Penny Woolcock talks to gangsters

The director of Birmingham gang-peace documentary One Mile Away talks outsider empathy, police harassment and social-enterprise DVD giveaways.


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Penny Woolcock and her cast at the Edinburgh International Film Festival premiere of One Mile Away

Penny Woolcock and her cast at the Edinburgh International Film Festival premiere of One Mile Away
Credit: Eoin Carey © EIFF, Edinburgh International Film Festival

Penny Woolcock’s new film One Mile Away is a documentary follow-up to her UK grime musical 1 Day (2009). For that film, which dramatised the gangland ‘postcode wars’ blighting the streets of Birmingham, Woolcock cast non-actors from one of the gangs, including lead actor Dylan Duffus. In 2010, she was contacted by Shabba, a member of the opposing gang, who asked her to put him in touch with Dylan to bring about a truce. One Mile Away tracks the pair’s movements as they attempt to work together to put a stop to the violence, in the face of opposition and widespread anomie.

Part film, part social-action project, One Mile Away is a moving work which generates considerable emotional resonance from its depiction of young men committing to change their parlous social conditions. Empathetic and deeply humanist, it makes sense within the context of a diverse body of work from a director who has to date delivered the likes of sensitive social commentary (the Northern Newsreels in the 1980s), incisive civic observation (the Tina trilogy, 1999-2006), gritty romantic drama (The Principles of Lust, 2003) and, recently, a heritage documentary which made brilliant use of the BFI National Archive (last year’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond, 2012).

I sat down with Woolcock to discuss her entry into the world of filmmaking, her status as something of an industry outsider and the key challenges of creating and developing One Mile Away.

One Mile Away is not your first film to focus upon a marginal inner-city community. What is it that draws you to these types of stories?

The most honest response I can give is that I feel like an outsider myself. On the surface I’m a middle-class, white, north London filmmaker; but I’m not ‘English’. I was born in Argentina and grew up there in a marginal community. Though the Anglo-Argentine community certainly wasn’t a deprived one, it was very stifling and oppressive.

I fled when I was a teenager and became involved in radical politics, and ran against the law quite early on. I left some posh school and within three months got arrested. I made choices then to get as far away from the centre as I possibly could. I spent 15 years as a single mother on either social security or income support myself, so I’ve certainly experienced levels of financial poverty that the people I like to work with have.

To what extent was your becoming a filmmaker a continuation of your penchant for dissidence?

Filmmaking is something I fell into in my mid-30s. [Woolcock got her start in the burgeoning indie scene of north-east England in the 1980s.] Initially I was a painter; I always liked painting and writing. I decided I wanted to make films without knowing anything about it [the artform]. I suppose now the film work’s relatively established, but because I didn’t go into film school or university, I didn’t know anybody. I always feel I’m on the outside. But sometimes what I have to say is interesting to people and then I’m allowed to make the films I want.

For a long period, I did very menial jobs. For example, washing up in a hospital for three and a half years; working in the field as an agricultural worker; working on printed circuit boards in a factory. It’s not a normal life! That period was not an unhappy period. I felt very alive and connected. You constantly have to juggle things and I was in the thick of it.

So I think one of the things I bring to my work is that I don’t patronise people, or condescend to them or think their lives are any less interesting or rich or emotionally satisfying as anyone else’s. In some ways, when you’re on the edge, it can be quite exciting.

And was there a tradition of political cinema that inspired you?

It was films like The Battle of Algiers, which I saw when I was about 20, before I ever dreamt I’d be making films. It wasn’t even that I loved it – I was disturbed by it. I didn’t understand what it was: fiction? Documentary?

I remember stumbling out of the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road feeling like someone put a bomb in my head – I’ve returned to that film many times. It’s partly the documentary techniques for ‘fiction-writing’ a real event, but also an unflinching view – not romanticising the revolutionaries or the colonisers, because they both do awful things. That way of looking at something without having victims, which I always think it very insulting to oppressed people – just because you’re oppressed, you can still do good or bad things, still have agency.

In my film Tina Goes Shopping, people aren’t just sitting around and crying; they find another way of getting by. They’re not sitting around waiting for handouts; they’re taking control of their lives and replicating the worst aspects in capitalism – the drug trade is incredibly lucrative.

This idea of people taking control of their own destiny is certainly reflected in the origins of One Mile Away…

Yes. Shabba called me and asked whether I would help him, because I was the only person he knew who wasn’t police and knew people on both sides. And I very naively thought ‘yes’.

I then called Dylan. He took a sharp intake of breath and went quiet but eventually said “Well, I have to do this.” We all believed that somehow we’d persuade key people on both sides to shake hands, and have photographers there!

Of course it was much more difficult, much more complicated – two steps forward, six steps back, wading through mud, frightening at times. But it was also an extraordinary privilege to be part of changing something.

We know for a fact that people would be dead if it wasn’t for that. Many people aren’t in prison who might be. One of the young guys Dylan and I talked to early on decided not to join his friends in an armed robbery; they got caught and are now doing 25 years, while he’s not. I feel really honoured to be part of something like that.

Shabba and Dylan Duffus

Shabba and Dylan Duffus

It’s an unusual film in that the initial drive to get it made came from the subjects rather than the director. Did you find any conflicts of interest when you were trying to craft a narrative?

I really resisted that temptation to craft too much of a narrative here because I personally don’t like being lectured. Moreover, what’s uniquely powerful about One Mile Away was indeed that the initiative came from the inside. It was very difficult for me as a filmmaker because I’m used to initiating my own projects; this time I was responding to a request.

This idea of organic storytelling is something that stands out in One Mile Away. You don’t lead the audience; you’re keen to let the characters talk.

Well, at one point we had to explain certain things – if you’re not from there, you don’t know who the Burgers and the Johnsons [the rival gangs depicted in the film] are. We had to set these things up.

There was quite a lot of pressure on me to do a voiceover, but I thought that would be excruciating and wrong. It would have been a different film, very patronising. They’re actually perfectly able to articulate their own situations.

I have a huge respect for the poetics of grime and hip hop music [the film features several to-camera raps]. People who don’t know how to listen to it are just hearing: “gun, bang, kill, sell drugs.” Sometimes that is the story, but the way that it’s told is by using sophisticated techniques.

There’s a dissonance between the artistic persona and the self in hip-hop music – a performative element – that runs back through the history of black music. Often that’s not picked up on, or purposefully ignored, in the mainstream media, and the image becomes everything…

Yes. Something that incenses me is that the police and Crown Prosecution Service use people’s raps on YouTube as evidence against them in court – as if their poetry were a confession. Madness – it’s a metaphor!

Politically, too, there’s a thing about who’s allowed to speak. I’m normally allowed to speak, but when I’m in the hood with black guys I start to be treated like a young black man myself, and it was very interesting to walk in those shoes.

The police actually chased me down for my rushes four times, took me down to Crown Court to take them. Channel 4 were very good and we managed to win the case, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. It was guilt by association.

The police kept trying to ring me up and ask why I was talking to gangsters – I thought, “I’m not working for the police, I’m not committing a crime, why should I tell them anything?” We were constantly followed around by police in a silver Audi, and the guys knew, but we didn’t know!

Recently we were in Birmingham with a magazine photographer and guys from both gangs. The police came by really slowly four times, craning their necks out of their windows to see what we were doing.

When we did the production stills, the police actually raided the photo shoot and arrested one of the guys because they couldn’t get into their heads that they couldn’t be together without them killing each other or cooking up some criminal plot. You couldn’t even have a photo shoot!

It doesn’t happen to me in London at all, but there, it’s constant. Of course, people in those communities overreact when policemen come up.

How important do you think being an older woman was in how you were received by the gang members?

I think if I’d been a young black man it would have been impossible. It was fairly dangerous at times, even for me, but nobody’s going to go around boasting, “Oh, I managed to kill Penny”, and think they’re going to get respect for that!

Plus, sadly, we live in a racist society: if someone kills me they’re going to do 35 years, because I’m white and female and middle class. When Joanna Yeates was killed in Bristol [in 2010], everyone knew about it. The same month, I think three kids in Peckham were killed, but we don’t know their names.

The fact that I was older and there was respect for older people meant I could yell at people and get away with it. Being white, female and older were advantages. There were times I definitely got away with things that I wouldn’t have done had I been male.

How did you feel about the riots that erupted in the summer of 2011, and what kind of impact did they have on the film?

To be honest, in the year leading up to the riots we’d gotten virtually nowhere. The only thing we managed to achieve by that point was taking the sting out of a word that had previously been so explosive: ‘truce’. Mentioning a truce was tantamount to saying you’d just bend over, but then it became something that could at least be discussed. But we hadn’t really managed to persuade anybody. Their world was closed, hermetically sealed, everybody knows everybody else, and so the outside world doesn’t impinge on them.

In Hackney there are 29 gangs, and kids who live in very small areas and never leave those worlds because it’s too dangerous. What happened with the riots was a reminder that there’s a bigger world out there, that there are other people like you feeling the same levels of frustration, and who are doing something about it.

Now, it might be inchoate, unplanned, with no clear objectives, but something happened that really made people sit up and take notice. So along with the talks of truce, suddenly everyone’s wondering, ‘Who is our real enemy?’ For me, the riots absolutely helped this process.

The riots weren’t a surprise to me – I don’t think you can have the profoundly divided society we have and assume we’ll all just get along. Either we accept that violence erupts and then crack down on it, or we accept it and don’t care that they’re killing each other. Or we could make alliances with people in the communities to change things – because locking people up doesn’t work. It costs £40k per year to lock someone up, millions on court cases; why not spend that money on something more useful?

Looking ahead, what are your plans for the distribution of this film?

All along our ambition for the film has never been to make money; the idea is to get this into areas where gang lifestyle is a real problem and get people listening to others. In that sense Zimba [a key character in the film] and Dylan are brilliant, because they’re known in Brixton and Hackney.

We’re doing a two-pronged thing with Brit Doc Films. There’ll be a limited theatrical release at the ICA, Rich Mix and some Picturehouses, which we hope will reach middle-class people like me who would like to know what’s going on and to support the film. And we’ll also pirate it ourselves in association with VODA and Brit Doc; we’re going to give the DVD away to kids in various inner-city areas so they can distribute it.

With the blessing of the filmmakers… that’s almost unheard of!

I think so. And the funders have absolutely said that this is what this film about, this is about changing the world, so everyone has been really good about not expecting any return on it.

We’ve shown it at the Edinburgh Festival and it won the Michael Powell award [for Best British Feature Film], which was amazing – it’s the first time a documentary’s even been in contention. Our ambition is that the film will be in the places that it needs to be.

Is it because it’s a ‘social issue’ documentary that you’re comfortable with this egalitarian form of distribution?

It’s because the kids who really need to see the film don’t pay 14 quid to go to the cinema and won’t pay for the DVDs. It’s just accepting that’s the world we’re in and that’s the audience we want.

Brit Doc applied for and received funding for us to do this – I think from the Bertha Foundation, who’ve been very generous with us – so we can give away the DVD.

Do you keep in touch with the participants?

Every day. I don’t see them everyday, but I talk to people everyday, and they come down to London to get business training, and I’m part of the social enterprise delivering the film to schools.

One Mile Away is released in UK cinemas on 29 March 2013.

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