Sunday, 14 April 2013

One Mile Away, easily one of the best films I've seen this year, is now showing on 4OD. The documentary follows efforts to establish a truce between two opposing Birmingham gangs locked in a bloody 'postcode war' - the Burger Bar Boys (B21)  and the Johnson Crew (B6). Director Penny Woolcock met people from both sides while researching her 2009 Hip Hop musical 1 Day. One of them, Matthias "Shabba" Thompson, would go on to be the catalyst for this film.

After escaping unscathed from an encounter in which he thought he might be stabbed or shot, Shabba, a Johnson, began to consider initiating a peace process. "He called me simply because I was the only person he knew who knew people on the other side," Penny told me when I interviewed her last month for IdeasTap. Shabba asked Penny to introduce him to Burger affiliate and star of 1 Day, Dylan Duffus. He also suggested she document the process so that if they did achieve something substantial, the film would prove they had been the ones to initiate the process, and would hopefully encourage others to do the same. Penny "immediately said yes" and took Shabba's proposal to Dylan. "There was a silence at the end of the phone," she recalls. "He said, 'Well I’ve got to do it,' but I think he had a sense of how difficult it would be."

"Difficult" is something of an understatement. During the two years of making the film, there were long stretches, recorded in detail in the film, in which the men's attempts to reconcile the two sides, and Penny's attempts to film them, seemed doomed to failure. "For months we weren’t allowed to pull out a camera. People were going, 'I’ll smash it on your head and kill you if you start filming.'" The truce, the film, and Penny especially, were viewed with intense suspicion. "Some people even thought I'd made 1 Day as some elaborate ruse to get back in there because I was working for the police."

The power of One Mile Away is that it shows a peace process as you imagine it must feel from the inside - arduous, precarious and painful. It wasn't just paranoia that Shabba and Dylan had to contend with, but also their peers' emotional investment in the conflict. "People would say [to them], 'You’re a traitor, my friend's doing life in jail for this thing and now you’re saying that it’s all got to stop, that it's pointless?'" Where there times when they seriously considered calling it off? "We all, at various points, wanted to give up but never all three of us at the same time. There would always be one saying, 'I think we should keep going' and then the other two wouldn't want to let that person down."

And ultimately, their has perseverance paid off. "It’s still not a full truce but there’s a group of people from both sides in the same office working together and going into schools and youth clubs and mentoring kids," says Penny. One Mile Away's educational tour kicks off on 15 April, taking the film's message of peace to young people at risk of gang involvement across the UK. I've already donated to the Road to Freedom tour. You should too!

Watch One Mile Away now on 40D.

Read my IdeasTap Q&A with Penny Woolcock.

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