“They actually have the ability to…to kill. And they’re not sanctioned for it, in any way.” When police officers commit murder with impunity, what possible course of action can be taken by devastated families? When the CPS and IPCC conduct sham investigations, more to save face and keep the lid on cover-ups than to bring convictions, what happens then?
Brenda Weinberg, sister of Brian Douglas – who died at the hands of police in south London in May 1995, is one of many voices in Ken Fero’s Ultraviolence that is afraid; and so she should be. So should we all. Threatened with lawsuits and personally harassed after his 2002 film Injustice brought to light shocking acts of police brutality, Fero knows all too well the lengths to which the closed ranks of the Met – and other forces – will go in order to protect their own, rather than safeguard the public to whom they have an avowed duty.
Many years in the making, Ultraviolence is nonetheless a continuation of Fero and writer Tariq Mehmood’s former project. Though most of the archival footage and interviews here take place in and around 2005, the ongoing cycle of violence, denial and injustice has continued unabated until 2020 – with people of colour more often than not falling victim to racially-motivated attacks. Rightly focusing on the subjects and substance of the matter at hand, Fero does employ various flourishes of arresting visual style to underline his lucidity of argument. Godardian intertitles in striking red and blue consume the screen at regular intervals, echoing – or rather amplifying – the messaging of banners and placards.
Seen at marches in memory of the many men who have died in police custody, they also appear at the 2005 anti-war demonstrations which reacted to the UK’s illegal excuses for joining the Iraq conflict. Broadening the strokes of his indictment of broken establishment functions, Fero demonstrates that complicity in – or apathy towards – a regime’s acts of violence in the name of liberation (or fictitious WMDs) in faraway lands is just as significant, and harmful, as families constantly let down by the British judiciary for domestic acts of terror committed on their own citizens: “War is another name for mass murder.”
The now infamous images of children horrifically burned by napalm in Vietnam are compared to the effects of white phosphorous used in Iraq and that only in changing people’s thinking, how they view violence and its effects, will mistakes of the past be learned. Burying one’s head in the sand is no longer possible when young British lads are coming home from war in coffins, and the same feeling of revulsion should be felt when men akin to these soldiers are killed in police cells. The visceral shock of deaths we witness first hand via grainy CCTV footage from within police stations is a necessary affront.
We must all confront the reality of watching a man breath his last whilst lying prostrate on the floor of a cell as guards and officers around him laugh, make jokes and brag about the arrest. Because that is what happened. How else will people actually stand up and take notice? It is in the seemingly minor details that the enraging, endless cycle of inaction that Ultraviolence plays out. Official letters are delivered by hand to Downing Street by grieving wives, mothers and sisters, calling on the Blair government to reopen investigations. Responses come years later from the CPS and other authorities, announcing no wrongdoing, no grounds for prosecution or other such excuses for sweeping proceedings under the carpet.
It is telling, then, that although not concerned with a linear narrative, Fero employs an epistolary voiceover to his son, loosely cut into chapters – or Memories – as a call to arms, a lesson to the next generation. Perhaps they will deal with these issues differently and that there hope for the future. These campaigns may be endless, but Ultraviolence ensures that the fight goes on; that the names of Christopher Adler, Brian Douglas, Jean Charles de Menezes, Paul Coker, Roger Sylvester and Nuur Saeed will not be forgotten. Made with defiant conviction, this is a fearless, unflinching, but above all compassionate piece of documentary filmmaking that cares deeply about the people whose plight it tells. Enough is enough, it is time for change.
The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63