Monday 7 October 2019

LFF 2019: White Riot (UK 2019: Dir Rubika Shah)

The viewing audience at the London Film Festival screening of White Riot was collectively asked who had been present at the now legendary Rock Against Racism/Anti-Nazi League march to Victoria Park, in London’s East End, in April 1978, an event featured prominently in Rubika Shah's new documentary. I proudly raised my hand, along with about a quarter of those present. The problem was that it was a punter who asked the question during the post screening Q&A, not the people who had made the film. Why was that a problem? I'll come to that later.

The Rock Against Racism movement shone briefly from 1976 to 1982, its momentum boosted by affiliation to the Social Workers Party sidearm the Anti-Nazi League. RAR was created at a time when racist attacks were on the rise, the National Front were marching on London's streets and the police, some of whose senior officers were also NF members, were unwilling to tackle the problem. RAR's focus on racism in music was specifically a response to Eric Clapton's infamous address to a 1976 concert audience, in which he drunkenly endorsed the views of Tory Minister Enoch ('Rivers of Blood') Powell. RAR's gigs were unprecedented in their support of the movement's aims to achieve “a rank and file movement against the racist poison in rock music,” underscoring their explicitly political message with bold scheduling of punk and reggae bands on the same bills.

White Riot charts the formation of RAR by Red Saunders, a photographer and Agitprop performer, who had been a fan of Clapton's in the 1960s and was shocked and outraged by his 'send them back' comments. RAR's growth as a movement, mainly achieved through the gigs, its cut and paste magazine 'Temporary Hoarding' which aped fanzine culture of the period, and sheer bloody hard work by a small number of people, mirrored the corresponding rise of the recruitment of disaffected youths - largely working class skinheads - by the NF, headed by John Tyndall.

Talking heads in the documentary are fairly thin on the ground. Apart from Saunders, contributions from the RAR workers are a little on the anodyne side (and the DIYness of their recollections, delivered rather laconically, often feels quaint rather than passionate). And of those musicians interviewed - Clash drummer 'Topper' Headon, Matumbi's Dennis Bovell and Pauline Black from the Selecter (who to be fair didn't come on the scene until the second wave of RAR with Two Tone records, technically outside the scope of this doc) - are very much of the 'we helped out' variety, rather than offering any significant cultural perspective.

So it’s largely left to the images to do the work, many of which are admittedly incredibly powerful. Anyone who has watched the opening scenes of Jack Hazan and David Mingay's 1980 docudrama Rude Boy (which provides a lot of the archival material for this film), particularly after a gap of many years, will not fail to be shocked at the tribal, anarchic footage of late 1970s London, with police, skinheads and political agitators engaged in angry, vicious and sustained street fighting. Viewed through the prism of history this footage remains troubling, in the same way as, for example, the ongoing conflict on the streets of Northern Ireland around the same time. But the problem is that such footage also becomes redactive if not accompanied by any attempt at contextualising it in terms of present day political considerations. What was the lasting impact of RAR? Did anything change? This aspect, sadly, is totally missing from the documentary.

And herein lies the problem with White Riot: by accident or design the filmmakers have created a historic artifact whose contemporary relevance is left for an audience to deduce. The post screening Q&A, with Shah and co-writer/producer Ed Gibbs in attendance, attested to this. Asked by one audience member whether their non contextualised, archival approach to documenting the events on screen could potentially 'fossilise' them, rather than rendering them powerful and still relevant, Shah simply did not understand the question. In a later response regarding the choices about when to end the RAR history - the film culminates with footage from the 1978 Victoria Park gig, again extensively borrowed from Rude Boy, and TV news shots (much of which was not subsequently broadcast - another fact not followed up within the film) - Shah responded that she wanted to offer audiences 'a happy ending.' It seemed that the filmmakers were happy for White Riot to be received as an exercise in curating archival footage into a linear story, the achievement of this being the single criterion of success for their film (Shah and Gibbs were more passionate – and confident - in talking about the mechanics of making the film, such as rights clearances, than the theories behind it).

Perhaps it's wrong of me to include the filmmakers' Q&A responses in a review of the documentary, but I refer to my opening comment by way of a conclusion. Shah clearly wanted White Riot to portray an important and historically pivotal collection of events (and call me cynical but I’m not sure about this: I don't recall any significant political or police based policy shifts arising from RAR’s work, and indeed any happy ending looked for would have been seriously compromised by one fact - the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979). But should it really have taken someone in the audience to ask the question that finally connected the events on film with lived experience? Not every picture tells a story.

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