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Eleven years after the release of Injustice, a film about deaths in police custody, director Ken Fero remains a relatively unknown filmmaker. Despite having received several international awards and being dubbed “one of the most powerful films ever made in this country” by the Guardian, the film was never broadcast on British television. Under heavy police pressure, during the first four months after it release Fero and the campaigners that were involved in making the film struggled to get the film shown at all. Injustice took seven years to make, as Fero and crew revealed the police cover -ups and followed the struggles of a number of families in their quest to establish what happened to their loved one, and the ensuing struggle for justice.
Over the last three decades, Fero has worked as part of Migrant Media of which he is one of the co-founders. Early productions include After The Storm, which takes the viewer through the experiences of a settled Arab community in Britain during the 1991 Iraq war. Tasting Freedom documents the struggles of asylum seekers in Britain for recognition of their basic human rights and investigates abuses on asylum seekers in detention centres and prisons. More recently, he has worked on Defeat of the Champion and his latest work is Newspeak, a short film commissioned by Press TV which uses poetry and Marxist analysis to investigate how media is currently controlled in the UK through power structures like OFCOM.
Eleven years after the launch of Injustice, I meet Ken to talk about his early work, filming Injustice, the struggle with the police, community activism and the media.
Below you can see the trailer of Injustice, you can see the entire documentary here.
KC: How did you get involved in activism around issues of race and class?
KF: I went to art college in the mid 80’s, and had no experience of film. The group we set up, Migrant Media, were self-taught, we just got the cameras and started messing around with it. Based in London, we grew organically and it was about intellectual growth, political growth and working with communities. We had access to a lot of Arab communities and smaller communities that weren’t really getting a look in, invisible workers you’d call them now. That’s what we are coming from.
We were a mix of people including a number of late migrants particularly from the Middle East and Latin America. The reason we started to make films arose out of our political work, as we tried to negotiate with mainstream media, particularly news outlets, to put forward stories about people’s experiences of oppression. We got fed up dealing with victim stories because we felt the movements of resistance weren’t really being dealt with. From then on, everything we’ve ever really done is about resistance, not just the victims, I think that is a crucial difference.
KC: As independent film maker, how exactly did you go about your projects back then?
KF: Traditionally in media, you get a commission, you’d get a bit of paper, you’d go to a commissioning editor, he or she would say whether it’s a good idea, or not. But the things we were dealing with weren’t covered in the media, so most of the broadcasters had no idea what we were talking about. So we decided as a collective that when we’d raise funds it would not go towards our wages but we would invest it in equipment. We started to document different struggles which meant we had something to show to the broadcaster. For example, if an issue had not been covered by the Guardian, Channel 4 would not be interested. You have to remember that this was before the days of the internet.
When Joy Gardner was killed in 1993, for example, we just went out and filmed the protest. Joy’s case was initially in a film called Tasting Freedom, which was about asylum seekers and deportation. We then made Justice for Joy (Justice Denied), and her case also features in Injustice. The struggle of Joy’s family will also feature in the follow up film we are currently making. So you’re talking about a relationship of 25 years, that’s a big relationship. That is the sort of process journalism we do. We don’t just cover an event but we become part of the struggle. Our intention was never to make products; our intention is to make change. And to do that we felt we had to document things and let that grow. We are objective in our approach but there is no such thing as an objective journalist. All we do is show the perspectives that have been excluded in the mainstream media.
Justice Denied, which was renamed Justice for Joy by Channel 4, who commissioned the film in 1995. Because it was a commission, we had to go through all the legal compliance issues with them. Part of the footage was a demonstration outside Hornsey Police station for Joy Gardner where certain people held up placards saying ‘Police killed Joy Gardner’. Channel 4 saw this and said that we couldn’t show those images, as this had not been proven in court. Three officers did go up for trial but were found not guilty of manslaughter. The trial happened on a Friday and the film was ready the Monday after. It was shown on Channel 4 at 9pm prime time, and there was a huge response to the film, and a very negative response. The reason for that was of course that people had only been fed one side of the story by papers like The Sun, who recycled stories fed to them by the police about Joy being a brutal, nasty person and an illegal immigrant– the reactions didn’t surprise us.
Channel 4, to their shame, refused to support us after the airing of the program. Despite the fact that we had previously agreed with Channel 4 that the film was a fair representation, they started to distance themselves from the film and we had to appear on Channel 4’s Right to Reply by ourselves, without their backing. We were the first programme ever to go on that show without support from Channel 4.
KC: The death of Joy Gardner also features in the film Injustice. How did that project start?
KF: Faced with a wave of complaints and police pressure Channel 4 said Justice for Joy was disappointing and told us that if we ever wanted to make a film for them again we had to tone it down significantly. Our response to that was to make Injustice. We knew about cases of deaths in police custody, but we realised that no one had actually documented the pattern. We were based in Hackney, Stoke Newington police station was just up the road, a station notorious for deaths in custody. By this point, in the mid 90’s, we had quite a reputation, so people would phone us up when there was a protest and we would go down and start filming. In the film, the first images are shot there in Stoke Newington, at a protest about the death of Shiji Lapite in December 1994. From then, all we did was just to follow the stories of the families who lost someone at the hands of the police. We didn’t know it would take us seven years, and we didn’t know we’d end up with a film. Sometimes that’s what you have to do – follow your instinct, your heart.
There was the death of Shiji Lapite, then Brian Douglas’ death. There had been quite a bit of opportunism within political groups of different persuasions who would use the family to push their own political position. People were also looking at it from a local perspective and no one had actually taken a step back and linked up a family from North London to one in South London. That’s what we started doing and that is the strength of Injustice. We got these families together in the United Friends and Families Campaignand it became a political project for justice.
Injustice started before the 1998 Human Rights Act, but we had taken lessons from Malcolm X, who in the 1960’s took the situation of black people in America as a human rights issue to the UN. We were presenting deaths in custody as human rights abuses in Britain, and they had not been looked at in that way before. Of course Britain does not like to be accused of human rights abuses, given the moral position it takes globally.
KC: What other considerations did you have to make, politically?
KF: Initially we were hoping that the film would be financially successful, and that we could put all that money to private prosecutions for murder and manslaughter, because that had not been done before. The police heard about this, and that is why they started to try and kill the film. They also thought that we would back down. Of course historically, broadcasters always negotiate with the police and more recently, through the Leveson enquiry the close relationship between press and police has come to light. It was no different thirty years ago. One of the reasons why Channel 4 and the BBC refused to get involved with making Injustice was because of that very close relationship with the police. Policing of course relies on consent, in London there are 16,000 police officers on duty to police 6 million people, that is a lot of consent. They will do anything to protect that trust – there was a lot at stake for the police.
KC: What happened when you launched Injustice and how did the police try to suppress the film?
KF: The thing about Injustice is that in terms of craft, and in terms of its journalism, it is as good as anything you will ever see on British television. That was very important to us, that it wasn’t seen as just an alternative or an underground film. This is why we had organised a launch in central London.
We had invited the ambassadors of Cuba, Iran, China, Pakistan, Libya and other countries accused of human rights abuses to the launch at the Metro cinema. Metro cinema received the first fax from the police threatening libel action and took the decision to pull the film. But because these ambassadors were present, within half an hour we got a call from the BBC. We went on the BBC that evening and explained we had made a film detailing human rights abuses and that the police were trying to stop us, but that we would not back down. Through that we got quite a lot of press coverage, attracted international interest and things started to happen very quickly. We also received invitations from Iran and China to show the film in those countries.
A week later, we booked Conway Hall, a centre of free speech. Lo and behold, on the day we are setting up the screen and a fax comes in from the police after which the trustees took the decision to cancel the screening. It was at that stage that family members of victims barricaded the doors and the film was shown despite threats from the police.
That story appeared in the Evening Standard. From then on things escalated and we worked out our strategy in dealing with the police when screening the film. The beauty of working with communities is that although we worked very much on our own producing the film, when the film was completed there were thousands of people across the world who jumped up to support it. They were the people that actually made it happen. If, say, we had a screening organised at a cinema, and the screening would be cancelled there would always be a pub down the road which would open their doors for a screening half an hour later. The police eventually realised the film would get shown either way, perhaps not in the planned venue, but in another venue up the road half an hour later.
Our basic position of course was that the law of libel, which the police threatened us with, was less important than the right to life. And if the police took us to court for libel, our defence would be to establish the fundamental truth about what is being said in the film is true or not. The actual incidents would have to be explored in court. Of course, how far this would have gone and what the judge would have said is another matter, but this was our strategy and the police realised we were not going to back down. We had the families behind us as well, so we were an entirely different breed to who they would normally deal with.
KC: What do you consider the impact of Injustice to be?
KF: At the end of the day, police repression affected us financially, but politically it was a huge success as it led to widespread coverage in the media. We realised the police had backed down and stopped harassing cinemas when the film was shown at the Black Filmmakers International Festival at Curzon Cinema, that was in September 2001. There was huge interest in the film nationally and internationally but people were nervous to touch it, and were waiting for the first screening to happen without a police threat. After the film festival and Prince Charles cinema screenings CNN got in touch, they showed half an hour report about the police repression of the film and showed Injustice in its entirety. That’s when deaths in custody went higher up in terms of the political agenda.
We were invited by the Crown Prosecution Service to organise a screening, and the Attorney General also attended a screening. This led to an overhaul within the CPS and a number of prosecutions, the case of Mikey Powell for example. I don’t think unlawful killing verdicts in inquests are victories, really. My position is that I understand why families would go down the route of an inquest in order to find more information, but really the inquest is a diversion from a criminal justice prosecution. The real victories were the abolishment of the Police Complaints Authority, which was replaced by the IPCC and the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service did in fact start to prosecute police officers for manslaughter in several cases. Unfortunately, no officer has ever been convicted for any of these deaths.
KC: How do you feel things have moved in with regards to deaths in custody since 2001?
KF: Thankfully, the media are covering the issue of deaths in custody more and more. Sean Rigg’s death was recently covered by Newsnight and the media are more on to it now than before. There is an acceptance and awareness about deaths in custody amongst the wider public now. But this has been going on for forty years, so it’s quite late. In any case, the media’s approach must be much more coherent, much more systematic, and the solutions have to come from the families, not the reformist ideas that the media tend to push.
If you look at the issues of race and class and multiculturalism, in 1971, with the Mangrove 9, was the first time that police racism had been successfully challenged in the courts. After that case the public became aware that the police were capable of lying. If you look at the Stephen Lawrence case, after that there was an awareness of institutional racism. People have become aware of police framing and corruption. The issue of deaths in custody is very different. First of all, it’s not just an issue of race or class and that’s why the police fought it. In other countries police officers do go to jail for manslaughter and murder. Britain is backward in that respect, but eventually it will happen.
Nothing will stop a police officer more than the thought that he might go to jail. When a police officer is standing up in an inquest and says: ‘My life was at risk, person X was going to kill me’, self-defence is the get-out clause. If police know that this get out clause is not easily available, they may think twice.
We’ve had unlawful killing verdicts in a number of cases in the inquests, so clearly, a jury would have ruled that this person was unlawfully killed. It only goes to an inquest when the CPS rules there is insufficient evidence. What the CPS argue is that the standard of an inquest is different in that it does not abide by a ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard but the evidence is clearly there. It’s just a matter of time before we can take these officers to the European Court of Human Rights.
KC: There is going to be a follow up film, correct?
KF: Yes. Since 2003 we have been documenting a number of cases of deaths in custody, and we are looking at the impact of the first film – i.e. the reform of the CPS and the IPCC. The thing is we cannot make another film that will lead to the abolition of the IPCC and sets up another Quango. The British state is very good at containment. Fundamentally, the film will be about the struggle of families but the approach and art form is going to be different, and we are dealing with that process at the moment.
KC: Your films have quite a reflective and sober tone, and they have made a deep impact on most people that have seen them. How important is form to you?
KF: Form is crucial, within the craft of media and journalism you have to go on the offensive, you have to challenge the mainstream and you can’t let the mainstream dominate you. It’s not about playing the role of alternative voice; it’s about taking over the mainstream. It’s the alternative that should become reality. This is why in 2002 we projected Injustice against the wall of the Channel 4 building, so as to ask: why aren’t you showing the film? You have to be that physical, you have to be that confrontational, it can’t be all polite negotiation.
To take a position means to take a risk. And it’s not a liberal debate – we have received numerous death threats as a result of Injustice. Some people would say that we should have toned down our message in order to get further within the mainstream, and we would have been able to say more. But if you were do that, because you’re not putting your position strongly enough, you’re not offering any resistance and end up saying nothing at all. We have to ask the question – what hope is coming out of our message? We have to offer a struggle to get involved with, because that’s what we as human beings want, by nature.
KC: You don’t seem to employ much technical trickery in your work.
KF: No, you have to keep it simple. Resources are scarce, but it is also a style we prefer to use. It goes against mono form, the idea that there is one way of working and that you have to constantly tell an audience what to feel and what to think. I think that is the strength of Injustice. The film has a strong political line, but it is not banged into people’s faces. For instance, the word racism is not used in the film once. It’s clear when you show the film that the victims are black and that racism is at work, but is not explicit. Which is when white people see the film, they cry, people relate to it on a human, on a universal level. It is not presented as a race issue. That is not a liberal position we take, but it is about how we relate to each other and about the ghettoes we are placed in and the mental ghettoes we sometimes put ourselves in.
KC: How have you managed to sustain yourself as an independent film maker over the last few decades?
KF: Badly. But my advice to young people is: don’t be afraid. You’re not going to starve – it’s as simple as that. It is a question of overcoming fear and it is very difficult to do that individually. You must work collectively, with people who share your goals. Just the sheer act of coming together with a group of people and working on a political agenda is a radical act. That’s what we did thirty years ago, and if we can do it, anybody can.
If you look at media from a Marxist perspective, in terms of means of production and means of distribution, we now have the means of production, and limited means of distribution. Once you have that, what do you do with it? I think the call for unity is very important, people have to work together. The basis of any successful struggle has been unity. I have to say I’m a lot more optimistic than I was ten years ago in terms of youth and activism, there’s a huge amount going on and there is a lot of awareness. That critical mass is building and we have to keep pushing.
You can sign the United Families & Friends Campaign (UFFC) petition for an independent judicial inquiry into all suspicious deaths in custody here.
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