Monday 1 April 2013

Postcode lottery: "One Mile Away"

Back in 2009, filmmaker Penny Woolcock signed off on a film called 1 Day - not to be confused with the David Nicholls adaptation, rather a rapped latter-day musical featuring members of Birmingham's street gangs. In and of itself, 1 Day - ragged, with flashes of energy and potency - wasn't much more than the kind of well-meaning community project the British film industry has always been overly fond of putting up on screen: the fact it ended up being withdrawn from certain Birmingham cinemas lent it a notoriety it didn't entirely deserve, somewhat like the police withdrawing their cover from So Solid Crew gigs on the grounds patrons might get so fed up with Romeo Dunn's idle boasts they'd begin stabbing one another for entertainment. Several years down the line, however, it's become clear that 1 Day was merely the beginning of a wider, more cheering project: it opened up a line of dialogue. 

In Autumn 2010, Woolcock was contacted by a young man called Shabba, one of Aston's Johnson Crew, with an eye to meeting the film's star Dylan Duffus, previously affiliated with Handsworth's Burger Bar Boys, to offer an olive branch. Shabba, it turned out, is one of life's questioners: as Woolcock's follow-up documentary One Mile Away begins, he's no longer aware how this rivalry - between two gangs separated by a postcode and the mile of the title - started precisely, and has come to wonder what the point of going on with it is, if all he and his contemporaries are likely to get from it is a headstone over an early grave.That fate hangs over innocents, too: the film is haunted by the murders of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis, shot outside a party attended by gang members on New Year's Day 2003, the convictions for which now appear shaky indeed. 

There's a whole film in this line of questioning alone, and as you watch One Mile Away skimming over the bare bones of the case, you sense Woolcock biting off more than she can adequately chew in her enthusiasm to effectuate change. What persists around it is a picture of trust: that Woolcock places in her subjects, who lead her after dark onto streets where to talk to your enemy (let alone a white authority figure like the filmmaker) is considered a mortal sin; and that Shabba and Dylan (and their respective factions) place in Woolcock, allowing her unrestricted access to a highly fraught peace process. Inevitably, suspicion lurks on both sides of the street, and the course and form of the gangs' dialogue will be altered and shaped by exterior events: a fatal stabbing in the Bull Ring shopping centre on Boxing Day 2010, and then - prefaced by archive footage of the 1985 Handsworth riots, offered as proof of the ways history keeps repeating itself on this turf - the inner-city riots of late 2011. 

1 Day was as flimsy and contrived as any other musical cobbled together in haste under the influence of the Step Up franchise; what elevates One Mile Away is how it crackles with very real on- and off-screen tensions. This time around, Woolcock's subjects are working this issue through for themselves, in their own words and argot, and while dodging bullets; it's a rough watch at times, but you can see both these kids and the film getting angrier and angrier as yet another obstacle (the unyielding indifference of the city's police force, the marked reluctance of both Burgers and Johnsons top boys to enter into negotiation, let alone appear on camera) presents itself. Any breakthroughs ("I don't think the system's fucking us; I think we're fucking ourselves", "This ain't a game", "We're getting conned, lads") are hard-earned, but doubly inspiring for that, and - one hopes - enduring.

One Mile Away is playing selected cinemas, ahead of screening on Channel 4 on April 11 at 11.10pm.

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