That's Dr Franny to you...
Age of Stupid's director, Franny Armstrong, was presented with an honorary doctorate from Open University as "one of the most innovative and important independent film makers working in Britain today"
Franny's acceptance speech below.
FRANNY’S ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
It is very easy to stand here and accept this honour. To bask in the occasion, take photos in this silly outfit, drink the free drinks and generally believe all the flattering stuff.
But the problem is I don’t believe it.
I’d like to tell you the story of two girls, born a few years apart. They were both intelligent, both popular at school, both wanted to grow up to do meaningful work, to contribute positively to the world, to make their lives count for something bigger than themselves - and they both hoped to have their own families later in life. But that’s where their stories diverge.
Because one of those girls happened to be born in London in the early 70s. There was peace in Europe. Britain had just held its first public referendum, resulting in a renewed commitment to stay in the EU, then called the EEC. There was hot and cold running water. The girl went to an excellent primary school in walking distance from her centrally-heated house. The school was well-funded by the state, and her inspiring teachers (who were not bogged down in endless paperwork) pushed her to be herself. She was supported by a creative family who encouraged her early adventures in writing plays starring her schoolfriends, She had music lessons and was allowed to practise her drums at home even after the unholy racket caused a cupboard to fall over and smash all her mum’s heirloom plates. She had her own bicycle and an AtoZ of London and could go wherever she wanted, without a brother or uncle accompanying her.
Her private school education had taught her to craft a convincing sentence and so, as a young adult, to win government grants set up to support social entrepreneurs. Which meant she could work at becoming a filmmaker without taking three zero-hour-contract jobs just to survive. Her working class grandmother left her enough money for a deposit on her own flat in London, just before insanely-escalating prices put home ownership out of reach of most young people. Her British passport meant she could travel freely and fold the things she learned about the world into her films. Later, she was supported financially by more than 300 people via crowdfunding to make the films she wanted to make, to say the things she wanted to say, and, as new technologies developed, to amplify her message out to a huge international audience. What a privilege.
Then there’s the other girl, whose name is Kulood. Kulood was also born into a middle class family and also walked to her local primary school. But she lived under a brutal dictatorship in a small city called Kut close to Baghdad. Kulood’s father was a radiologist in the local hospital and, unusually, he didn’t just encourage his sons, but also his daughters, to study hard and go on to get college degrees. Despite going to the local college, she had no freedom: apart from one day trip to Baghdad, she didn’t even leave her home city until she was 23. Then America and Britain invaded Iraq and Kulood’s city came under attack. Women weren’t allowed outside, so Kulood didn’t see any of the fighting, but she heard everything. Her brother was murdered on the streets, as were hundreds of thousands of other innocent civilians across Iraq.
When the day-to-day fighting calmed, Kulood set up a small organisation aiming "to teach the women how to defend their rights, to show them that they didn’t always have to obey what men said.” That didn’t go down well. Her office was looted, she was denounced as working for the Americans by name in the local paper, and death threats came thick and fast. She ignored them and carried on her work, but then, when her mentor - a young American female lawyer called Fern Holland - was shot dead in front of her, Kulood fled with her father and sisters to Jordan where they scraped together an existence. I met her there in 2004 when she worked as a translator on one of my films. She was busy setting up a project supporting refugee children living on the streets, and said "I think their lives will be wasted just like mine. I try not to think that way, but, really, let’s be candid: this is their future. For me, all these years have been wasted. My sisters and I, we have dreams. We are educated, we want to study, to have careers. But in Jordan we cannot legally work, and we cannot leave. Now we’re becoming old, we’re all in our 30s, but still we can’t marry or start families. We are just standing in place. ”
Earlier this year, she decided to act. She couldn’t make a life in Jordan, she’d been denied asylum in the UK, New Zealand and all the other countries she’d applied to through official channels - and if she went back to Iraq she’d be killed. So she joined the exodus of refugees heading for Europe and found herself in the middle of the night squashed with thirty other refugees into an inflatable dinghy designed to hold eight. As they approached the Greek island of Samos, waves smashed the inflatable dinghy onto rocks, and the boat sank. Wearing heavy walking boots and thick winter clothes, Kulood was pulled underwater. She very nearly drowned. Her primary school hadn’t given her swimming lessons - but she learned on the spot that night - and somehow got herself to shore.
My question is: what would Kulood have done with her life had she been handed the chances that I’ve been blessed with? My guess is that, in a parallel universe, we will soon be celebrating her becoming the first ever female - and the first ever Iraqi - Secretary-General of the UN.
I believe that this inequality - all these wasted lives, all these frustrated people unable to build futures for themselves and their families - is the key driver of the world’s most urgent problems. Climate change, wars, the refugee crisis. Obesity, depression, street violence. Brexit, Trump, Farage, the rise of racist attacks. All these escalating problems come back to the unfairness of our societies, which are set up so that the 1% cream everything off for themselves, leaving everyone else to fight over the scraps.
Which is why I can’t feel that proud about winning a race where I got to run on immaculately cut grass in highly engineered trainers, whilst others were swimming through treacle without goggles or running across broken glass in bare feet.
Nobody can choose the situation they are born into, but I believe that those are who lucky enough to hit the jackpot - through no effort or talent of their own - have a moral responsibility to work to make things more equal. According to family mythology, my very first word was “share” and I hope it will also be my last.
So even though I feel very uneasy about all the golden tickets which have propelled me here, I am very happy to accept this honour from the Open University, whose very reason for being is to challenge inequality, by providing world-class education to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access it. In fact, my grandfather, William Armstrong, was involved in the setting up of the OU in the 1960s, and was himself awarded an honorary degree in 1974 - nearly half a century ago. I know he would be very happy that his granddaughter is receiving this honour today, from the University he helped to found - with his son, my father Peter, and two of his great-grandchildren, my Eva and Zac, out there in the audience.
And finally, I’d like to dedicate this award to my sister, Boo, whose shoes I walk in today - literally. Boo was by far the more original and brilliant of the Armstrong Sisters, but she died of cancer four years ago tomorrow and the world will never know what wonders she would have contributed had she lived.
So, congratulations to everyone receiving their degrees today, and long may the wonderful work of the Open University continue. Because the world needs you all more than ever.
OPEN UNIVERSITY’S SPEECH
Franny Armstrong is one of the most innovative and important independent film makers working in Britain today. Her films cover issues of vital public interest, particularly raising awareness about climate change, one of the most significant and urgent challenges of our time.
Born and raised in London, Franny studied zoology at University College London and was a drummer in indie group The Band of Holy Joy before becoming a documentary maker. Her first full-length films, McLibel, about McDonald’s attempts to sue two activists was named by the British Film Institute as one of ‘Ten documentaries which changed the world.’ Her next project, Drowned Out, which followed a family threatened with displacement as a result of a government dam project in India, was nominated for Best Documentary at the British Independent Film Awards. Her short film, Baked Alaska, explored the human and environmental consequences of global warming.
In 2004, she pioneered the use of crowdfunding for a new film about the catastrophic effects of climate change. Backed by £400,000 worth of grassroots donations, this eventually became The Age of Stupid, starring Pete Postlethwaite, an arresting combination of factual documentary and fictional drama, music and animation. Having completed the film, she raised a further £400,000 to distribute it.
To launch the film, a "green carpet" premier took place in Leicester Square, powered entirely by solar energy and satellite-linked to 62 cinemas, setting a new Guinness World Record.
Six months later, the New York premiere featured Kofi Annan and Gillian Anderson, as well as live music from Moby and Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and live satellite links to Greenpeace teams in the Arctic, up a melting Himalayan glacier and in an Indonesian rainforest. Paid for by crowd-funders, the Global Premiere was satellite-linked to a million viewers watching in 441 cinemas in America, in 259 cinemas in 49 countries, and at community screenings and local television.
On the back of The Age of Stupid, Franny founded 10:10, calling for an immediate cut in carbon emissions. Many businesses heeded the call and set out to reduce their emissions by ten per cent in just a year. Participants included Spurs FC, London Zoo, Microsoft, 75,000 people, 1,500 schools, half of local councils, the entire UK Government, the Prime Minister and - after the campaign spread to 41 countries - the cities of Paris, Oslo, Brighton and Mexico City.
Franny has also set up Indie Screenings, an online distribution outlet which gives people the rights and access to show independent films without the intervention and cost of middle men. Fees reflect the reach and resources of those screening films, such that screening a film for school children in Sierra Leone costs £1, but the same film shown to hundreds of staff in an American company would cost thousands of pounds. The Guardian calls this “taking social justice into the fast lane” while Jon Reiss, writing for the Huffington Post described it as “the future of film distribution.”
Franny is the founder and owner of Spanner Films and Professor of Film at the University of Wolverhampton. Her work brings together outstanding film-making and artistic integrity with a passionate commitment to social justice, democratic accessibility and environmental awareness. She makes films of extraordinary power and clarity, not only changing minds but transforming behaviour. In fact, she has become so influential that Time Out wrote a profile asking ‘Can this woman save humanity?’. We are delighted to honour her work and support her ongoing fight.
By the authority of the Senate, I present to you for the degree of Doctor of the University, Franny Armstrong.