When riots and looting swept through UK cities in the summer of 2011, those involved were widely condemned by the political classes and media as ‘feral youth’ engaged in ‘sheer criminality’, while attempts to examine the sociological causes were labelled as apologetics for thuggery.
Riots Reframed, a debut documentary by filmmaker Fahim Alam, aims to challenge mainstream representations of events in that explosive week by giving a voice to some of the young people caught up in the disturbances. Interspersed with sections of spoken word and music, the film is a retelling of the historical forces that led up to the breakdown of order.
Race and racism
It starts with a simple but powerful exposition of the events in Tottenham, North London - how 29-year-old father Mark Duggan was surrounded by 31 officers, chased and shot - and it is hard not to agree with its contention that this was an act of ‘extra-judicial assassination’.
Race forms a central pillar of the filmmaker’s analysis. Despite triumphalist talk of institutional racism being eliminated following the MacPherson report into the Stephen Lawrence murder, it shows first-hand that discriminatory treatment of young black and Asian men by the long arm of the law is very much still alive today. A refusal by police to speak with Duggan’s family until two days after his death and their brutal assault on a 16-year-old girl protesting in the following days - cited by many as the final straw that sparked the riots - merely illustrate this disconnect.
Rather than an isolated incident, Duggan’s murder is placed within the context of the 1,433 deaths following police contact since 1990 – none of which have led to a conviction. A picture is built up of years of simmering resentment within minority communities, based on genuine grievances and a sense of police acting with impunity. Instead of a paroxysm of violence, the initial riots are framed as an anti-police uprising.
A virtue of the film is that it allows people caught up in the riots to speak of their actions and experiences without the crass dramatisation, selective editing or sensationalism typical of TV documentaries. In one poignant scene, a man who threw a petrol bomb at police tells of the harshness of prison life and the difficulty of adjusting once out again. There is a candid and sincere quality to the speakers - who include community organisers, people on the street, cultural commentators and anti-racism activists - which stems from their belonging to the communities affected.
But the film struggles in other areas. A London-centric approach neglects the dynamics in other areas, such as predominantly-white working-class Salford. Similarly it glosses too easily over the acquisitive nature of the riots. A focus on attacks against large chain stores and sports shops, which are depicted as emblematic of anti-corporate rage and a product of a consumerist society, fails to acknowledge the often indiscriminate damage done to small businesses as well as violence against innocent bystanders.
As a film made on a shoestring budget, Riots Reframed is impressive in its scope and the thrust, even if holes can be poked in its overarching narrative of ‘resistance’. As a social commentary it neither condemns nor condones, but through a bottom-up method of oral history provides an important re-interpretation of the riots.
Riots Reframed is produced by VoiceOver and was first screened at York Hall in Bethnal Green in East London in March. More screenings will be announced in the coming weeks. For more information visit the website.