‘Our goal is to challenge negative expectations’: Turning the spotlight on Big Issue’s frontline
Three new films follow Big Issue drivers in their new electric vans. Director Carl Woods talks about misconceptions around homelessness, and why it all comes back to the vendors.
by: Marc Burrows
1 Mar 2023
Bristol Big Issue vendor Jack Richardson says our vans going green makes business sense Photo: Exposure Photo Agency
Back in August 2022, The Big Issueannounced a three-year partnership with Citroën UK, supplying a number of all-electric ë-Berlingo vans as part of a gradual transition of our van fleet to more sustainable electric vehicles. The new vans mean magazines can get to vendors across the country sustainably and efficiently, reducing the carbon footprint across the 350,000 miles drivers cover each year. The scheme has already been a huge success, with the new vans hard at work, making sure vendors feel supported and connected to offices and support staff.
The partnership has been documented with three short films titled Driving Change For Good, made in collaboration with Fight Gravity Films and directed by documentary filmmaker Carl Woods. The films follow three Big Issue staff who drive our vans every day – Holly, Hattie and Chris – working in different areas of the country, meeting vendors and delivering magazines.
Carl had to strike a delicate balance: showcasing the vans themselves, highlighting their importance in the daily lives of our drivers and allowing the vendors we meet to tell their stories authentically, while also shooting footage that looks cinematic and engaging. It’s a lot to get into three four-minute videos. “Overall, the goal of the films is to challenge negative expectations and negative narratives, especially around homelessness,” he says. “Part of this was creating visuals that looked cinematic. I believe having a high-quality aesthetic can help elevate the subject matter and make the audience take it more seriously.”
Authentic storytelling: filming with vendors
“The first thing we had to consider was that the films couldn’t evoke pity or sentimentality,” he explains. “They had to tell the story as it is, without trying to make the audience feel a certain way. Our society’s ignorance is often filled with bias. People tend to have a limited perspective on homelessness, seeing only a 45-year-old white man with a beard on the street with a dog. They don’t see the different ethnicities, genders, and circumstances that contribute.”
The Driving Change for Good films allowed Carl and his team to tell more authentic stories about poverty. “Our goal was to give a platform for the vendor to tell their story without interjecting too much,” he says. “It was crucial to treat them with respect and as normal people. We asked them questions and let them speak, and we maintained the heart of their story during editing.
Challenging misconceptions about homelessness
“In my previous work, I’ve focused on telling stories that challenge audience prejudices and stereotypes. I’ve worked in East Africa, Southeast Asia, and with disabled family members, where I’ve seen first-hand how people’s ignorance and lack of knowledge can lead to prejudice and low expectations. For me, it’s not just about creating a visually stylish film, but also about opening up a new world to audiences and reducing prejudice and misconceptions.”
For Chris Falchi-Stead, Frontline Director at Big Issue Groupwho appears in the final of the three films, this was an opportunity to address misconceptions about vendors. “Carl was fantastic,” he says. “He got the tone right. He didn’t talk down to the vendors or treat them as pitiful individuals.” To Chris the whole project syncs with The Big Issue’s core mission. “It’s crucial for us to provide support to our vendors, which is why we need to be dynamic and agile,” he explains. “We need to respond quickly to their problems, whether related to housing or addiction. The partnerships we have with Citroën are great examples of how we’re always trying to innovate and not stand still.”
Electric vans: a game changer for The Big Issue
Telling vendors’ stories is a crucial part of that mission. “Despite our efforts to help as many people as possible, there are still misconceptions about The Big Issue,” says Chris. “As cliched as it is, we’re offering a hand up, not a handout. We’re trying to give people the opportunity to earn legitimate income.” Getting the story over meant choosing managers and vendors from diverse backgrounds and contrasting areas of the country. It also had the benefit of highlighting how vital the delivery vans are. “We have vans that travel all over the country to support vendors where they actually sell,” explains Chris. “We’ll drive down to Dover, for example, so vendors don’t need to spend money travelling to the nearest office in London.”
For director Carl, the textural variety of people and landscapes was an important part of the projects. “The reason these three staff members were chosen was based partly on geography and the desire to showcase different parts of the UK,” he explains. “When selecting locations, the focus was on showing greenery, countryside, dual carriageways, B roads, different types of cities, and towns by the seaside to demonstrate a diversity of locations.” The different locations also highlighted an important theme of the films and of the work The Big Issue does in general. “Homelessness isn’t just a problem in inner cities,” explains Carl. “It’s happening all over the place. So, for me, it was important to showcase the raw elements of the issue, not just for the aesthetic and the link between nature and electric vehicles, but to demonstrate the diversity of locations where homelessness is prevalent. It’s not just an urban issue; it affects every area. The Big Issue is everywhere, and we need to show that.”
Finding the truth
Working on the films was a learning experience for Carl, just as he hopes it will be for the audience.
“I think one of the most important things I learned during the filming process was something that Chris brought up,” he explains. “That some people really enjoy working with The Big Issue, and it is a good fit for them. Holding down a traditional job may not be feasible for some individuals due to their past experiences or mental health issues. The Big Issue provides a tangible job that gives them a sense of purpose and meaning while also offering flexibility.
“For some, it may be a temporary job, but for others, like the vendor in Bristol, it is a perfect fit and has given him a way out of homelessness. I was struck by the wide variety of stories and journeys that led them to become homeless, as well as how they found The Big Issue. It’s not as straightforward as some may believe. I was also impressed by the range of interests and hobbies that vendors pursue outside of their work. Some write for science journals or play music. It is something that I wish we could have showcased more in the films. The variety of lives that people lead, both inside and outside of The Big Issue, was truly eye-opening for me and I think it’s important for others to understand as well.”
Of course, the Driving Change For Good films aren’t just about the people that sell and distribute the magazine. They’re also about the vans themselves. Carl explains that he wasn’t afraid to get a little Top Gear in his approach. “I have a passion for cars” he laughs, “and I’d love to direct car commercials. This opportunity was perfect for me because it combines my experience of platforming underrepresented voices with my interest in cars. Although it’s an electric van and not a Ferrari, I still find it visually interesting and aesthetically appealing. My goal was to find ways to incorporate the vehicle into the story seamlessly.”
For Chris, showcasing the van itself wasn’t a problem. “The electric vans have been a game-changer for us,” he says, elaborating on a theme he explores in the film in which he appears. “I use my electric van all the time, and it’s brilliant. It’s easy to talk about this partnership because it makes total sense for us. We want to become a greener organisation, and we recognise the environmental impact of printing and distributing magazines up and down the country. As we support vendors from Penzance to Inverness, we want to ensure that we are not leaving a bad legacy in terms of our environmental impact. It’s not just a publicity stunt. We genuinely care about the impact we are making.”
The quiet nature of an electric vehicle also helped dictate the tone of the films themselves, even down to the locations. “By intentionally highlighting the greenery side of things, the films aim to showcase the tangible benefits of electric vehicles. By being quiet, they provide a sense of being at one with nature,” explains Carl. “The sound mix emphasises the quietness, and the visuals show greenery, nature, and countryside to provide a well-rounded story. Documentary filmmaking is about finding the truth and telling an authentic story. By asking the right questions, we were able to uncover the truth about how the van benefits the characters in the film. It was a relatively simple film to make because the story was already there, and we were able to showcase the van as a character without explicitly stating it.”
A shared understanding
One thing that struck Chris was how much the vendors they spoke to during filming responded to the vans themselves, showing that it’s not just the public that can have misconceptions about how The Big Issue works. “Vendors want to know what it’s like,” he says. “It’s rewarding to see their curiosity and the realisation that the inner workings of the organisation are more complex than they may have thought. Delivering magazines to vendors is just one aspect of what we do, and our distribution network is quite extensive.”
Chris, Hattie and Holly may be old hands at working with Big Issue vendors, but to Carl, the experience was a new and very rewarding one. “What I found in this production, and working with Chris especially, and the rest of the team, is that everyone was on board and shared the same vision,” he explains. “They didn’t know how the story would come out, but what I really enjoyed and what was a real surprise was that everyone had that shared understanding of what the tone should be. I was working with vendors who were very open and understood the brief and the vision behind the films. This made the entire production feel a lot more seamless and allowed me to focus on capturing and editing the story, which was a real help. The Big Issue team and the vendors made it a joy to film.”