To open his new documentary The Hard Stop, George Amponsah uses a Martin Luther King quote that acts almost as a catalyst for what follows: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” It’s with a view to providing the unheard with a voice that the filmmaker sought to understand the 2011 London riots and his search led him to two close friends of Mark Duggan, the Tottenham resident whose shooting by police sparked the unrest. The resulting film is an exemplar of fine balance, managing to be both a humane character study and issue-driven polemic, looking at the ongoing personal and social repercussions and contextualising the events.
That context might usually be front-loaded but Amponsah – apparently on advice from a Sundance Editing Lab that included the brilliant Joe Bini – opts for another approach. Instead the film begins with its primary focus, the two protagonists, Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kurtis Henville. First and foremost this is a film about them; about their lives, and those of their community and loved ones. Background is then incrementally offered: on the circumstances surrounding Mark’s death; on the explosive events that followed; on the painfully slow inquest; and on the history of the area, which looms large over everything and has done for decades. Over the course of the film’s runtime, even those unfamiliar with Mark Duggan, the riots, or the turbulent history of Broadwater Farm will be well versed, but not at the expensive of the individual stories.
Amponsah weaves that broader narrative into the individual lives of Marcus and Kurtis who prove to be eminently watchable, if not always entirely willing subjects. The director’s unwavering but empathetic camera feels like a more natural fit for the talkative and open Kurtis with Marcus a quieter, more contemplative, but no less enigmatic presence. Their respective stories highlight different but entwined aspects of the overall story, Marcus still facing incarceration for starting the riots, Kurtis struggling to make ends meat and support a young family with a prior conviction the albatross around his neck. These are undoubtedly difficult situations and weighty themes – Marcus disappears for a section of the film, serving time in HMP Pentonville – but this is far from a study in miserablism.
Both Marcus and Kurtis are likeable presences, with the latter in particular raising more than a few laughs with his disarming shtick. It serves to humanise those at the centre of the riots, with Amponsah building enough confidence with his subjects to film some incredibly intimate, painful and moving moments, not least after the inquest decision into Duggans’ killing. Archive footage and interviews offer numerous perspectives, but Amponsah never lets it tip the balance away from The Hard Stop’s true heart; its unheard voices.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson