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Space To Be: the fight to keep Belfast’s Windsor Women’s Centre open

Lindsay Poulton and Ekaterina Ochagavia
·4-min read

Our latest Guardian documentary, Space To Be, follows the Windsor Women’s Centre as it continues on its 30-year quest to keep its doors open. Located in the heart of the Village area of South Belfast, the centre provides an oasis for some of the most vulnerable people in the local community through a carefully nurtured network of women. After receiving funding from the EU as part of the Good Friday agreement, many women’s centres sprung up across Northern Ireland, but have since been forced to close because of financial insecurity. The women of the Windsor Women’s Centre are resilient, but will they manage to navigate the pandemic and make it through their toughest year so far?

What made you want to tell the story of the Windsor Women’s Centre?

I’ve known about the Women’s Centre for as long as I’ve known its coordinator, Eleanor Jordan, so roughly 25 years. Having grown up in Belfast myself, I am all too aware that the majority of films about Northern Ireland are mainly based around the ‘Troubles’ or the peace process and are often focused on the male experience, some of which is of a threatening male toxicity. I believe that, more than ever now, we need to be sharing women’s stories from areas where the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ still exists. I felt that Eleanor’s passion, commitment and tenaciousness in supporting the women in this economically deprived community was a story that really should be acknowledged and celebrated.

What was your creative vision for this project?

In a nutshell, I wanted to tell the story with the centre as the central character, and create striking portraits of a cross-section of the women who found its very existence a lifeline. However, how I went about this project changed dramatically due to the coronavirus pandemic. After the first shoot, I had planned to track the life of the centre and its characters throughout that year but it soon became apparent that would not be possible. Like everywhere else, the centre had to close its doors to all activities early on, before later being able to offer childcare support to key workers. I had to rethink the entire film at this stage and decided to introduce archive to enhance the story, diving deep into the wonderful archive resource held by Northern Ireland Screen. This proved to be very fruitful, given that so much of the film is about the impact, and in some cases trauma, which has affected some women as a result of the Northern Irish conflict. I felt that using archive to merge the past with the present was the right way to go, and worked with local author Jan Carson on the poem that opens and closes the film. I wanted it to be the voice of the centre, describing all that she has seen. I invited Lorraine McClean, a Village resident and centre user, to voice the poem.

What were your most memorable shoot days?

Every day was a memorable shoot day as I was eight months pregnant at the time. It was an intense five days hopping in and out of a van across Belfast. It was busy, hectic, filming as much of the activity as possible. My strongest memories are of the hustle and bustle of the centre and how poignant that now feels given how things have changed since the shoot. Their schedule was so expansive and served so many different needs of the women that used its facilities, it was a bit of a whirlwind attempting to capture as much as we could. I remember being awestruck by the resilience and camaraderie of the women we profiled.

How do you think this film speaks to contemporary times and the recent conflicts in Belfast?

I hope this film resonates with people currently. We are in such a crux moment in Northern Ireland with the impact of Brexit and Covid, combined with loyalist and nationalist tensions sadly gaining headlines once again. In addition, there are the serious ongoing funding issues facing Women’s Centres and the community sector which need attention. I am hoping that this insight into the centre shows how crucial these spaces are for vulnerable communities, and how critical it is that they are supported.

As a film-maker, I believe capturing the variety of the women’s stories, their experiences, their hopes and fears, will make a strong statement; and one that very much fits with current developments in women’s consciousness. This is a local story of women championing and supporting other women in a difficult environment. For me it is about refocusing the narrative away from the politics and the violence and focusing on the women who have kept the whole place running for all these years.

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