One Mile Away
Four years ago I wrote this, a slightly hysterical but solid blog post about the film 1 Day. 1 Day is a grime musical starring actual members plucked from Birmingham’s rival gangs, the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew.
The article was written during a time where I was working in a Pupil Referral Unit in north Birmingham with kids that were gang members or vulnerable to them. The posts trepidation to the film coming out is an echo to my higher-ups absolute panic about the film which they (wrongly) thought would cause another spike in violence between these two gangs.
I eventually left the unit, and a large portion of me leaving was down to not being able to fully leave work at work, you get to know the kids and through that you are afforded small peeks into their worlds. Eventually this, and the sheer hard work it took to connect with them, wore me down.
The opportunity came for someone from PC to go watch a press screening of the documentary One Mile Away in which members of both gangs try to broker a truce through the director Penny Woolcock who became a trusted during the making of 1 Day. I couldn’t pass it up, so exhausted and still a little hungover from the weekend I dragged myself to Aston.
In a room that is normally used as a nursery I eat my chicken and drink urn brewed tea as three or four unassuming black guys mill around and press buttons on their laptops. We soon settle down and the documentary starts.
After a brief introduction which neatly puts the documentary in context, it starts as Penny is contacted by Shabba, a member of the Johnson Crew who can’t really understand the continuing violence between the two gangs. Shabba comes across as a charismatic, switched on, and evidently smart guy. Penny puts Shabba in contact with Dylan, who played the lead, Flash, in 1 Day, a guy struggling with his position as role model after being involved in gangs all his life and his celebrity after playing one on screen.
The pair eventually meet, a brave step and agree they both want to at least try to bring their sides to a relative accord. Dylan soon recruits some of the Burger Bar Boys including the larger than life Zilla. Recently out of prison for eight years. Things do not go as smoothly for Shabba who shows more bravery and patience in the face of the non-cooperation of his side than one would expect from the type of person national media would demonise as ‘vicious’ or ‘unfeeling’.
The documentary has some really nice moments, the sight of three gang members dressed in tracksuits and caps having high tea in china cups with Jonathan Powell, the man behind the Northern Ireland peace treaty, is a particularly charming juxtaposition. And when what sounds like gun shots go off at Handsworth carnival, it doesn’t matter if they might be fireworks, the panic is real and the danger the guys making the documentary and anyone mixed up in that world, becomes sickeningly real too. It doesn’t overstate the situation and isn’t afraid of explaining some of the slang used while refusing to follow the patronising current trend to subtitle anyone with a strong accent.
Although One Mile Away isn’t perfect, the linking device of having all the people making the documentary rap into the camera while moving through the streets of north Birmingham is leaned on a little heavily and can become confusing. The resistance they come across to have people appear in the documentary do lead to some frustrating ‘tell not show’ moments. And, this is purely personal, my brain, given the rough timeline and the background of most of the shots, kept on trying to triangulate and visualise where I was in time and space while that particular shot was being filmed.
The documentary is one very one sided too, the police do not give an official statement, and the only time they appear they are painted as unreasonable bullies or in the one lingering shot during the riots, scared, weak, and confused. During the filming a undercover police car is filmed following Dylan. Later West Midlands Police tried to sue the film makers for all of the footage produced so far to try and stop the film being made. They lost and were made to pay all the court costs. The animosity between the community and the police is very real. Shabba says right at the start about the Burger Bar Boys ‘I don’t see them as the enemy. I’d rather shoot a police officer’ and then adds ‘I’m more angry at them’.
But a documentary isn’t there to judge, it’s there to honest record events, thoughts, and feelings of the people involved. And its testament to the charm and the nobility of their cause of the people involved that they can say things like that, have the pasts they have, and still remain eminently likeable and engaging.
People won’t like the documentary no matter how noble the intentions, they won’t see past the earthy humour that marbles through it like fat on a good steak. They won’t like the swearing or posturing or the suspicious thick hand rolled cigarettes that are continually smoked throughout. But it’s those things that add the backbone of authenticity that will engage the people it needs too. Young people will connect to these things and read them as real.
And that’s what’s important. Afterwards the shy guys fiddling with the laptops became outgoing ambassadors for their company that now includes nine mentors/facilitators most of whom are ex-gang members themselves who have set themselves up to deliver training session, mentoring schemes and community outreach work. YT, a sharp suited and passionate advocate, fielded most of the questions he said ‘we’re still in a gang, it’s a gang of positivity’. Now delivered by anyone else that would sound hokey and rehearsed, but all of the guys exuded such enthusiasm for the project, you buy it.
They admit themselves that the documentary is a starting point, a way of getting the message across, the gang elements of it being the sizzle that sells the steak. Dylan explained, with casual authority, the real issue is kids growing up with no real prospects, violence not being the realm of gangs anymore.
‘Are you in any danger now?’ asks a pretty reporter in front of me, YT doesn’t even think before replying:
‘We were always in danger. But now we can help people’
And I think they can.
One Mile Away will be screening at Flatpack Festival on Tuesday 26th March.