Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Director Penny Woolcock on One Mile Away

"Change can only come from the inside" - Penny Woolcock, Director of One Mile Away, in conversation with Ross Whitaker, IFI Stranger Than Fiction Programmer 

Can you tell people a little bit about what to expect in One Mile Away?

One Mile Away is a documentary that follows two extraordinary young black men in their attempt to bring peace to their streets.  In Birmingham there are two notorious gangs - the Burgers and the Johnsons. They have been killing each other for twenty years although they suffer the same economic and social problems. If you are a young man of Jamaican heritage you are affiliated simply by being born in a certain post code. The film follows the initial meeting between Dylan and Shabba where they discover they actually like each other and their attempts to persuade others to stop hostilities and face the bigger problem. What is different about this film is that young men who are demonised are given a voice instead of other people talking about 'them' as a problem - and they use it in an articulate and eloquent way. There is a surprising honesty as they accept that they are at least partly responsible for their plight instead of always blaming the system. The film uses music to tell the story at key times. Gangster rap is often accused of inciting violence but their lyrics change as the story changes. After the riots in 2011 people started to really question whether their real enemy was each other... This is a closed world and the first time we have access to see what is going on and step inside their shoes.

What was the instigating factor that led you to revisit older ground and make this film?

I only made this film because Shabba telephoned and asked whether I would help him see if a truce was possible. He rang me although I am a white, middle class, London-based film maker in my sixties, I was the only person he knew who knew people on both sides.  He also wanted the process to be filmed because he felt it was important to document it. I agreed to help without realising that I was letting myself in for a couple of years of  stress and anxiety! But how often do any of us given a chance to get involved in something which saves lives? I couldn't imagine myself saying no.  

Did you feel as an outsider that you had a chance of making an impact?

This is not my war and it was not my place to stop it. But every peace process needs a neutral outsider to deliver messages, someone who can move between sides and talk to both. I am sure there are better qualified people out there but in the end it is all down to relationships and trust. There were a small number of people who trusted me - and many who didn't - and we didn't want to let each other down. A lot of the time I felt hounded by both sides and also by the police who were very hostile. It wasn't fun!

Do you feel that documentary film has that potential, to generate change in a positive way?

Yes absolutely. Art can be active in spaces that official organisations are not flexible enough to reach. In One Mile Away the documentary was integral to a process which is still going on and we hope it will inspire others to initiate their own peace movements. This has already started to happen. These little wars are being waged in all big cities and change can only come from the inside.

What has the reaction to the film been?

So far we have shown the film at the Sheffield DocFest and the Edinburgh Film Festival. We had a standing ovation in Sheffield and we won the Michael Powell Award for Best Film in Edinburgh. The response has been phenomenal. Education and music projects have grown out of the film and we hope support will continue to grow. Something tragic is happening on our streets and we shouldn't continue to ignore it. Sooner or later the guns will get closer. 

One Mile Away screens on Friday, August 17th at 20.30, as part of the IFI Stranger Than Fiction, Dublin’s Documentary Film Festival (August 16th – 19th). 
For more information and bookings, visit www.ifi.ie/stf, or call on 01 679 3477.

Official trailer for One Mile Away documentary.

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