Midlands tit-for-tat gun violence gets a moving docu-treatment from Penny Woolcock.
The deadly war between the Johnsons and the Burger Bar might sound like a plotline from Mad Max – of roaming villains in distressed leathers, defending their derelict territories from each other. It is in fact a tragically real story.
In Birmingham, a quiet war rages between The Burger Bar Boys (B21) and the Johnson Crew (B6). It goes largely unnoticed by the neighbouring population who pass by the bunches of wilted flowers hanging beside limp teddy bears on the roadside, or who watch news bulletins that retell the tired, depressing story.
This is an oddly isolated war. Another stabbing. Another shooting. Another assault. Another yellow sign appealing for witnesses who will never come forward. It is into this strange, quiet deadlock that Penny Woolcock enters, determined to use her film and her presence to encourage trust, reconciliation and perhaps even peace between the young men who kill each other over their postcodes.
Similarly to Alma Ha’arel’s delicate, choreographed 2011 documentary Bombay Beach, Woolcock’s film shifts its register: straight documentary style is interspersed with sequences of the protagonists rapping to camera and illustrating the reality of their lives. As with Bombay Beach, the film operates a sort of kaleidoscopic view. Yet it's somehow more intimate, despite the usual hip-hop bravado.
The film was produced by former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell who was instrumental in the Northern Irish Good Friday agreement. A brilliant scene unfolds as Shabba and Dylan, the two 'elders' attempting to bring about peace in their area, visit Purnell in parliament. Tea, fountain pens and low-slung jeans and baseball caps makes for a brilliant, if somewhat alarming, juxtoposition. The forgotten class meets the gentry. And Purnell speaks with depressing honesty: solve this yourself, because the police, the government – they don’t care. You are only killing each other.
It is this slow realisation that gradually seeps through the film that is most moving, and powerful. What is a postcode to these boys? What does 'ownership' and 'pride' mean in a landscape that is derelict and completely abandoned by those in power? This reality is made all the more acute during the riots of 2011, caught on camera here. The boys realise that it is the police who are their enemy, not each other. Why kill each other over streets that don’t belong to them?
This is yet another impressive, fearless film from Penny Woolcock, who should be celebrated alongside Ken Loach as one of Britain’s foremost socially-conscious filmmakers. As our society becomes ever geared towards the plight of the individual and class rears its ugly head as austerity measures fire on all cylinders, Woolcock’s film reminds us of the power of creative projects in addressing, and perhaps even solving, social problems that reach to the furthest fringes of society.
One Mile Away is a smart, sensitive film that refuses stereotype or easy categorisation. Instead, it illustrates the complexity of some of Britain’s forgotten wars.
Yet more depressing truthbombs about "broken" Britain?
Engaging, thoughtful, funny, fearless
Why isn't Penny Woolcock more celebrated?