Last year the summer riots in the UK were relayed to me via French and Spanish TV whilst on holiday. Domestic events were given an added critical distance through the eyes of other countries’ media. The shooting of Mark Duggan by police perhaps got lost in the media representation as unrest spread from London throughout England. The story has reappeared in discussions about the inquest into his death. His family have been waiting almost a year to find out what happened and recently the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) requested a change in the law allowing them to use phone tapping evidence as currently they could not reveal all at the inquest.
This story about race and the police got me thinking about a shocking and inspiring film that I watched recently at the Bristol Radical Film Festival called Injustice (Fero & Mehmood, 2001). The documentary looks a 30-period from 1969 to 1999 when more than 1,000 people, the vast majority black British, died in police custody in the UK. The film concentrates on a number of cases, including Brian Douglas, Shiji Lapite, Joy Gardner and Ibrahim Sey, and their families and friends who are still seeking justice.
Injustice does not only question the British justice system but also puts censorship, media representations and documentary-making (production and distribution) under the spotlight. The film was pulled from general release in 2001 after legal threats from the Police Federation. Moments before its launch at the Metro cinema in London, solicitors representing the Police said they would sue for damages if the film were shown. Similar cancellations occurred all over the country but, showing the depth of feeling, at the Conway Hall in London spectators barricaded themselves to watch. In response Fero was forced to rethink his means of distribution:
“After the film was pulled from cinemas, following its UK release in 2001, I decided to organise screenings across the country and internationally, as part of film festivals and at private showings in small independent venues. As a filmmaker, having your work seen and appreciated is essential, and the response from audiences and the media across the globe has been very positive and encouraging for those it sought to help.”
At the screening in Bristol, I hadn’t realised the film’s censored history. Of course distribution is paramount to the representations that the majority of us see and after watching the film, it occurred to me the valuable contribution this film could have made to the TV landscape. Fero said that he asked BBC, ITV and Channel 4 if they wanted to produce the film but concerns about libel were raised and also that the story wasn’t ‘new’. (see BFI article) Actually the power of the film is that it doesn’t show ‘new’ stories but catalogues the experiences of family after family over 30 years. To a large extent these ‘ordinary’ families, whose lives had become a struggle for justice, speak for themselves. Refreshing in a commercial TV landscape post-docu-soap.
In the vérité tradition of documentary with narration by actress Cathy Tyson, the filmmakers clearly are involved in the families’ campaigns and stories. Interviews with those involved are intercut with still images of the victims and their campaign for justice. A pattern of shared experience emerges as their stories unfold making uncomfortable viewing.
Mediated representations can alter not only the coverage of stories but the stories which get told. Certain claims were made about those who died – often re-articulations of racial discourses (drug-dealer, gang member, illegal immigrant) and then the story does not get as much coverage as if it were a more ‘media-friendly sympathetic’ (and white) victim.
Police voices are absent from the film (other than a statement at a police conference saying how distressed police officers were after a killing in police custody and at a protest for Brian Douglas). Fero said that he asked the police for their input but they refused:
“Even if we had got the interviews I don’t think we would have used them, because everywhere the families went they faced brick walls and visually we wanted to get that into the film.”
Now the film is on Vimeo, so we can watch, make up our own minds, share and discuss. I’m pleased that the Bristol Radical Film Festival screened this film and would recommend watching it in the communal cinematic space if you get the chance. Let me know what you think.
Ken Fero is currently working on a new film called “Who Polices the Police” about the IPCC. You can also get involved with the campaigns at United Friends and Family Campaign Central.
Want to read more?
Article about the Bristol Radical Film Festival in the Birmingham Post.
Useful article in Sight and Sound called My Tears Will Catch Them from 2001.
In-depth interview with Ken Fero in The Multicultural Politic.
Film blog on the Guardian on why Injustice did not get a cinema release.