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► Ultraviolence is in UK cinemas, and is streaming on BFI Player from 5 July.
“A memory of those who cannot forget and a warning to those who refuse to see” is how Ken Fero introduces Ultraviolence. The director’s highly charged and characteristically polemical documentary focuses, ostensibly at least, on the multiple cases of death by police action that have occurred in the UK between 1995 and 2006, and the fight for justice on the part of the victims’ families: a struggle repeatedly defined in the documentary as “the endless campaign”.
The film’s appearance now could look like a calculated attempt to capitalise on the heightened global focus on police racism and violence post-George Floyd. But in fact Fero has been a vital figure in making the voices and protests of those denied justice heard throughout the previous decades. His work with the Migrant Media collective has highlighted cases of suspicious deaths in British police custody, as in a documentary about Joy Gardner, Justice for Joy (1995), and in his 2001 feature Injustice, co-directed with frequent collaborator Tariq Mehmood, who has a screenplay credit on the new film.
Injustice’s release was significantly hampered by threats of legal action from official police bodies: part of what Ashley Clark has identified as a history of suppression of particular films, one that has arguably “played into a collective national blindness about the severity of British racism”.
The second part of a proposed trilogy, Ultraviolence is a follow-up to Injustice and one that continues the conversation in a manner every bit as blunt as the titles of both films, as it interweaves the cases of Christopher Alder (recently referenced in Line of Duty), Brian Douglas, Paul Coker, Harry Stanley, Roger Sylvester, Nuur Saeed, and Jean Charles de Menezes. The new documentary, however, is considerably less accomplished than its predecessor.
A principal problem is the way in which Fero centres himself in the film this time. Cathy Tyson, who narrated Injustice, contributes portions of the narration again here, but the bulk of the voiceover is delivered by the director, as he frames the film as a “letter” to his own son.
While this personal approach may have been developed to give the film an identity distinct from that of Injustice, it conspicuously fails to work. Aside from the obvious problem of making a white voice dominant in a film depicting the suffering of mostly Black or biracial subjects, the issue here is the content of the narration: half-baked philosophical musings on time, photography and cinematic depictions of pain distract from, instead of illuminating, the experiences of the victims and their families.
The juxapositions are often jarring, with a nadir reached early when deeply distressing CCTV footage of Christopher Alder’s death on a police station floor is supplemented by Fero quoting Pasolini on “the long take”. “I have taught you to question authority,” the director tells his son later, but given the smugly superior, authoritative tone of the narration itself – paternal “wisdom” delivered, unchallenged, to the next generation – the statement seems highly ironic.
Equally unsuccessful is the film’s attempt to place the deaths within wider contexts of post- (and pre-) 9/11 Islamophobia, a vast topic which the documentary fails to address in sufficient detail. Instead, Fero resorts to broad-strokes generalisations and, at one point, a reductive linking of multiple international social struggles of the 1960s/70s, a period that the director blithely romanticises as “the liberation years”.
There are visual distractions, too, including the unnecessary incorporation of blocky, primary-coloured captions to underline already-evident points, while animation, sparingly employed in Injustice, is used liberally and carelessly here, particularly in the sequence depicting the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.
Most of the featured footage of meetings and marches dates from 2005 and 2006 (including gatherings of the now-defunct Respect Party and a brief glimpse of Jeremy Corbyn) with no reference made to more recent victims such as Mark Duggan, the focus of George Amponsah’s excellent The Hard Stop (2015). Such omissions give Ultraviolence a strangely belated, retrospective air. A sense of urgency is achieved only when the film focuses directly on the victims’ families: sisters and mothers turned activists by their losses and by the cruelty of a system that is transparently rigged to protect perpetrators.
The strength of these female voices and their piercingly eloquent testimonies still comes through, yet the film’s formal inconsistencies and excessive editorialising mean that the overall impact is compromised. Perhaps rightly, Fero’s approach has never aimed for “objectivity”. But where Injustice was lucid, focused and persuasive, Ultraviolence ends up mostly hectoring, obvious and diffuse.
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Sight and Sound, Summer 2022
Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.Find out more and get a copy