One Mile Away

One Mile Away


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

"We're lost [...] We've got to make young black men, not niggas."

There's a strong sense of a community uniting against common enemies in Penny Woolcock's exciting, sceptical and politically charged documentary, One Mile Away. It follows the peace efforts of two major gangs in Birmingham - the Burgers and Johnsons - separated by a single postcode district, one mile apart.

Copy picture

The film doesn't make much of a distinction between them ("What's the war about?" "I don't even know, y'know."), other than there's a lot of gun violence, and the police don't seem to care all that much as long as they're only killing one another. "Normal people" murders in the media receive extensive news coverage, reward offers and nationwide interest; a gang death, by comparison, "doesn't even make the news".

One Mile Away is a fascinating picture, full of rich, interesting characters. It's accessible (title-cards wipe in and out to cover our gaps in street slang) and well-edited. It covers a timespan from Autumn 2010 to the riots across England at the end of the August 2011. History has repeated itself in Birmingham - the film shows archive footage of the 1985 riots, and the political fallout. It's described as "Pure, blatant hooliganism," an easy comparison with David Cameron's 2011 speech later on. Anyone following Woolcock's evidence can see that "criminality - plain and simple", is merely reductive, dismissive and populist thinking.

There has yet to be a fully detailed cinematic documentary about the riots, but this picture is a reasonable start. I suspect - depending on your political persuasions - you'll find evidence within One Mile Away to support either overt and repressive law and order policies, or policies to deal with the deeper societal issues within which crime breeds, and that which makes gangs a viable lifestyle for so many. Either way, there was no gang fighting whatsoever during the riots. The themes of community run deep.

The police response is baffling. They choose to censor Woolcock (demanding that she ceases filming, and strongarming the film's backers - Channel 4 - to turn over all her footage), and stonewall the community. Outraged, Dylan shouts at local officers in barely coherent rage. Speaking directly to camera afterwards - "You're probably thinking why's he acting like that? If it happened to you every day, you'd act like this." It's not hard to see his point.

Woolcock has gained extraordinary trust from gang members Dylan and Shagga, campaigning within their respective gangs for peace. She often steps into her own work. In order for Shagga to gain an influential follower, Zilla, Woolcock agrees to devote part of the runtime to highlight a probable miscarriage of justice involving anonymous witnesses, unlikely namechecking and disproportionate sentencing. She highlights the (ab)use of the judicial system using "unfair trials to combat social problems. It's not a remedy."

To further help in their ultimately political endeavours; they meet with Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former Chief of Staff and a key spokesman in the Good Friday Agreement. He speaks eloquently about the various trials of peacekeepers in Northern Ireland, and how they relate to the similar efforts in Birmingham. It boils down to the realisation that "a lot of this conflict resolution stuff is hard" - especially when dealing with innate distrust and rogue elements. In spite of their best efforts, the peacemakers hit several brick walls en-route.

The film is blessed with an excellent hip-hop soundtrack, with highly skilled wordplay; it's expressive, rhythmic, and above all passionate and highly focused. In what could seem like a gimmick, we're introduced to new people walking around the streets singing their music.

Instead of feeling false, it breeds ever stronger community and communication. It leaves me with a powerful yet hopeful experience; and it's almost certainly one of the year's best films.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2012
Share this with others on...
Documentary on gang violence, its victims and its perpetrators.

Director: Penny Woolcock

Year: 2012

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK

Search database: