“The political will is still not there”: Ken Fero on his potent police brutality documentary Ultraviolence

In the long-awaited follow-up to his controversial 2001 documentary Injustice, Migrant Media’s Ken Fero returns to the subject of police brutality in the UK. He talks to Flora Spencer Grant, one of the critics on our LFF Critics Mentorship Programme.

Ultraviolence (2020)

Ultraviolence exposes state violence in a way that leaves a lasting, shocking impression. The documentary is a damning indictment of a racist system that has had fatal consequences. Director Ken Fero’s investigation exposes police brutality in the UK, recounting the stories of Christopher Alder, Brian Douglas, Jean Charles de Menezes, Paul Coker, Roger Sylvester, Harry Stanley and Nuur Saeed. Though the details differ substantially, there is one common thread: all had interactions with the police that ultimately ended in death. 

The film examines the circumstances surrounding these deaths, looking at cases between 1995 and 2006, and the surrounding campaigns for justice, tirelessly and lovingly carried out by the families.  

The long-awaited follow up to Injustice (2001), Ultraviolence is Fero’s second film in a trilogy about police killings from Migrant Media. This collective of radical filmmakers, with their social and political focus, are no strangers to controversy. Injustice was met with threats from the police, and attempts were made to bury the film.    

Ken Fero

Ultraviolence delves into the deaths of these men in upsetting detail, showing CCTV footage of both Paul Coker and Christopher Alder in their final moments, as they lay dying on the floor. This inclusion is controversial, the traumatising impact that a seemingly constant stream of police brutality videos can have on black people has been well documented. 

Following the premiere of Ultraviolence at the BFI London Film Festival, we talked with Ken Fero about the decision to include the footage, and how this powerful film fits into the Black Lives Matter movement.

How does Ultraviolence relate to the current resurgence of the BLM movement?

In Migrant Media we’ve been saying “black lives matter” since we formed in 1990, and lots of people have been saying “black lives matter” for the past 400 years. So BLM’s not a new thing. It’s concretely come together partly I think to do with the younger generation becoming much more interested in these issues, which is a big change to what we’ve had in the past 15 years. The film was obviously being made and shot way before BLM in the form it’s taken had come forward. We could have put this film out 10 years ago or we could have put this film out in 30 years. It’s tied to the struggle, but the film would have been there whatever happened with BLM. But they are connected: we do work with BLM, we support BLM and they support us.  

There’s a strong focus on prosecuting the police throughout the film, but more recently there’s been a growing movement for police abolition. How do you feel about this? Do you think it’s a matter of reforming systems to hold police to account or is it necessary to dismantle these structures completely? 

The whole thing about prosecution is that police officers who go out and are armed in different ways, whether it’s physical force or guns or CS or taser – they have a duty of care. If they know that whatever they do, whatever action they take, they’re not going to have to go to court, they’re not going to have to defend their actions, then they’re not going to be in control. Some police officers will be out of control, and that’s what’s happened. We’ve had police officers who have gone out of control, because they know inside them that whatever they do, the state will protect them. 

So until there are prosecutions, and this is what the families want, it really doesn’t matter what critics or filmmakers or even the general public want. There’s nobody that should be listened to apart from the families, because they’re the ones that are experiencing it, they’re the ones that are suffering it. If the families want prosecution of these police officers then that’s what everybody will have to work towards, and if anyone has an idea different than that then they’re against the struggle and not for it. It doesn’t matter who they are and what their ideas are, the centre of the political struggle is at the hands of the families and nobody else. 

Ultraviolence (2020)

There’s been debate about showing videos of police brutality. Some black people have said that it’s traumatising, and question why white people would need to physically see someone’s death in order to be incited to action. Personally I found parts of the film really difficult to watch. Can you talk me through your decision to include footage of the deaths of Christopher Alder and Paul Coker?

With Christopher Alder and with Paul Coker the decision to show the footage is not just our decision, it’s ours and the families’, and when the families of the people that die in the film make the decision that they want people to see it then we have to respect that. We could have talked against that, we could have said – “We don’t need to do it because some people find it disturbing and traumatic.” But we’re talking about a whole community that’s been in trauma for the past 50 years when it comes to deaths in police custody, and it’s not so much the black people who are aware of it that need to see the footage, it’s other people as well who are denying it.

For the people that know about it and feel it – don’t look at the footage. For the people that are denying it – you have to look at the footage. I think if people want to deal with this action, they’re going to have to suffer more than they are already, because if people are saying they feel traumatised by it then what are you going to do about it? It’s pointless saying we don’t need to see these images because we know about it already, because we haven’t had any progress in this country around deaths in custody. We haven’t had any prosecutions, apart from one out of 2000. 

In the film Leslie Thomas QC says that the tools for the prosecution of murderous police are there but the political will isn’t. Do you think this has changed since filming?

While we filmed a lot of the footage in 2005, the narrative and the editorial direction is all very current. The statement that Leslie Thomas made is still very relevant; the evidence for that is that there’s been an increase in deaths in custody. More people are being killed by the police and less is being done about it. There was an inquest into the death of Kevin Clarke, which ended a week ago [9 October]. Kevin Clarke was seen and heard being restrained by the police, using the words “I can’t breathe.” The judge in the coroner’s court did not allow the verdict of unlawful killing to be considered by the jury. So that tells me, yes, the political will is still not there.

Ultraviolence (2020)

Ultraviolence is addressed to your son and the next generation, are you hopeful about the change that young people can bring?

It’s a very traumatic film. The images are traumatic, the stories are traumatic, but the film is also full of resistance. The images and the words that we use are trying to give people hope. Certainly when we were making the film, and when we were looking around at the younger generation… what’s happening in the younger generation, the fact that people are going on the streets about the environment, they’re going on the streets about gender, they’re going on the streets about racism, about violence, about war. That’s what fills us with hope, and that’s why we wanted to make the film, so that people can look at it and make connections between international struggles and local struggles. 

There are all these lessons in history that can fill young people with hope, and so that’s what we wanted to do, to say to young people, “Don’t give up, the struggle is endless.”

  • If you’d like to find out more about the cases shown within the film and how to get involved, visit the Ultraviolence website

About the LFF Critics Mentorship Programme

Acknowledging a lack of diversity in film criticism the London Film Festival Critics Mentorship programme gives meaningful experience and opportunity to a range of talented emerging film writers to hone their craft and gain new contacts by being immersed in the film festival. Now in its third year, the 2020 programme was offered exclusively to 6 up-and-coming black writers who were mentored by Akua Gyamfi, journalist, commentator and founder of The British Blacklist, and film critic, journalist and screenwriter Kate Muir.

The mentees spent the 5 days of the mentorship programme making the most of this year’s hybrid festival experience, watching films virtually as well as meeting IRL to watch Mangrove at BFI Southbank on opening night, learning from their mentors and each other. They workshopped reviews in various styles, including for a broadsheet newspaper, a tabloid, Sight & Sound magazine and a podcast review.
As well as accessing the festival Screen Talks and industry events programme, they heard from leading names from the industry with a series of Zoom chats including with Steve McQueen and Kemp Powers, and UK film critics Mark Kermode, Baz Bamigboye, Anna Smith, Ashanti Omkar and Amon Warmann. They also spoke to Ebony Amoroso, Director of Inclusion and Diversity for Endeavor, attended a ‘meet the LFF festival programmers’ session led by Festival Director Tricia Tuttle, and met Ulrich Schrauth, the new programmer for the immersive and XR strand LFF Expanded, at BFI Southbank.
Each mentee was individually paired with a mentor from the LFF’s media partners (Evening Standard, Empire, Little White Lies , Screen Daily, Sight & Sound, Time Out), to give them insight into criticism and film writing for their outlet and giving them support to produce a number of articles from the festival.

“I’m impressed and inspired,” comments lead mentor Akua Gyamfi. “It’s been an honour and a real pleasure to co-mentor this year’s LFF Critics Mentorship group with Kate. The young writers we chose exceeded expectation and are all testament to the brilliance of this scheme and how rich the critical world could be if it opened its doors to new and diverse writers.”

Lead mentor Kate Muir adds: “Meet the future of film criticism. I loved working with our emerging critics who were the real heroes of this year’s virtual London Film Festival.”