On 4 August 2011, Mark Duggan was shot dead by armed police. A few days later, riots erupted in Duggan’s home town of Tottenham, spreading out across London and into the regions. Scenes replayed on the news evoking memories of the Brixton and Broadwater Farm race riots of the 1980s. A year later, director George Amponsah and producer Dionne Walker joined forces to make The Hard Stop.
Amponsah was in the early stages of creating a music documentary, shadowing two “nice guys”, who had intentions of taking over the Afrobeat music scene: “I was shooting a teaser with them and they took me around their local area of south-east London; it was just post riots… I remember me being my middle-class, middle-aged self saying ‘it’s a bit of a disgrace, these youngsters causing mayhem ransacking JD Sports’. They responded, ‘yeah that’s true, but all of these buildings and businesses can be replaced. Mark Duggan’s life can never be replaced.’ They instinctively recognised that something wrong had happened. It made me think, ‘that’s the film I wanna be making.’”
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Amponsah and Walker originally met at a filmmaking network event. As Walker says: “George was still making his first feature, The Importance of Being Elegant (2004), co-directed with Cosima Spender. He pitched the story to me, and I was equally fascinated by the journey he was on with musicians Papa Wemba and Sapeurs as I was with the context in which they found themselves – though they were residing in Paris, they were from the Congo, this ‘other’ place.”
For three years, Amponsah and Walker immersed themselves in Mark Duggan’s world. The documentary that premiered at the Toronto and then London film festivals sheds light on the environment Duggan came from. Amponsah was convinced that by focusing on Duggan’s two childhood friends – Marcus Knox and Kurtis Henville – against the backdrop of their home on the infamous Broadwater Estate, the audience would get a sense of Duggan’s true character.
Although Amponsah’s vision was a hard sell at first, due to an initial lack of trust, “the family were sensitive to how they’d been portrayed in the media… It took a while for them [Marcus & Kurtis] to really understand what I was trying to do. We were about honesty, integrity and authenticity.”
With such a sensitive subject matter, the duo were keen not to let emotions dictate the way the story was told. “Our objective is to tell a story and engage an audience. When Marcus is in the cab on his way to being sentenced and starts crying because of the frustration of his friend and what’s about to happen to him, I don’t put down the camera, start weeping and put my arm around him, because I’d be doing a disservice to us as filmmakers and to our subject.” George continues: “The story that you see on the screen, we’re talking about over 130 hours of footage. It all came down to the editing… The emotional investment is in the edit.”
Walker said of accusations that the documentary is biased: “We started with Marcus but then he went to prison. There was a whole inquest… [then] you see in the film where it was a clear decision to follow Kurtis and his home life, which helped set the context of the film. It’s a microcosm, but there were wider issues going on… It’s not an investigative Panorama-esque TV format documentary. It’s an independent, observational, cinematic film.”
The importance of understanding your audience – how you’re going to get your story to your audience and being prepared for the long slog of securing funding is something a good many filmmakers forget, Amponsah says: “The hardest part in getting funding is the investment. We were very fortunate that the first bit came from Sundance. Then the BFI got involved and they didn’t just dip their toe in, they decided to fully support a film that’s British, made by British people, about one of the most seismic events that happened on British soil in the last few decades.”
Reflecting on what they learned with the film Amponsah says: “At least a third of The Hard Stop is shot with a Z1 camcorder that still used tape. That was the only camera I had access to. It taught me that all you have to have is a bit of heart and belief in what you’re doing and to just get to it.”
The Hard Stop was backed by the BFI Film Fund.
This interview originally appeared in BFI Filmmakers Magazine.