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Ultraviolence—giving voice to victims of killer cops

This article is over 2 years, 11 months old
Director Ken Fero talks to Socialist Worker about injustice and his new film Ultraviolence
Issue 2761
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A march for justice for Joy Gardner 

When director Ken Fero’s landmark documentary film Injustice was released in cinemas 20 years ago, the police went on a legal rampage. Their lawyers chased down cinemas that planned to show the film and threatened them until they withdrew (see box).

Even small, ticket-only, showings at the well-known haunts of the left were cancelled by venues out of fear.

Nevertheless, the depiction of state ­violence, directed primarily at black people, struck a chord with so many people that Injustice was shown at all sorts of impromptu events. The film’s audience grew organically, despite the crackdown.

Now, Fero is back with a new film, Ultraviolence, and once again police ­killings are the main focus.

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Using interviews with the victim’s families, sometimes intercut with actual CCTV footage of their loved ones dying in police custody, the film is tough to watch.

“We want people to be disturbed,” Fero told Socialist Worker. “The decision to put this footage in was agreed with the families—and it cannot be as distressing for anyone in the audience as it is for them.

“We can see with the George Floyd case how it impacted people, and people are traumatised.

“But the question is what to do about the situation. It’s not about the films. It’s not about filmmaking. What’s important are the demands for justice.”

Part of Fero’s objective is to spread the word of cases highlighted by Ultraviolence to a new generation.

He takes heart and inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement, but he also thinks there are things to be learned from past struggles.

“I think history is important in any struggle,” says Fero. “The importance of knowing about these cases is, if you don’t know your history, you don’t know where to go in the future.

“The other important thing is that the way the state and the mainstream media handle this issue is to always move on from the death. They’re always ­drawing a line. The lines can be heavy, like a public inquiry. It could be a light line, but it’s a line.

“But the families don’t recognise those lines. They don’t respect statutes of limitation. So the film is really to say to [new activists], some people did fight before, and there were victories, and it is ­possible to win.”

Fero also has warnings for ­campaigners today.

“We need to look at fundamental things, such as language,” he says. “‘The UK is not innocent’ is a slogan that’s going around. That’s quite a liberal slogan, because the slogan that I use is, ‘The UK is guilty’. There’s a difference.

“Look, for instance, at Malcolm X. Every time he was on television he had the ability to completely turn around [an interviewer’s] loaded question that was based on attacking him and the Black Power movement.

“So for example, he would be asked, ‘Do you condone the violence of the movement?’, and he would reply, ‘No, I don’t condone the violence of the police.’

“This terminology of ‘deaths in police custody’ is very soft, and was brought in by the liberal organisations that negotiate with the state but never get ­anywhere. We should be using the term ‘police killings’ instead.”

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“But there are lots for people like me to learn from the new movement.

“I’m not the kind of person that berates people for not knowing history if that history is not taught in schools. They don’t know because they haven’t been taught, and they haven’t been taught for a reason.

“That’s a specific reason in terms of ideology, and in terms of control.”

A key narrative in Ultraviolence is told as though it were a letter from one generation of anti-racists to the next.

“The film is, in a way, a kind of ­apology,” says Fero. “Not for the people who are fighting, but an apology to our children for the people that didn’t fight.

“That puts a kind of responsibility on older people. The film is aimed towards younger people, sure. But it also asks people, if your kids are on the street and campaigning for racial justice and other issues, why are you not with them? We have to accept responsibility as a generation.”

One of the striking features of Ultraviolence is the way it makes a link between domestic state violence and imperialist violence on a global scale. Fero says this is a vital point that isn’t made often enough.

He adds, “Of course, it’s a very ­different case when a soldier is killed in Amarah province in Iraq by the ­resistance to British imperialism, to a death in ­custody, but there are connections.”.

“There’s an organic part to it. Janet Alder’s brother, Christopher, was a ­paratrooper. He was killed by the police —so there’s a direct connection there.

“And, when Janet Alder ­campaigned for a seat in the general election, she ­campaigned on an anti-war and ­pro‑­justice platform. That’s a real ­connection, not theory.

“There are also connections in the unity between families of soldiers who are betrayed by the state, families of Iraqis who are murdered by soldiers of the state, and families in the UK.

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“At the moment, this may be a ­minority position. But it wasn’t a minority position thirty or forty years ago. Positions change depending on what people do.”

Ultraviolence is a film made for changing times, and Fero is hopeful for the future.

“We can see within young people that they have had enough, they won’t accept things anymore, and their demands are radical,” he says.

“They’re not interested in negotiating with the state. They’re not interested in improving the system. They’re talking about dismantling things.

“They want to dismantle systems and countries and everything else. And that is quite revolutionary when you think it’s coming from people who were not born in a period of struggle.

“Ultraviolence is a film of its time. We’re lucky, it takes years to edit, it just happens to be coming out right now.”

Showing Injustice was resistance

One of the main slogans on the streets during the Black Lives Matter movement last year was “Silence = violence”.

Fero says that the position that Channel 4 and the BBC took by not screening Injustice was an act of silencing, and therefore of violence.

“It allowed other acts of violence, committed by the police, it allowed killing by the police to continue,” he says.

“If Injustice had been shown on TV 20 years ago, it would have had more of an impact on policing. There would have been a bigger public outcry and something would have been done. Some of the people that have been killed since then could be alive today.”

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The mainstream media act as gatekeepers for the system, says Fero. Rather than questioning the state, they are there to protect it.

“When we made the film, we looked at our history,” he said. “We looked at what Malcolm X did in the 1960s. He went to the United Nations and said, it’s ridiculous to talk about civil rights when we don’t even have our human rights.

“We used that argument within Injustice.

“Second, we named and showed the police officers, together with the evidence, and said they were responsible for manslaughter and murder.

“That is something the media don’t do because of libel laws. But we asked whether the right to life is more important than the law of libel. And what happened with the film? Police solicitors legally threatened lots of cinemas and accused us of incitement to riot, and libel.

“So, we showed the film to the police officers implicated in the murder and manslaughter of these British citizens, and we told them if they didn’t stop harassing us and the cinemas, we would take them to court for loss of earnings.

“They then realised that they would have to stand in court and answer questions that they’d avoided for the past 30 years. And when we made that statement, it stopped dead. No more threats and the film got shown, and then became massive.”

The impact of the Injustice was huge. Many of the screenings were filled with young black people who had very few chances to explain what the police had done to them and their families. It was as though the film had given them, for perhaps the first time, a space to express their feelings.

“We had decided we wouldn’t work within the parameters,” says Fero. “We refused the guidelines, and we had to do that because this was our only chance. And that’s why the film had the impact it had.”

Fero acknowledges that politically we now live in a “different time”, but he has hopes that Ultraviolence will have a similar effect.

“The new film is not just to sit and watch,” he says. “It’s for people to take action.”

Passing the rebellion to a new generation

This is guerrilla cinema made amid a war with the state. The polished editing and the CGI effects of big‑budget cinema have no place here.

Instead, we have the raw voices of loved ones who have lost people to police killings.

Janet Alder’s campaigning will doubtless be familiar to many Socialist Worker readers. But to hear her story alongside apparently mundane police station footage puts it in a new light.

There on the floor of a custody suite reception, partly obscured by a desk, her brother lies dying while cops chat away. His last moans are barely noticed by the officers.

Then there are the meetings between bereaved families and the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The dry words of bureaucrats hang in the still air of cupboard-like rooms.

Everybody there knows there’ll be no justice through the system.

The only relief comes from the resistance. The countless meetings and protests keep the cases in people’s minds and grate on the nerves of the state.

Ultraviolence looks back at some of the most important cases of injustice in recent years.

It links them to the broader system of violence that has given us relentless war abroad and oppression at home.

It’s not easy to watch but will help pass the baton of rebellion from one generation to the next.

Ultraviolence, Directed by Ken Fero. Released in cinemas on 25 June and 5 July on BFI player.

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