Filmmaker Ken Fero, of Migrant Media, examines the role of the media in documenting political struggle.
‘If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.’ Malcom X
The power of film to document stories, inspire action and agitate for change has run hand in hand with revolutionary cells, social struggles and mass movements. One of the critical points of our current situation is a rupture within our communities that prevents the support of independent media producers. More than ever we need media collectives that truly reflect relevant issues with a clear political analysis in a committed and radical way. Until we produce our own regular media – to inform, educate and mobilise –the majority of peoples’ received wisdom is going to be mired in the racist redtops, the chattering broadsheets and the dominant opiate of the masses – currently known as television. None of these sources are useful in terms of self-determination whether this is based on race, class or resistance. After all, there can be no stronger destruction of political will than to tell a people that no change can happen and that for that message to be repeated every day. This is the role of mainstream media, to suppress the truth and to destroy hope. Yes, the internet has provided some access to the means of distribution of word and image but what is lacking is the sustained control of the means of production.
As a filmmaker I have spent some time, decades in fact, documenting the struggles for justice by the families of those that have died in police custody. Whilst the films we have produced have helped to mobilise people, have had a political impact and have been lauded across the world at film festivals, they have never been shown on British television to the shame of every single broadcaster in this country. There is a strong correlation between the fact that there has never been a successful prosecution for a death in custody and the fact that broadcast media have chosen to cower to police threats. Even more than that, Channel 4, for example, by not focusing a light on the crimes that have been committed against the very citizens that the broadcaster claims to champion has, by default, supported the right of the police to use lethal force.
It’s a sign of desperation in our communities when we show gratitude to the BBC and their ilk if, once in a blue moon, they deign to dabble in the issue of deaths in custody and dip their toe in the blood spilt by police officers. In a country that prides itself on freedom of the press, the BBC should be covering this issue as often as it happens, which would mean on a very regular basis given that there are two custody deaths on average every week in this country. Of course, as a mouthpiece of the state, this is not going to happen; so no surprises there. A little more complex is Channel 4 and its delusional role in our psyche. This broadcaster claims to be independent and does not shy away from ‘controversial issues’ and yet the number of programmes it has made about deaths in police custody are very rare indeed, just three in its thirty year existence so that’s one every ten years. This is an act of collusion.
In terms of the few that it has produced, each had to fight its way in. I do want to praise the films they commissioned and tried to bury or distance themselves from and they include The Peoples Account, a very strong film by Ceddo (now sadly defunct but the talented director Menalik Shabazz is still very active) about the 1985 uprising in Broadwater Farm, the very rarely seen Mysteries of July by the inspiring Black Audio Film Collective (now operating as Smoking Dogs Films, one of the most talented group of creative media producers working today and still headed by the very thoughtful John Akomfrah) and finally Justice Denied recently released online to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Joy Gardner (produced by Migrant Media who have a raft of films on the resistance to deaths in police custody to its credit – including the very influential Injustice still supressed by Channel 4 and the BBC since its release in 2001).
All these films grew out of collectives that were based in the community and were driven by passion, commitment and with cultural and/or political objectives. These were not the only ones, active workshops were based in all the major cities of the UK. Where have they all gone and why are they not thriving? Making films in a truly independent way is a hard struggle in itself. You need to be able to survive the lack of financial support and resist the censorship, death threats and actual violence to keep functioning – and this is just from elements of the state. The enormous pressure means films are rare rather than regular, as they could be.
Of course there is hope, new technologies have allowed a plethora of young media producers and bloggers which is healthy. Let’s hope they have the decades of determination that are needed to make an impact. So what about all of us, our neighbours, our friends, what can they do? It would be too easy to just condemn the community for its unwillingness to support locally-based media collectives, what is needed is a shift in the use of economic power. Why is it that some people cannot live without SKY but can live without justice? It’s a question everybody needs to grapple with and part of the answer is to start supporting grassroots initiatives linked to communities of resistance. Given the constant media bombardment supporting the spectacle of ‘democracy’ this may be hard to imagine but waking up the majority to the historical reality of collectives, and the established fact that the mainstream does not care about us, is another step towards liberating minds.
Watch a trailer for Po Po here
Watch Po Po here