PHOTO ESSAY: Remaking lives, one recycled item at a time

Strewn with rubbish and blackened by fires, the space where the Brixton Remakery now stands was once a derelict block of garages set to be blocked off by the local council. It was a grimy tomb for dead foxes and a place to dump burnt-out cars and beer cans.

Today it's a bright, busy series of workshops, where unwanted planks of wood are being turned into striking table-tops and everything from scaffolding poles to pianos are treated to a new lease of life. The Brixton Remakery is a pioneering re-use and refurbishment hub that stops valuable resources being sent to landfill and instead uses them for the benefit of local people and businesses. Based in one of south London’s most deprived boroughs, it’s almost entirely run by volunteers.

‘It’s a unique concept that we’ve come up with, which is a space for making things out of waste materials’, says Remakery co-director Rebekah Phillips. ‘Whether it’s carpentry, bikes, IT, metal work... But we’re also using “remake” in its broader sense: we’re remaking people, so we’re teaching them new skills and helping them change their lives for the better.’

The team’s first job was to remake the garage block. When I first visited in the summer of 2013 to film for Al Jazeera's environmental series, Earthrise, building work was in full swing. Former homeless plasterer Ben Jackson explained why he enjoyed taking part in the refurbishment: ‘My normal life would be, you know, maybe go down the shops to get a beer in the morning and hang about in a park. But here things are very different. I really feel like I’ve accomplished something.’

The refurbishment is being carried out with reclaimed materials wherever possible, and it’s shocking what the team have rescued. There’s a stainless steel kitchen worktop, brand-new bathroom units, sash windows and part of a wooden gym floor.

Relying almost entirely on volunteers means that it has been slow going at times, but the building is coming along well. The gym floor now serves as wall cladding that covers a whole stretch of the old garage block, and the space has been cleverly partitioned using screens made from assorted old windows. Co-director Hannah Lewis says that once the Remakery’s lease is finalized by the council, they’ll receive a US$83,000 grant from The City Bridge Trust to pay contractors to finish off the work – hopefully by summer 2014.

Meanwhile, the first tenant has already moved in. Joie de Winter (pictured above) is co-founder of Tree Cycle, a wood-recycling project, and she has set up a workshop and office here. I find her sanding down unwanted chairs from a church. ‘We want to help people rebuild their connection with nature,’ she says, ‘and to find ways of giving back life to discarded wood. It’s upsetting to see it left on the streets.’ She makes and sells go-karts, sledges, swings and garden geo-domes from reclaimed wood, as well as running a course for a local women’s group.

It’s infectious, the idea of building something – whether it’s furniture or a sense of community – from stuff that would have been wasted. And through thousands of hours of hard, unpaid work the team has created an amazing place for creativity, green enterprise and for properly valuing the people and resources around us.

Hannah Lewis’s advice to others interested in taking on the challenge of remakery is to be flexible and responsive. ‘Things have their own rhythm and it depends on everybody who’s involved,’ she explains. ‘You need to learn to dance with it, rather than control it.’

Earthrise is Al Jazeera English's award-winning series exploring solutions to the environmental challenges we face today.

Read the other photo essays in our series on local community projects.

Just Do It: a film on climate activism

If 3 of your friends book their tickets in advance, Just Do It will give you a free ticket to see the film. All you need to do is send the names and email addresses of your friends who've booked, with "New Internationalist" in the subject line and details of the screening you'd like to attend, to the Just Do It Outreach Coordinator Molly at [email protected]

‘Absolutely not, no way,’ was the response filmmaker Emily James got when she first asked a group of climate activists whether she could film them planning secret direct actions.

It was 2008, the year when protesters hijacked a coal train on its way to Drax power station, and when members of Plane Stupid made headlines by breaking into London’s Stansted Airport. Climate activism was gaining both momentum and profile.

‘I could see there was a fascinating culture brewing,’ says the 39-year-old Californian, dressed in jeans and a hoodie at her post-production house in Soho. ‘People were taking accountable actions where, by design, they were going to be arrested at the end of it. It was such a powerful political statement they were making.’

James has long been interested in politics and protest – she boycotted her aunt’s peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches during a grape pickers’ strike when she was only four, and her best-known film to date is an animation about trade politics, starring a singing American peanut. Having met some of the activists socially, James knew she wanted to tell their story, but there was a problem: people planning to break the law are not usually very keen to be filmed.

It is a tribute to the care she took to gain their trust and to safeguard her footage that James’ film, Just Do It: a tale of modern day outlaws, ever got made. All of her footage was kept at a safe house until it was unlikely it could be used against anyone in court. James also kept no written record of what she filmed and labelled her tapes using codes, making ‘the first month of post-production a complete nightmare,’ she laughs.

The result is a film which gives an unprecedented insight into the lives of a group of (mostly) young climate activists as they become increasingly radicalized. Following six characters over 18 months, it tells a story which is much richer and more emotional than that told by fleeting news footage of hooded youths breaking into airports by night.

‘I wanted to reposition direct action culturally; to show that there is a human face to these people, and that what they’re doing is a rational response to the situation,’ she says.

At the heart of the film is the idea that doing something – anything – is better than doing nothing. Hence the title – Just Do It. This sentiment comes across powerfully through the film’s characters, who feel they cannot stand back while slow political progress hinders action on climate change. It has also become an increasingly defining feature of James’s own life. She turned down mainstream broadcasters who wanted her to tell the story in a way that she considered too judgmental, and made the film independently, with little money.

‘It sounds grandiose, but I felt that I had a duty to history and to humanity to tell the story in a way that they [the climate activists] would be proud of,’ she says. ‘Now that Climate Camp is closing its doors, and people’s attention is shifting to the public spending cuts, it really does feel like we’ve captured a beautiful moment in protest history.’

Visit www.just-do-it.org.uk to find a screening near you.