1 DAY (2009)
1 Day kicked off a lot of stuff for me.
In a way it was the same territory – out on the edges of civil society. In other ways it was different because race moved to the centre of the frame. With the Tina films – and Shakespeare on the Estate, Macbeth and Mad Passionate Dreams – I had specifically avoided places where the African Caribbean was in a majority. This was not hard to do, most marginalised communities in the UK are white after all. But I was clear that I didn’t want to suggest that these communities were criminalized because of race or to fall into stereotypes about black gangsters. I have occasionally been accused of that because of 1 Day and One Mile Away but these films are part of a body of work. I am telling stories about what I see.
I was living in Archway in North London at that time and I kept seeing little bunches of flowers where a teenager had been killed (often a white teenager.) I realized that something was going on right under my nose and I didn’t know what it was. Why were these young people killing each other? In the local press there was speculation about gangs and I understood that the streets I walked down every day had a very different meaning for others.
Then as I was waking up to this I was violently robbed one night on Tufnell Park Road. It was about 2am, I was striding home when I heard rapid footsteps thumping behind me and I had a flash thought, “It’s happening”, when I was punched in the back and knocked to the pavement. I remembered that my voice is a good weapon and starting yelling for help. The robber was kicking my head as he pulled at my handbag which I was clinging on to while grabbing at the foot he was kicking me with so I could topple him over. He was too strong and when I heard my head make a weird cracking sound I decided to let go of my bag.
The young man ran off and I staggered up in my long brown coat. He dropped my old Nokia phone in the middle of the road and turned round in a pool of streetlight. We looked straight at each other, frozen together, caught in the eye of the storm. He looked as wired and freaked out as I felt. Then he dashed to pick up my phone and scampered away with my handbag tucked in his armpit, jumped into a waiting car and sped off. I chased for a while. When I saw him run off I was overwhelmed with compassion. It sounds odd but it’s true. What was going on for this big young man, big thighs I remember, he was no drug addict, to feel justified in attacking a woman in her fifties who was old enough to be his mother if not his grandmother? I wanted to say something helpful to him but all I could think of was, “What are you doing?”
A young man – a young Black man with beautiful symmetry - rode up to me on a bicycle and offered to help. For some reason I asked him to feel the enormous duck egg bump on my head. Another young man – a young Asian man – came out of the flats nearby. We gathered around a phone box. I wanted to go home and rang James but he didn’t hear the phone. The young men called the police and they turned up with an ambulance and I then started projectile vomiting which is a sign of concussion and was taken to hospital.
I was wobbly for a few days. When I walked down the crowded Holloway Road in broad daylight to buy another handbag I heard running footsteps behind me and my heart went brrrrtckkk and I was filled with fear. It was only a jogger. “Fuck this!” I thought. “I will not live like this. I will not become a frightened woman. I will not.” The only way I know to conquer fear is to go towards it. So I decided to get to know some robbers.
This combined with the need to understand the internecine violence that was going on with young inner city men gave me the idea to make a film about urban violence as I had with the Tina films. Get to know people, gather stories, write a script and street cast it.
I decided to go to Birmingham because when I was filming the two Shakespeare films there in the nineties I had heard about the two famous gangs, The Burgers and The Johnsons. They were Jamaican heritage gangs but they were the only ones I knew. At that time I thought it was best not to make the film on my doorstep, a decision I have regretted in some ways because it would have involved less time on Virgin trains and less nights in cheap hotels. But if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have the friends I have and my life would have missed out on so much.
Lucy Pardee started the research while I was still editing Exodus and I joined her. We started off thinking this was going to be an easy gig because there were at least two hundred projects funded by the City Council to work with gangs. We soon found out that none of them were working with gangs, they were just very good at filling out forms about working with gangs.
Lucy and I met Shabba who was a Johnson quite early on. He had seen Mischief Night and liked it and so he believed I was a filmmaker. The other Johnsons – including Zimbo who has now been my friend for several years - were completely convinced I was police and couldn’t be trusted. It was very disheartening. Lucy and I came back very late one night from another day of being messed about and sat on her bed in the Isis Hotel and laughed and laughed until we started crying. What had made us think that anybody in a gang would want to talk to us? This was an abject failure. After two months I would have to crawl back to London with my tail between my legs.
The next day we met Dylan.
Vanley Burke is a fine photographer who had worked with John Akomfrah on Handsworth Songs and he asked whether I would meet his nephew Dylan who was interested in films. I didn’t want to meet any good boys who were interested in films but I owed Vanley so I agreed. Lucy and I then drifted from Aston, B6 Johnson territory across the front line to Handsworth, B21 Burger territory. We walked into a pub to meet a young man in a baseball cap. One look at Dylan was enough. And he says that one look into my eyes convinced him that I was certified, just making a film with no ulterior motives.
So I ended up making the film on the Burger side. We held auditions deep in Burger ends high up the Soho Road to discourage anybody involved in the beef from coming for a part. Both gangs in 1 Day are recruited from the Burger side because they were killing each other on sight. By the time we came to the recce it was obvious that I was making a real film and then the Johnsons got angry because they were excluded.
I remember an angry phone call when one of them said that they would come and shoot up my set if I didn’t make the film with them. I yelled back. “Don’t shoot my set, shoot me! If you think I’m worth doing twenty five years for, do it.” One of the things I learnt in the hood is not to back down. People can smell fear on you. You have to stick up for yourself. The other thing I learnt is that it’s not that brave to do this because if someone is going to shoot or stab you they are just going to do it, they’re not going to talk about it.
In order to make the film we had to get the nod from the influential Burgers who allowed the film to go ahead. There were a couple of sticky moments – I got kidnapped for a few hours one night – but we shot the whole film in four weeks and although what happens in 1 Day it did not all happened in one day it is very close to life.
When the film was released the West Midlands Police visited every cinema in Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Walsall and West Bromwich and told them there would be trouble if they showed the film. The cinemas pulled the film and it died. We needed to pack out in the Midlands where everyone knew about it and then word of mouth we knew it would fly. But they killed it.
The pirates made a killing, the DVD was out before the film and before the official DVD and Dylan is famous. Anywhere in the country people come up to him, Flash, Flash but middle class people don’t know anything about it and it sunk me. But 1 Day changed people’s lives, including mine.