Reflections on the Counterpoints Arts PopChange Retreat 2022

Reflections on the Counterpoints Arts PopChange Retreat 2022

In October, Counterpoints Arts welcomed industry leaders and changemakers from across the country to gather at the iconic Dartington Hall for a fourth year to ask whether popular culture can drive social change in film and television.


“Where are we? Is it a castle? Is it a chapel? Is it a museum?” Tom Parry asks a room of guests. We are, in fact, at Dartington Hall and it’s the first night of the Counterpoints Pop X Change retreat. Over 50 guests have been invited to spend three days on the gorgeous sprawling grounds of Dartington Estate, a charity supporting learning in arts, ecology and social justice in the South Devon countryside. And we’re all here to ask if popular culture can change the narratives around immigration and racial justice in film and television. 


There’s no doubt that the representation of migrant narratives and of POC stories on our screens has sky-rocketed in very recent years and much of that work has been thanks to some of the brilliant minds which gathered at Dartington. Like Anu Henriques, Founder & Co-Director of Skindeep Mag, who was one of the creatives behind ‘Rocks’ (2020); or Hassan Akkad, a filmmaker and activist as well as one of our retreat hosts, who has recently helped produce Netflix’s ‘The Swimmers’ (2022); and Rufus Jones, writer and actor of Channel 4’s ‘Home’. These changemakers and the many more present at the retreat exemplify the work that Counterpoints was keen to facilitate conversation around over our time at Dartington. 


This retreat is the fourth of its kind following its birth in 2018. The founding year saw 50 artists, producers, activists and philanthropists exploring the value of pop culture with special guest Bridgit Antoinette Evans of Pop Culture Collab in the US. Counterpoints’ 2019 edition was youth-focused, bringing a network of young changemakers together with hip hop artists, music producers and game designers from across the UK. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021, the organisation hosted a three-day virtual retreat in partnership with OKRE, which aimed to explore impactful storytelling through TV & film, stand-up comedy and video games.


This year, Counterpoints welcomed its guests back in-person with the aim of facilitating conversation around how this sector’s work has evolved over the past few years. On our first day, we were greeted by Counterpoints director Almir Koldzic, and CEO of Comic Relief Samir Patel, before our hosts Hassan and Naima Khan, Co-Chair at Counterpoints and Director of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, led us through the next couple of days which would provide us all with rich insights from industry experts and creatives with lived experience of the discussion topics. The retreat then kicked off with a laid-back chat between Rufus and Hassan, who both worked on ‘Home’, revealing how a comedy about a refugee made it to mainstream British television. Before Sarah Asante, Commissioning Editor at UKTV, spoke to Suchandrika Chakrabati about pitching and TV-making using BAFTA-winning shows like ‘Famalam’ as case studies. Suchandrika tells me that for her, it was “a privilege… to see the audience’s eyes light up and hear the questions keep coming.” The comedian and podcast host also had the privilege of speaking to Nana Bempah, Founder of POCC, and rapper and screenwriter AWATE on a panel about the pop culture examples moving us today, which Suchandrika believes “taught us to build things for ourselves.” 


The award-winning Tom Parry kicked off our first evening with a No Direction Home comedy night featuring the likes of Emily Bampton, Lorraine Mponela, Suchandrika Chakrabati, Yasmeen Ghrawi and Will Adamsdale. “The line-up was a great mix of acts and styles,” Suchandrika tells me; “I really loved Loraine Mponela’s set, she just has such funny bones, and her hilarious story about trying to ride a horse because of sheer politeness has stayed with me.” 


The second day began with a choice of either yoga or a garden tour before heading into a day jam-packed with invigorating discussions. Arij Mikati of the US based Pillars Fund spoke to us about her work to show “dignified portrayals of who [Muslims] are”. Through its research, Pillars wants to address the problems of misrepresentation in Hollywood; “whilst there’s been some really amazing qualitative research done on Muslim representation in Hollywood, never before had there been a major quantitative study which signalled to the industry their active role in Islamophobia,” Arij told us as she talked us through the Pillars Fund’s recent research. 


The Pop X Change guests were then treated to a first look at the latest groundbreaking report on immigrant narratives in American TV from Erica Rosenthal of the Norman Lear Center and Sarah Lowe of Define American. The report revealed hopeful stats such as the representation of Asian American, Pacific Islander and Black immigrants has more than doubled since 2020, and that there has been inclusion of previously invisible communities such as immigrants with disabilities, undocumented Black immigrants and transgender immigrants. The day included other fascinating talks ranging from representatives of Skin Deep Mag, the BFI film fund and the Southbank Centre to Footnote Press, Healing Justice London and Counterpoints Arts. 


The second evening saw creatives Laith Elzubaidi, Ornella Mutoni, Maria Tarokh, Ali Ghaderi and Yasmeen Ghrawi experiment with new work still in the making, thoughtfully curated by AWATE. Each artist gave a mesmerising demonstration, from Maria’s ode to Iranian women through dance to Yasmeen’s theatrical monologue on her Assyrian Iraqi father. Laith, screenwriter and founder of the British-Arab Writer’s Group, who performed a segment of a currently developing show ‘Insane Asylum Seekers’, tells me, “when I heard the first collective audible gasp, I knew this was going to be the perfect audience.” The retreat was the perfect place for the type of performance that Laith does, which he says “doesn’t fit into a neat category.” Being at the retreat, Laith was incredibly inspired – “there’s a creeping feeling that we’re too ambitious,” he explains of his plans at the British-Arab Writers Group. “But no, all these things are very achievable,” he asserts after connecting with creatives who showed him that “anything is possible, because you’re in a room full of people who have achieved all these things – it shows what you’re able to do independently but also with the help of others,” claims Laith. 


The final day began with forest bathing and foraging before editor and critic K Biswas started the programme off by offering his insightful reflections on cultural moments in the UK and the nature of the zeitgeist. We were all then invited to reflect on the network’s progress and the emergence of the multi-funder Power of Pop Fund from Comic Relief and Unbound Philanthropy, which aims to support organisations working at the intersection of popular culture and social change. With a particular focus on migration and racial injustice, guests were divided into groups and encouraged to share their thoughts on various actions to imagine a blueprint for the next decade, asking how we would like to see a ‘Pop X Change 2032’ retreat manifest. 


The retreat was drawn to a joyful close by creating a time capsule where participants were welcomed to share their favourite pop culture moments of 2022 to reflect on in 10 years. Picks included the TV show Mo, by Palestinian comedian Mo Amer, Michaela Coel’s Vogue cover, and feature film Flee, produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. For Laith, the retreat was “the perfect place to meet all these people who know about all the obstacles you’re going up against,” echoing Suchandrika, who left the retreat “wanting to commit to that re-energised feeling I’d got from meeting so many talented people, promising myself to pour it into creative endeavours as much as I can,” she tells me. The time as the retreat clearly catalysed the guests into action, as Laith ensures me “it’s not that we can do everything, it’s that we will do everything.” 






Dalia Al-Dujaili


Dalia is a British-born Iraqi freelance writer, journalist and producer. She is the Digital Editor of AZEEMA Magazine, Founder + Editor in Chief of The Road to Nowhere, Columnist at This Orient, and she has bylines in the Guardian, Huck, It’s Nice That, Elephant, Trippin’, Riposte, Notion, Cosmopolitan & more.