorious honeymoon, minus the rampant sex and the recent marriage.
I had taken along with me Miranda July’s 2007 collection of short stories, “No One Belongs Here More Than You”. It had been sitting amongst a pile of ‘to reads’ for a couple of years by this point and I remember thinking, it really is about time. I still recall the opening line of one of the stories:
‘It was a quiet sound but it woke me up because it was a human sound’.
I remember thinking there was something powerful about those words then, but they have taken on new meaning in the years that have followed.
I don’t remember when I first became interested in documentaries but I have always been interested in people and their stories. I remember being in my late teens and watching Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer and later, his Too White For Me and feeling completely captivated by the idea of someone so gracefully and yet so powerfully gaining such raw insight into another human being’s life. A few years later I sat on a judging panel at the Sheffield Documentary Festival and the short time there cemented my belief that I had found my calling. The summer I finished my undergraduate degree, I started making a short film about a community art project and its local artists. The idea came to me quickly and was lubricated by my complete excitement and a sense of possibility. Not long into the process, however, I began to panic that I didn’t know what I was doing, with the film and with my life. I just didn’t trust the process or myself enough. I had no point of reference then to soothe what I now know to be a very natural and unavoidable, albeit painful uncertainty, something that reappears throughout our lives, irrespective of what on paper we have already done.
How could I make the kind of people-focused art I was passionate about and also make a living? Did I have any talent? Where to begin? I had been told by others and also felt within myself that I was good at noticing details, listening and talking to people, I was incredibly curious but was that enough? Who would receive what I wanted to share? At that time, I was working a part time job and interning at publishers, galleries, community projects and emailing documentary makers incessantly begging for runner jobs. I was overwhelmed and unsure, I didn’t know how to begin the big career I thought I was supposed to be cracking on with.
Thankfully, around that time my mum told me about a job advertisement she had seen for a primary school teaching assistant and encouraged me to apply as I had always loved kids and needed a full-time job. Although I was enthusiastic, I really did think I would give my all to it for a while and go straight back to my film or find another aspect of the arts that would allow me to focus on storytelling. That never happened. It wasn’t a sorrowful abandonment of dreams, but a very surprising and organic discovery of something else. When I was offered a class teaching post a while later, I became completely submersed in that. In helping children explore the world around them, I found a wonderful sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Whilst teaching, a little girl in my class was taken into care due to a turbulent home life. Myself and other members of staff at the school had been logging doubts about her safety at home for some time and after she made a disclosure to me, there was finally enough of a concern for Social Services to intervene and she was removed from her mum’s care. The memory of handing her over to police and her asking me if we’d see each other again, which we didn’t, profoundly moved me. What affected me most was that I knew she loved her mum and that her mum loved her. As is often the case, love can exist alongside a whole host of deeply destructive issues and in the case of this family, those issues put this child at risk. Ultimately though, a child wants to be with their caregivers and most caregivers want to be with their child. I felt both this little girl and her mum had been failed. Why weren’t her mum’s mental health and substance abuse issues better supported? Why did it take so long for services to act? Although I continued teaching for a little while afterwards, that incident informed my decision to leave because I could no longer ignore the fact that what I was most committed to was the emotional wellbeing of children and the different ways this could be supported.
In the years that followed my short time teaching, I held positions in arts education and behavioural support, repeatedly reminded of that little girl’s story and the many other stories of children that came into my life through my work. Bit by bit, it wasn’t enough for me to just focus on the children. I needed to know more about the homes these children returned to each evening and left each morning and I wanted to better assist and understand what makes a family unity.
I went on to become a caseworker for a family support project with a focus on parents and carers or children with mental health challenges. When I entered the field of social work, I had serious doubts about my capacity to witness and hold immense suffering. I had been the classic ‘’sensitive child’’ and that haunted me somewhat throughout my adolescence and early adult years. Up until this point, I believed myself to lack the thick skin I associated with this kind of work. I worried about what I would see and about not being able to help, an impulse that can be both a blessing and a curse at times.
In many ways, I was right to worry. Within my first few months I had encountered some very difficult things. I couldn’t make sense of how two people could be born with such different sets of odds against them. But despite the domestic abuse, the homelessness, the acute mental illness, the addiction, the poverty and the isolation I came into contact with, I also met humour, tenacity, kindness and love. It remains the biggest privilege to be given a place in people’s lives. To arrive in someone’s home a stranger with an assessment sheet in my hands and to leave a family months later knowing them, having hopefully offered something positive and empowering is a very special thing. I have learnt through this work that we all share a fear of being misunderstood, abandoned, irrelevant, unloved. I have been left profoundly changed. Profoundly humbled.
I am also profoundly angry. I’m not sure if I have realised I am steelier than I thought or if I have grown to be. Turns out, you don’t just get sensitivity or a thick skin. You need to genuinely care about others to do work with them at the core and you can’t advocate for those whose voices are being silenced if you spend too much time doubting your own. Case work taught me to be braver, to value my sensitivity and to value opportunities I have to encourage change, even if I’m scared and I often am. The media needs to be held to account for promoting extremely detrimental stereotypes of family units, immigrants, mental illness, adolescents, poverty. I want to see more done by our government to acknowledge and support low income families, young carers, young people, those at risk of homelessness and deportation, those who are mentally ill and without appropriate therapeutic and medical assistance. So much needs to change in the way we support people. We need to better understand and appreciate vulnerability, community and the effects of trauma. We all need to recognise our social responsibility. Challenge yourself to give someone you can’t relate to the benefit of the doubt. I assure you there exists within them something strikingly similar in you.
I now work as a campaigner for a project working with children, young people and parents to address stigma and discrimination in relation to mental illness. I have also been yearning to reconnect with documentaries again. I feel the stories of so many are worthy of being recorded and shared. A year and a half ago I started to record interviews for a short documentary film, having been lovingly encouraged by a dear friend. It is a labour of love that will take time. It runs alongside other commitments I have and I am still full of self-doubt about the process but in deciding to juggle different things that matter to me I am reminded of my different facets and give myself permission to keep on exploring them.
When I was a little girl, my paternal grandmother once said to me, ‘you are the company you keep.’ Her words have stayed with me and taken on new and profound meaning. Firstly, I am reminded to surround myself with relationships that are authentic, nourishing and honest. I don’t care about profession, cultural background, race, gender age, I care about the connection we share and my friendships, in particular, have been one of the most fundamentally informative aspects of my life. My grandma’s advice has also come to remind that the world around me is company and how I allow myself to receive it informs who I am. Lastly, I have become more connected to myself. The company I offer those I have relationships with as well as those I come into contact with through my work is completely reliant on how respectful I am of my own company. My ability to hold space for others is born over and over from a growing ability to hold space for myself.
I am really interested in how we all show up in our daily lives. Do we give the benefit of the doubt to strangers? Do we remember to ask our neighbours how they are? Do we speak fairly of ex-lovers? Do we check in genuinely with friends? Do we keep our word? It’s not enough to post links or rousing statuses on social media or assign ourselves to projects focusing on what’s happening on a global level if the people who are and have been in our lives can’t say we pay attention, can’t say we are respectful and kind. That’s obviously not to say I get it right all the time, I don’t, but I’d like to think that my work has nurtured in me a deepened integrity, curiosity and compassion. As the Miranda July line so poignantly taught me, the sound is quiet but it’s a human one. It’s yours, it’s mine, it’s ours. We can’t ignore it.