Film

Bullet Boy (2004)

Mia Jankowicz

Bullet Boy begins by the stylized violence book: a boy, locked in the boot of a moving car, uses a key-ring torch to get an idea of his surroundings.


Bullet Boy

Director: Saul Dibb
Cast: Ashley Walters, Luke Fraser
MPAA rating: 15
Studio: BBC Films
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2005-04-08

Bullet Boy begins by the stylized violence book: a boy, locked in the boot of a moving car, uses a key-ring torch to get an idea of his surroundings. As soon as he starts banging the inside of the boot, the driver, Wisdom (Leon Black), stops to investigate, then lets him out. The boy is 13-year-old Curtis (Luke Fraser), and he's locked himself into Wisdom's car in order to accompany him to pick up Curtis' older brother Ricky (Ashley Walters) from prison.

Ricky and Curtis live with their mother Beverley (Clare Perkins) in a state-funded flat in London's Hackney, one of the poorest areas of the inner city. Beverley has prepared a surprise welcome party for her son, but Ricky goes straight out to see his girlfriend Shea (Sharea Mounira Samuels), join his friends, and go dancing. Cuts between the failed party and Ricky's socializing neatly illustrate a tug-of-war between the major forces in his life that have only just taken the strain.

Reproached by his mother and probation officer for bunking off, Ricky contemplates his job prospects (summed up by Curtis as: "Can I have a hamburger please?"). It's not as though Ricky doesn't want to play it straight. But his loyalty is also tied to Wisdom, whose sense of macho pride is far quicker to surface. On the journey home from prison, Wisdom made enemies after he accidentally broke a car wing mirror. Ricky can't help but be caught up in tit-for-tat retribution. By breaking up a fight that Wisdom will probably lose, he only obliges Wisdom to overstate his determination to win.

Amid such clichés, Bullet Boy offers a vibrant reconsideration of the inner city genre. Its palette enhanced by the ubiquitous primary-coloured wall paint of state-funded interiors, the film emphasizes the regulated patterns of urban architecture (rows of garage doors, goalposts stuck into a playing field like staples). This low-key backdrop showcases the rather more tumultuous events and relationships.

Although the relationships and events assume a chaotic complexity, there is one element that is brutally simple: a gun. On the day Ricky is released from prison, Wisdom shows him his new acquisition, and soon after finds a reason to use it. The film's focus on only four or five days illustrates the acceleration of violence that a gun makes possible. Without the gun, animosities might simmer down, or be resolved in a fist fight, or Ricky's attempts at making peace might actually work. Instead, for Wisdom, it's a case of have gun, will shoot.

Ricky is less fatalistic, slowly realising that if he wants to escape the escalating violence and avoid driving Curtis in the same direction, he needs to get out. Leaning out over the balcony of his dismal Hackney council block, Ricky is face to face with the hazy, shining skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, revealing one of London's most essential characteristics, its neighbouring and often mutually exclusive worlds. It's a moment that recalls Dorothy gazing on the distant Oz in The Wizard of Oz. Ricky wants to leave (Hackney? London? It's not made clear; as with Dorothy, "getting out" is more a metaphor than a plan) to allow Curtis to transfer his attention to more stable role models found in his mother and her Christian boyfriend Leon (Curtis Walker).

The only concrete source of stability for Curtis and Ricky comes from Leon's religious outlook. With Beverley playing strong but ineffectual single mother, the father figure and the church (here, embodied in the same person) becomes a source of guidance in the family. Beverley experiences a religious epiphany during one of Leon's sermons, walks up to the pulpit and embraces him. While she and he understand it as a giving over to guidance and love, it also comes off as a submission to patriarchy.

But if Beverley is stuck, Curtis might escape. His relationship with his best friend Rio (Rio Tison) mirrors Ricky and Wisdom's earlier years. (The device also allows the film to avoid flashbacks into Ricky and Wisdom's early teens -- which in turn remains intensely compressed.) Curtis and Rio exist before the requirements of macho loyalty and the grind of post-education urban life make themselves felt. Curtis, however, is easily seduced by Rio's daring. The gun catalyses action, putting Curtis and Rio into a potentially violent situation that seems almost a flash-forward, a look into their future that has come upon them too quickly.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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