Behind the award-winning web-documentary Manchester Maze (2024)

Behind the award-winning web-documentary Manchester Maze (1)

This article first appeared on On Our Radar and has been republished with permission from the authors

Last week, the Unheard Voices andManchester Mazeproject won the Orwell Prize for reporting homelessness. It is shocking that in 2024 such a prize exists, but we are very proud of this group of community reporters who want to transform the way society perceives and treats people at the forefront of the housing emergency.

The project is a true testament to the power of community-led storytelling and co-production. It shows what can be possible when a community is given the time, space and resources to be innovative, creative and tell the story they want to tell, in their own words and their own time.

The process

In the summer of 2022, we partnered with Shelter to form a community reporting network in Greater Manchester with a group of people with lived experience of unfit housing and homelessness. We started off with a completely blank slate, with no fixed deadline and no parameters in terms of what the story feature should be, and how it should be told.

Over the course of a number of training sessions, creative co-design workshops and story dives, the group established an identity for the network – Unheard Voices – and a set of guiding principles. These principles covered everything from the key themes we wanted to highlight (e.g the need for more social housing, hidden homelessness); to the way they wanted to tell the stories (e.g. showing people as individuals, building empathy not sympathy, linking stories to systemic issues). This anchored the project in a set of aims and values which we referred back to throughout, helping to boost trust and keep us all accountable.

Behind the award-winning web-documentary Manchester Maze (2)

We supported the group through an initial reporting period where they shared written pieces, audio recordings and video clips reflecting on their own experiences of homelessness. These were published on theUnheard Voices micrositeand built up an initial bank of stories that we used as the basis for our co-production feature, which eventually became theManchester Maze.

The Maze was conceptualised by the group during one of the creative workshops when reflecting on just how difficult it is to navigate a housing system that is not fit for purpose during a cost of living crisis. They felt the idea of a maze reflected their personal experiences of dead ends, feeling trapped and going round in circles, trying to access the support they desperately needed.

Rather than a standard content series, the group also wanted to introduce an interactive element, forcing the audience to contend with the same dilemmas and difficult decisions that they themselves have faced over the years. One of our co-producers Debbie came up with the genius idea of a choose-your-own-adventure style narrative journey – she loved reading those books as a kid – and went away and wrote one based on her own housing journey, which later became the structure for the web-documentary.

Towards the end of the project, the reporters developed theirAction Plan for Greater Manchester. This was an important piece of solutions journalism, with the group putting forward their 8-point plan for how the Greater Manchester housing system could be made easier to navigate in the future. This Action Plan was presented alongside the Maze at a side event at the Conservative party conference in October 2023, where the films were screened to councillors, agency partners and council staff in Manchester.

Co-production – a true collaboration

Traditional production processes all too often reinforce a division of power between those in front of the camera and those behind it: the filmmaker or producer, and their 'subject' or 'contributor'.

Co-production redresses this imbalance.It is a collaborative process which relies on an equal exchange of skills and knowledge between those with professional and lived experience.

Behind the award-winning web-documentary Manchester Maze (3)

Graphic taken from our toolkit "From Contributors to Co-producers"

The Manchester Maze could never have been created by anyone other than Debbie, Karl, David and Pottsy. It is their collective story, and they are the co-producers, decision makers and experts in their own experiences. They care deeply about tackling the housing emergency in Greater Manchester, they are trusted by their communities and have access to unheard stories and underrepresented perspectives.

At Radar, we could bring along our technical storytelling and production skills, as well as bringing in additional resources to help with animation and the complex web design and programming of the choose-your-own adventure journey through the Maze.

Participatory production is not easy. It can be hard and messy at times. But the benefits far, far outweigh any drawbacks. In this case, the result is an incredible, award winning, web-documentary that neither the reporters – nor Shelter or Radar – could ever have produced alone.

Too often, communities have had negative interactions with the media, seeing themselves misrepresented or ignored without the platform to challenge how they are portrayed.

Projects like this – which tell stories 'with' not 'for' communities – is the first step in rebuilding that trust.

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Behind the award-winning web-documentary Manchester Maze (2024)


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