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Meet The Woman Who Launched '1000 Londoners'
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Meet The Woman Who Launched '1000 Londoners'

Picture of Briony Lewis
Updated: 9 January 2017
Not many people can claim that Stephen Fry heralded their film project as providing “more proof that everyone is extraordinary.” But then not everyone is Rachel Wang, and not every project is 1000 Londoners.

Twelve years ago, Wang co-­founded Chocolate Films with Mark Currie. It has since developed into an award­-winning company. We caught up with Wang in the run up to a series of screenings of 1000 Londoners in the capital.

Rachel Wang | Courtesy of Chocolate Films
Rachel Wang | Courtesy of Chocolate Films

You studied art history and theology as well as fine art before taking law, which resulted in a successful career in corporate finance. Could you tell us about your career prior to Chocolate Films and 1000 Londoners?

When I left school I focused on learning more about what interested me. After university, I focused on building my career. Nowadays I find myself using all the various parts of my career and higher education in my work at Chocolate Films. My law degree and work incorporate finance – invaluable when running the business –, and my art education helps both in the creative side of film making and in the understanding of much of the content we produce for museums and galleries.

Was there a trigger for you to quite drastically change your career path?

I started making films in my spare time. I was working very hard in my day job in the city, so each film was taking about a year to make. After a couple of years of this, Mark and I decided to both leave our day jobs to run the business full time. We’ve never really looked back.

How did you and Mark Currie begin working together? What started Chocolate Films?

Chocolate Films was born out of a passion for film-making and the ambition that we could create an independent film production company with a social remit, even though we didn’t know anyone in the industry. We were keen to be able to offer disadvantaged young people opportunities to break into media, that they would otherwise not have the opportunity to do. At the time, no one was providing this offer.

Not only are you a film production company, you are also a social enterprise. What inspires your work and why?

We’ve always been a social enterprise, but in the early days we didn’t know the term. We set up the company as a commercial enterprise with a social purpose; ­ it was quite a relief when we discovered the term! We are now more inspired than ever to create great work with all parts of the community.

Still from Dutch by Helena Coan | Courtesy of Chocolate Films
Still from ‘Dutch’ by Helena Coan | Courtesy of Chocolate Films

Has your heritage or background influenced your work in any way?

My father is Jewish and my mother is Jamaican, and both moved to the UK when they were very young. My different heritages have influenced my work in many ways. Initially, I was driven by a desire to see people of colour being represented honestly and respectfully onscreen. I know some people love films like Adulthood and Bullet Boy, but they are not representative of the entire Black British experience! My first feature documentary, Afro­Saxons, was an observational doc about the UK’s biggest Afro hairdressing competition.

More recently, I’ve been thinking about London, ­ where I was born and where I’ve lived for my entire life. I love the city and the amazingly diverse Londoners. I wanted to make a project which reflects the many experiences of life in the city without any agenda; ­ the result was 1000 Londoners.

Could you tell us more about the film?

1000 Londoners is a very exciting, large-scale project. Simply put, it’s a portrait of London, made up of 1000 short films about the different people who live in the city. The project focuses on all the people who make up the city, not just the famous or powerful. Its goal is to capture a representative cross ­section of life at this particular time in history.

Each film is a rich, three-minute documentary. Many are made by the team at Chocolate Films, while others are created by people in workshops that we facilitate, or even through open submissions.

Throughout November, you can see themed screenings as part of the BFI’s Britain on Film Season at five indie cinemas. The next theme is “1000 Londoners: Easy Riders,” which looks at the cycling and motorcycling sub-­cultures of the city. We’ve got ten films, including portraits of a 65-year-old Mod on his Vespa, the owner of a Hackney motorbike shop, a wheelchair cyclist, a West End rickshaw driver, and more.

Still from Friedel by Harriet Jones | Courtesy of Chocolate Films
Still from Friedel by Harriet Jones | Courtesy of Chocolate Films

As a company, you nurture young people through your workshops, engaging with over 2000 people a year. Why is this important to you?

From the outset we wanted to do this, because we believe that having a wide range of voices represented in the media is extremely important. We’ve seen many of the people who have participated in our workshops go on to develop careers in the industry. But more than that, there are so many great outcomes from our workshops. Children and young people learn creative skills and team working skills and have a great time doing it.

What is the most rewarding part to your job?

I love seeing an idea become a real thing that audiences and participants can engage with and enjoy. A great example of this is 1000 Londoners. I wanted to tell real stories about Londoners and offer a digestible method of viewing and sharing these films. It’s really rewarding to see how interested people are in this project. We outreach with the programme to offer workshops to homeless groups, NEET young people and refugee community groups. Sharing ownership with people in the city is incredibly fulfilling as it promotes our aim for this flagship project to encourage and increase community cohesion.

What was the most memorable moment of your career?

Recently I won Lead Entrepreneur of the Year at the Black British Business Awards. This was a real highlight and something I will remember for the rest of my life. It’s an honour to be acknowledged in this way, and I am excited to be recognised as a role model so that I am able to further inspire young people to be ambitious and reach for their dreams.

Do you think your academic background affects your creative vision?

Yes! I am passionate about creativity, culture, human nature, and how society works. These interests enable me to be inquisitive and always intrigued to find out more about people, which is a strong mindset for a documentary filmmaker and an independent business owner.

Still from Charlotte by Sasha Longford | Courtesy of Chocolate Films
Still from ‘Charlotte’ by Sasha Longford | Courtesy of Chocolate Films

What’s next for Chocolate Films?

On the production side, we’ve got some fantastic films coming up. In the museums and gallery sector, we have work in the new Vermeer exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, and are busy creating a video piece for an upcoming exhibition about London’s tattoo culture for the Museum of London. We’re also developing a range of new ways of creating work for 1000 Londoners. We’ve got a really exciting season coming up about London’s dog lovers, which has challenged us to come up with innovative ways of filming.

For the workshop side of the company, we’re working very hard on building a new community workshop space in the new Nine Elms Development, where individuals and school groups can come along and get involved in filmmaking.

What do you hope to achieve with Chocolate Films, and with 1000 Londoners especially?

For 1000 Londoners the ultimate goal is to be the best record of city life since Pepys’s diaries. When we hit 1000, I hope that we’ll be able to find the essence of the complex story of our city within it. We’re going to be developing more events and interactive experiences with the 1000 Londoners project for 2016. Our goal for Chocolate Films is to enable it to continue to grow organically with a great team producing fantastic content.

You are currently working with some incredible cultural institutions, such as the BFI. How did these partnerships come about?

I’ve been very lucky to have developed good relationships with some great institutions over along periods of time – ­ some date back to the very earliest days of the company. It’s a great honour to be on the BFI’s Film Hub nowadays and to be more strategically involved in London’s film culture.

Who is your favourite film director?

I’ve always loved writer-directors. I love Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Jim Jarmusch, Agnès Varda, and Claire Denis.

What are your tips for aspiring film directors/producers?

Don’t try and follow someone else’s career path. It’s much more fun to find your own!

Still from Gemma by Ross Dickson | Courtesy of Chocolate Films
Still from ‘Gemma’ by Ross Dickson | Courtesy of Chocolate Films

The 1000 Londoners season ‘Easy Riders’ will be screened in several independent cinemas across London. For more information, visit the website and Facebook page.