Sophie Mayer interviews Penny Woolcock about making her last film that documents attempts at truce by members of two warring Birmingham postcode gangs
Penny Woolcock’s One Mile Away has been called “the most important British film of the year” and is certainly one with the most compelling journey to the screen. It started in 2009, when Woolcock shot hip hop musical 1 Day, using non-professional actors from Birmingham. After it screened, Shabba, who she’d met as part of her research but who did not end up starring in the film, got in touch with her, asking to be put in contact with Dylan Duffus, a man who played lead role of Flash. Dylan and Shabba (left) live around one mile away from each other, hence the title of this year’s film, but the need for a middlewoman was urgent: they belong to the Burger Bar Boys (B21) and the Johnson Crew (B6) respectively, Birmingham postcode gangs locked into battle. Prompted by a rash of shootings, Shabba decided to try to broker a truce in an unorthodox way.
Under the gaze of Woolcock’s camera – which she has previously used to bring other marginal communities, including homeless women, into focus – Shabba and Dylan work the streets to try and bring their contacts, one by one, into agreement. Despite guidance from Jonathan Powell, who oversaw the Northern Ireland peace process, it is only the 2011 riots that bring some success, as youth from both gangs fight the police together. The film ends with this new shared energy directed into making music together and building a social enterprise (see the interview below for details). The film’s life off the screen – with a major outreach project being funded by a Kickstarter campaign – is as remarkable as its making.
It is the fruition of a unique career in low-budget community filmmaking. Woolcock, with a background in theatre and painting, caught the attention of a producer from Channel 4 at an evening class in filmmaking. After a few years on a magazine programme Northern Newsreel, she made her first feature film in 1997, Macbeth on the Estate. Her subsequent career has woven together ‘high’ art – particularly John Adams’ operas – and community arts, culminating in 1 Day and Exodus (2007), her Biblical-art-ritual journey through Margate. She’s been best known for The Tina Trilogy (Tina Goes Shopping, Tina Takes a Break and Mischief Night), three films set in Leeds made between 1999 and 2006 in collaboration with Kelli Hollis who plays single mother Tina across the series.
Q&A with Penny Woolcock
Mischief is the guiding principle of Woolcock’s work and her characters: a canniness about resisting authority, a deep sense of pleasure in doing things their own way. I caught up with Woolcock as she prepared for a unique night at BAFTA, screening One Mile Away and hosting a Q&A with the cast. Even over the phone, her delight and pride in the achievements of Shabba, Dylan, Zimbo and the other former Johnsons and Burgers was evident, as was her commitment to the chaotic authenticity of the process as she described going along for the ride.
One Mile Away is incredible. There’s so much to take in – so much sharp analysis of our society, so much infuriating oppression and waste of talented young people, so much violence. What was it like for you making it?
It was absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. By agreeing to help Shabba, I got out of my depth. We were trying to do something that’s not just in a filmmaker’s brief: an attempt to actually change the reality that we were filming. I’ve got no experience at conflict resolution, so it felt like I’d stumbled into something I didn’t understand. The boys were risking their lives; and that made it a painful and stressful process. More so than for me, although I didn’t sleep for a year from the stress. If I’d been killed, the killer would have been looking at 35 years. I’m a white, middle class woman, it would have had relentless media coverage. But for the boys it was way more risky, and there’s much less attention. BBC1 Xtra initially committed to making the news each time someone was killed in gang violence, but there were just too many people. In one weekend in London, three boys died, and it didn’t even make the Evening Standard. It’s a hidden plague, these boys killing each other.
In the film, we see a shooting at Carnival and hear about stabbings among early teens reported with a kind of eerie calm. The violence seems so entrenched, as the cast themselves point out. How did they (and you) achieve change?
The only place where gang violence has reduced, across the UK, is Birmingham. One of the community support officers came in to the One Mile Away social enterprise and told us January was the first month in Birmingham in 15 years with no gun crime. As you see in the film, the police didn’t trust us – but now they’ve seen the effects, they’re starting to come round. It’s the same with the gang members: they didn’t trust us, they thought we were in it for attention or money.
What we realised is you could not just say to people: “Stop”, because they say: “What are we going to do?” If you’re not a soldier, you’re nobody. So we set up One Mile Away as a social enterprise for the twentysomethings to show the younger kids there’s something different. Zimbo [the rapper whose music opens and closes the film – SM] is the head. I’ve never seen anybody change as much. If you follow Zimbo on YouTube, you can hear it: his lyrics are different [than before – AO] because his reality’s different, his head’s in a different place. He gets the teenagers in, and says: “You can wait til you’re our age to fix up. By that time, your friends might be dead or in jail, you might have been stabbed or shot or done time. Or you can fix up now. You can go off and do your thing and come back, we’ll still be here.” And the kids say: “We’ll fix up now.” I can never turn my back on those boys and One Mile Away, and I’m happy to keep that involvement: sometimes if there are disputes, they ask me to come in because I’m a neutral.
The team on stage at BAFTAs (Dylan Duffus, Zimbo Freemind, Yt Miller, Penny Woolcock and Trevor Nelson) © LAURA PALMER
Given your commitment, “neutral” seems like a counter-intuitive word! How have you found the balance in your work, between its passionate commitment to marginal communities and its observational, often quite drily funny style?
As much as I admire filmmakers like Ken Loach, there’s a tradition on the left of romanticising poverty and poor people in film. So I wanted not to sentimentalise people: a lot of people do turn to scrounging and gaming the system, but I want to tell that story in a non-Daily Mail way that shows people surviving. I admire that spirit. I was brought up in Argentina in this dreadful expat community and I couldn’t wait to get away. I ended up in Europe with a baby at 19, completely skint and with no skills: I spent 15 years on the poverty line. It wasn’t miserable: I had friends, I was painting, and putting my hand down the sofa to get coins for milk. I think if you look at the edges you can learn quite a lot about what goes on at the centre. I’m not saying I want to go back to it, it was bloody freezing and you had to think about quite small amounts of money, it was quite boring. But it was a much more eventful time, because everything turns into a bit of adventure. That’s not to fall into the trap of how lovely it is living on the edge – but there is something about that spirit that we can all learn from.
I think of Mischief Night as a key title for all your films, because there is this vein of mischief that runs through them. One Mile Away‘s hopeful ending doesn’t tidy away the lives it depicts: the boys don’t give up grime and become office workers…
I’m interested in a certain kind of irreverent spirit: in Argentina, there were these shanty towns I could see on my way to school – I always wanted to know what was going on. Other people would be afraid because the inhabitants talked loudly and burst into public spaces. Of course, there is really dreadful poverty, but I always thought they looked like they were having a better time than I was. I was once doing a film in South Wales and got to know a godfather on the estate: he didn’t believe I worked for the BBC, so I drove him up to Bristol. I thought he’d be impressed by the studios, but he couldn’t wait to get out: he saw people in offices, so subdued and boring.
Grime fits into that. I love grime: I love hip hop as well, but grime is authentically British and ours, it’s fascinating. I love both punk and classical – I like extremes! 1 Day was my opportunity to find out what was going on with these young people, mainly boys but not all, rapping to beats on their phones. I worked with a friend from Stone’s Throw record label, who put me through hip hop school. When we were shooting One Mile Away, the guys would drop into freestyling or battling. The police use lyrics in court as if they’re documentary, as if black people can’t be poets and reflect an inner picture. But I started to hear how clever it is: how people who don’t have a voice tell their stories.
In One Mile Away, it’s mainly men we see expressing themselves – apart from Taymar, who is awesome. It seems like a shift from The Tina Trilogy, which has a female point of view. Was that a deliberate change in your work?
The ‘hood is totally segregated, and the film reflects that. We made sure, with One Mile Away, they set up projects for women, and run by women for girls, because the women are part of that culture: they admire the boys who have money, and they participate, holding guns and money, but they’re not out on the streets. I have written a script about the female side of ‘hood life, but can’t get anyone interested – I’m not giving up on it, though. There are a lot of really good female rappers I’d like to work with. All the young women in the story are related to a young man who gets killed, and we then follow their stories.
It’s amazing that One Mile Away got funded! Dylan and the others talk about the wilful ignorance and negligence of the government and police as long as crime stays within the black community. How did you get the film off the ground?
Currently, all filmmaking is very, very, very difficult. Budgets are much smaller, and you’re scraping bits of money together from here, there and everywhere to finish your film – or even start it. But I don’t like to moan. You’ve just got to keep fighting for what you believe in. Luckily [former cabinet minister] James Purnell got involved: BritDoc had an event called Good Pitch for social justice films, and I did a session about my documentary On the Streets. I wanted somebody in government to pay attention to the fact that homelessness is a mental health issue, not a housing issue. James, whose sister Katie founded BritDoc, was there, and I asked him if for help with that. And he did get me in, with a clinical psychologist, to talk to politicians about homelessness, abuse and mental health: a report was written but I don’t think it’s made any difference, but they may be taking it more seriously.
But I’d just had the call from Shabba, so I was telling him about that, too. And later that night, someone asked what he was doing since leaving government and he said: “I’m producing Penny’s next film.” He got money from Barrow Cadbury, and introduced us to these radical nuns who let us stay in their convent. He brought in Jonathan Powell, who was really helpful, and he also helped with getting press and raising money for the social enterprise. Never give up! That was true with the peace process and the filmmaking. You had to have a certain kind of tenacity.
In some ways, it seems like that tenacity is the lesson the former gang members learn, to redirect their energy and strength from fighting each other to fighting for something. That seems like a huge change.
It’s true: if you show weakness in the ‘hood, you’ve had it. As you’re walking around in town, if you see another black man, you’re immediately engaged in status battles. It’s a tragic thing that there’s this culture of aggression and needing to assert yourself over another male. Does it go back to slavery [as one man in the film suggests – SM]? I don’t know. But it pulls people down. It’s one of the central points of the social enterprise, and of the outreach project. It’s why we have the boys coming to the screenings and doing Q&As. We talk about how what seems like exerting strength is actually being weak.
To support more screenings of the film on #RoadToFreedom Tour, please donate to Kickstarter campaign
Pictures are from the film’s Facebook page (BAFTA conversation) and the website. Used with permission.