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EDINBURGH — Surprise winner of the prestigious Michael Powell Award — for best new British film — at the Edinburgh Film Festival, gangland chronicle One Mile Away takes an unusually interventionist approach that yields only partial success. Originally intended for small-screen play, this dispatch from England’s second city Birmingham may now earn a brief spin in domestic cinemas. Overseas, festivals will find room for a picture that spices up behind-the-headlines reportage with rap-music interludes.
Whatever transpires, One Mile Away will make a bigger splash than its fictional predecessor 1 Day (2009), whose brief theatrical run was truncated due to fears it might attract unwelcome patrons. Writer-director Penny Woolcock cast current and former gang-members in a “hip-hop musical” based on the decades-long feud between two Birmingham groups, the ‘Johnsons’ (aka ‘Johnson Crew’) and their rivals from a neighboring zip-code, the ‘Burgers’ (aka ‘Burger Bar Boys’). In this follow-up she tries to use her trusted-outsider status as a means to bring peace to hostilities which, voiceover informs us, have contributed to Birmingham having the “highest concentration of gun-crime in the country.”
There’s no doubting Woolcock’s intentions — and as a white, softly-spoken, middle-class, middle-aged lady, she can obtain access to both sides of this ‘beef’ between young, working-class black men. Non-UK audiences may struggle to decipher some of their argot-heavy chat here, with only certain key phrases of street-slang translated by on-screen captions.
But while Woolcock and company make some progress in bringing the two sides together, largely through the patient efforts of Dylan (star of 1 Day) from the Burgers and Shabba from the Johnsons — there’s a certain Candide-like naivety in her evident belief that film-making can succeed where the efforts of the authorities and community groups have so far failed. Woolcock occasionally appears on camera herself, a picture of brow-furrowed, hand-wringing concern, and producer James Purnell — a former high-flyer in the UK’s Labor government, and still tipped as a potential Prime Minister — is also glimpsed, introducing Dylan and Shabba to a key negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace-process.
One Mile Away certainly gives each side plenty of time and space to comment on the conflict — “it’s just the way of life we know,” one lad explains, and Dylan points out, “all of this is over nothing, that’s the scary thing about it.” But it’s no secret that the Johnson/Burger schism actually dates back to mid-80s turf wars over the sale of illegal drugs — a subject which is scarcely discussed here. We also never find out what the participants do for money — there’s not one mention of work or welfare — and how these twentysomething men can afford the varied array of brand-new designer clothing in which they’re invariably attired.
The interviews quickly become quite repetitive, the guys bemoaning the futility of the situation without ever being able to shed much light upon it. But how big are these gangs? Who is in charge, if anyone? What do the authorities think? We never find out. Articulate analysis is thin on the ground, with the notable exception of a passer-by who illuminatingly places contemporary matters into a centuries-spanning historical context, but whose screen-time is all too brief.
Woolcock’s directorial approach veers towards the flashy, deploying an excess of tense music — sometimes with thriller-movie stylizations — to emphasize the dangerous nature of the places and people depicted. The rap interludes, in which participants lip-synch to their own compositions while strutting through their humdrum ‘hoods, do provide a welcome change of tone and pace as well as harking back to similar sequences in 1 Day.
With a track-record notable for two thuddingly heavy-handed fictional forays into working-class northern English communities — The Principles of Lust (2003) and Mischief Night (2006) — TV regular Woolcock shows a surer grasp in the field of documentary here. But One Mile Away never quite gets to grips with its complex subject-matter, and ends up feeling evasive and unsatisfactory — though its Edinburgh success might hopefully yet yield some positive real-world consequences.
Venue: Edinburgh International Film Festival
Production company: Rare Day
Director: Penny Woolcock
Producer: James Purnell
Music: Urban Monk
Editor: Alex Fry
Sales Agent: Missing In Action Films, London
No rating, 95 minutes.
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