Filmmaker and activist Ken Fero’s documentary, Ultraviolence (2020), confronts the disquieting reality of deaths of people at the hands of the UK police. Since 1969, over 2,000 people have died in custody. Fero looks beyond a number of cases to witness the unrelenting struggle for the pursuit of justice by the families of the victims.
A political activist and documentary filmmaker, Fero’s previous work includes Justice for Joy/Justice Denied (1995), about the death of illegal immigrant Joy Gardner and the trial of the three police officers implicated in her death. In 1992 he directed After the Storm, broadcast on BBC 2, that explored the impact of the Gulf War on the experiences of the Arab community living in Britain. In the previous year, he directed Britain’s Black Legacy (1991), which looked to the struggle for justice and equality by the Black community.
In conversation with PopMatters, Fero discusses British society and its troubled history, and the hypocrisy following the murder of George Floyd.
To begin, what was your initial interest in this subject and why did you decide to make Ultraviolence?
I started up a documentary film collective [Migrant Media] in 1991 because there were things happening in the community that weren’t being addressed by the mainstream media.
We focus on issues around race and class, but mostly around resistance. Not the story of victims, but stories about the victims and the people who are left behind, and what they’ve tried to do about it to get justice. This film started with a film about Joy Gardner, made for Channel 4 called, Justice for Joy/Justice Denied. It’s still available on Channel 4’s online player.
It was the first time we came across the issue of deaths in custody, and we decided to focus on it. Since then we’ve made Injustice, which was released in 2001, and Ultraviolence. We felt there was a story about the families beyond the cases and what’s on the news that needed to be gone into with some analysis to look at the systemic problem.
When we made Injustice it was well-received, but people likely don’t know that Channel 4 and the BBC refused to show it, and the Police Federation tried to stop the film from being shown in cinemas. When we made that film we thought it would shift things and it did, but then we kept on filming.
When we make films we don’t decide, ‘This is a film we’re going to make.’ We don’t go out and make it, then show it. We get involved in the subject and spend years documenting it.
It’s fortunate that what we saw in the film, and what we tried to say about the connection between what the British police and the British government do, in terms of wars abroad, is one that a lot of young people see. It happens to be luck that it became a film about our time.
It’s important that people know about the background, the history, and the context. There are many different ways of doing documentaries, some are made very quickly and some take a long time. Ours tend to be more reflective than reporting, and reflection takes time.
With the current “cancel culture” picking up momentum, should we be concerned about the threat of censorship? Is this an issue that we’re guilty of having ignored?
As documentary filmmakers who work in the UK, we were surprised when we started getting into this subject of how much self-censorship there was within the media on this particular issue.
The BBC and Channel 4 don’t have to do what a country that has a censorious attitude to culture and to filmmaking would do, because there’s agreement within filmmaking and journalism about certain limits. We don’t believe in those limits, for example of libel, when we’re talking about the right to life. There has to be a balance between what’s important in terms of what’s on film and what’s said. We try to push those boundaries and encourage other people to push them too.
When we made Injustice, it wasn’t supported by any TV company or station. On its release, it had an incredibly strong reaction with journalists who started coming forward. They found it was an opportunity and space for them to say things they couldn’t have said before, and that was positive. Many organisations who before wouldn’t have been aware of it necessarily, found the opportunity to show Injustice, and now Ultraviolence.
It’s amazing that the BFI have taken that step and it’s very brave of them. They’ve done it because they’ve recognised the value of the film. They’re aware of the UK film culture and film audiences, particularly young people that want to see new ways of filmmaking that deals with subjects that are important to them. It’s about pushing forward and getting more people to step up and say, “Yes, I’ve always known this was the case. Now I’m going to do something about it.”
We’ve had death threats and legal threats over the past 30 years because of the kind of work we make, and censorship as well. Some people find it unbelievable that this can be happening in the UK, but it is, and people have to be aware of it. They have to do something about it if they care.
Talking to people who lean towards the Right and are pro-Brexit, their rhetoric suggests Britain is being oppressed and denied something by the EU. You can sense a desire to return to the past, yet our history is an unsettling one. This is propagated by portions of the media that seek to create an unreliable narrative.
I don’t blame people that have been denied their history, who have not been taught about the crimes under imperialism and colonialism. They’re given a certain point-of-view every day in the media and the news about what Britain is, and what Britain has done. They’re only reacting to what they’ve been fed. It’s not an excuse because they can go out there and find the information.
The beauty of social media is that mainstream institutions are being challenged. On TikTok, #Palestine can hit 600 million people and it’s completely ignored on the BBC. These are the times we live in and it’s positive.
For those people who don’t believe and who question, I would say watch these kinds of films and think hard about them, because they’re not just about the subject. You have to ask yourself, “Why is it that you’re viewing what you’re told is restricted? Why is it, for example, that Love Island (Brent Baker, Mark Busk-Cowley, Tom Gould, Joe Scarrat, 2015) is promoted so heavily and films like Ultraviolence and others that are similar aren’t? There’s a reason, and you have to think deeply about that.
Are you optimistic that young people have the curiosity and desire to create change? My concern is that we still do not teach politics which can motivate political engagement.
I’m hopeful. Over the past ten years, what I’ve seen in terms of environmentalism and school children going on strike, the Me Too movement, and Black Lives Matter (BLM)–are all youth movements. These are young people who have looked at how we’re living, not just in the UK but across the world, and have decided they’ve had enough. I hope they maintain that spirit.
This upsurge of demonstrations we saw around BLM for example, was impacted by Covid. I know for a fact that these young people are determined, and they’re not going to give up. The film is written for that generation to say, “This is what has happened in the past, there were failures, but there were many victories. If only you can organise, there can be change.”
In Ultraviolence, the power of protest is juxtaposed with the dismissive nature of institutions. British society largely fails to embrace political engagement, which is a cornerstone of democracy. Only in elections do the electorate have a voice, when their voice should be heard the year-round. Your film reminds us of the exploitation by government, institutions, and those in positions of power to not only exploit democracy but also the ideals of justice.
One of the strongest elements of the film is around resistance, the fight back and how people organise. Jean-Luc Godard spoke about how it’s not a question of making political films, but about making films politically.
We make films politically and what I mean by that is we work with people over a long period of time. They get involved in the production process, their struggles become our struggles. There are other filmmakers in the UK and internationally who follow that approach. Organising with people and talking with them is important because the reason politics with a big P is unappealing to young people, and is so powerful, is that it essentially excludes any room for debate between ordinary people. Their views are important, and it’s not about soliciting them every five years. They should be part of the decision making process all of the time.
We are now getting into a huge debate about how capitalism operates and the role of democracy. The reason we wanted to make this film was to say to people that these things are happening in your name. You know about them, and if you don’t do anything, then your silence becomes part of the violence, which is part of the slogan that has been on the streets for the past three or four years.
I’d say to people watch Ultraviolence, watch other films. There’s a huge film culture in this country that’s well represented by the BFI that doesn’t get as much mainstream coverage as it should. Switch off the television, go to the independent cinemas, get online, and watch these independent films. There are many filmmakers that are bringing the truth and the real experience of people.
There’s nothing stronger than direct communication, and that’s why we’ve made Ultraviolence. It’s not only about people watching others getting involved, but seeing there’s something they can do. Together with the film, there’s a whole political movement, as there was with Injustice.
We just have to remember that on the issue of policing in this country, the case of the Mangrove 9 in 1971, which has been made into a film by Steve McQueen [Mangrove, 2020], was the first time that in any court a police officer had been exposed as lying. It made a huge difference within the judicial system.
Then with the Bradford 12 case, when 12 young Asian men charged with terrorism defended themselves and won the case, they established the right of self-defence. With the Stephen Lawrence case in terms of institutional racism, and the Daniel Morgan case recently in terms of corruption, we can see there has been some progress over the 30 or 40 years. People shouldn’t lose hope and say they can’t do anything about it.
Wim Wenders said if you watch something every single day, and the message is there can be no hope, which is ultimately what television says to people, you’ll give up. I’d say to people get out there and see these independent films, and use your own judgement. I trust in people.
Are there any independent filmmakers you’d recommend?
Rather than put it down to individuals because there are literally hundreds, it’s about where can you see these films. I keep talking about the BFI, but it has an archive where you can go and watch these films. There are lots of independent filmmakers around the UK. There’s an organisation called The Radical Film Network. I couldn’t point to one or two individually, but it’s about independent cinema and independent voices that speak for the nation, that are made for the nation.
One of the troubling things about Ultraviolence is how there appears to be a value placed on a life. In a justice system that’s supposed to ensure every life is as valuable as the next, it’s troubling that we have to discuss how the justice system has failed and continues to fail in this regard.
If you look at a period like the 1960s when there were movements around feminism, anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism in Africa and across the Middle East, and also the Black Power movement, it was a very strong period. What was called “solidarity” then is now growing again between different sections of the community and internationally. We try to reflect this in the film. When people talk about “intersectionality”, that’s just solidarity.
In terms of the value of a life, this is why people need to be educated. This is why people have to accept that imperialism happened, and accept that Britain’s role in the Middle East was important in terms of its destabilisation. People have to accept that colonialism happened and is still happening in terms of people’s lives in this country. The value of an African, the value of a Palestinian, and the value of an English person is on a scale. It’s on a scale of how it’s represented in the media–people can be killed and not named, becoming nameless figures for example, and yet people in the UK have a photo and a name as they should have. This value of a life is something important that people have to take on.
From the point-of-view of [Ultraviolence], we wanted to cover the war in Iraq, and that mothers of soldiers were also grieving. These are all important points. It’s an organic thing, not only a political position. Christopher Alder was a paratrooper and yet he was killed in this country by the police. This is real life and people have to accept it. If you go out into the streets and talk to people, you know there are connections there. This is how we live, this is something we have to take on and do something about. Talking is fine, but the film tries to encourage people to take action.
Britain is more likely at risk from Americanisation of our culture than it is from our European neighbours. Are we guilty in this country of seeing police brutality as a problem in America, when it’s one of the many deep-rooted problems that we’ve failed to resolve?
My question would be, what is British culture? British culture is a very international thing. Britain is part of Europe, and there’s no such thing as European culture without Britain. It’s ridiculous to have these divisions, borders, and lines that are drawn, because those lines don’t exist in our daily lives, in terms of who we are and who we deal with. It’s just a point to make about people who are narrow-minded and are living in the past.
This past they’re living in, some period when Britain was great is a lie within itself. It’s something that people have to come to terms with. This period they want to go back to is a period when Britain was responsible for mass murder in some countries, with its involvement in wars and destabilisation. It has to be looked at and dealt with so that people are aware of it and can deal with it.
The death of George Floyd had a huge impact in the United States and the ripples were felt over here. It was surprising that many organisations, individuals, and celebrities were very quick to condemn the killing of George Floyd, but had no word to say about the deaths we have in this country. There’s a hypocrisy, and it’s something the film tries to question.
Anybody who was horrified by the death of George Floyd, as we all should be, anybody who said black lives matters, anybody who lives in the UK and was concerned with what they saw, should put the same energy and attention into what’s happening over here. Many people have said it’s different in the UK, that it doesn’t happen over here like that.
We’ve had over 2,000 cases of people dying at the hands of the police, or in police custody, and we’ve only had two successful prosecutions in the past 50 years. There’s a serious problem and that’s a fact. If people can’t deal with those facts, then they’re hiding.
I’d say to people, yes, care about George Floyd, do something about what’s happening, but we have to look at our own backyard before we start criticising anyone else. Before we start using a situation abroad to make an excuse for where we are today.
Ultraviolence is available exclusively on BFI Player now (UK only).