Long before the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others helped galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement, people of color had been dying at the hands of white law enforcement officers for centuries. The British filmmaker and political activist Ken Fero has been documenting U.K. cases of suspicious deaths in police custody for over 20 years, most notably in his controversial debut feature Injustice (2001). Co-directed with Tariq Mehmood, that film earned positive reviews and widespread festival screenings, but its release was seriously stifled by threats of legal action from official police bodies, who claimed it was not just libelous but could incite riots.
A mere 19 years later, Fero is back with Ultraviolence, a film he bills as the second in a planned trilogy on police brutality. Smartly tapping into the current heightened global focus on racial injustice, this semi-sequel to Injustice world premieres at the London Film Festival this week. Stylistically and intellectually ambitious, despite obvious budget limitations, this timely cine-essay should enjoy newsworthy media buzz and healthy festival interest, even if its lo-fi aesthetic and polemical tone will limit its potential audience.
Framing Ultraviolence as a personal letter to his son, Fero introduces the film as “a memory for those that cannot forget, and a warning for those that refuse to see.” The case studies he collects here, using mostly first-hand footage spliced with archive material and brief snippets of animation, are often painful to watch. And so they should be. Brian Douglas, one of Fero’s former high-school peers, died after a brutal baton beating. Paul Coker, Roger Sylvester and Nuur Saeed all suffered similar grim fates. Frank Ogboru, a Nigerian tourist in London, was fatally asphyxiated in a police chokehold. His last words now sound chillingly familiar: “I can’t breathe…”
Indicting institutional racism and Islamophobia as key aggravating factors in these cases, Fero recalls how Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes was mistaken for a Middle Eastern Islamist bomber and gunned down in an “execution” by armed officers at a London Underground station. But the most shocking inclusion here is the raw CCTV footage of Christopher Alder, who slowly choked to death on the floor of a police station in the northern English port city of Hull while officers laughed, joked and insulted him.
Most of these deaths took place over a decade ago, but the families of the victims are still fighting for tiny scraps of justice from stonewalling police and government bodies. Fero is present with his hand-held camera at incendiary public meetings and protest marches. If Ultraviolence offers any light in the darkness, it lies with these sisters, mothers and brothers, righteously enraged and speaking truth to power. “Justice is never given, it must be taken,” the director concludes. “Endless brutality requires endless resistance.”
Fero aestheticizes all this unpolished cine-verite footage with visual and text quotes from his personal pantheon of artist-activist heroes: Chris Marker, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Malcolm X and more. He also borrows heavily from Jean-Luc Godard’s stylistic toolbox, scrambling his narrative into non-linear chapters — each billed as a “memory” — while splashing the screen with bright, provocative, sloganeering inter-titles. He invokes the revolutionary spirit of 1968 without irony here, though Ultraviolence also echoes some more recent and less overtly didactic essay-film makers too, notably Adam Curtis; the detached, portentous narration and ever-present background hum of ominously throbbing electronic music are very Curtis touches.
Fero’s imaginative cut-and-paste approach is admirably ambitious for a low-budget documentary, but stylistic flair alone cannot entirely paper over its obviously threadbare resources. For example, most of the film’s footage and case studies date from the period 1995 to 2006. Since then, there have been many more high-profile examples of young men dying in U.K. police custody: Leon Briggs, Sheku Bayoh, Kevin Clarke and others. It seems strange that Ultraviolence does not reference these more recent tragedies, even in passing, thus reinforcing the film’s key message and lending it more timely urgency.
Another clumsy gambit is Fero’s attempt to expand his focus and locate these individual acts of state violence within the wider historical context of western “imperialist” wars, from Vietnam to Iraq. Here he risks oversimplifying two hugely complex and contentious subjects by exaggerating the common ground between them. A great documentary could fruitfully explore these connections, of course, but Ultraviolence feels too modestly scaled and personally specific to convincingly pull off such hefty thematic bloat.
That said, Fero deserves credit for his campaigning zeal and creative vision. Ultraviolence is only a small contribution to a huge ongoing debate, but these unresolved tales of injustice deserve to be amplified and interrogated, especially in an era when the wider world appears to be finally waking up to the lingering historical scars of racism.
Venue: BFI London Film Festival
Production company: Migrant Media
Narrator: Cathy Tyson
Director: Ken Fero
Screenwriter: Tariq Mehmood
Cinematographers: Koutaiba Al Janabi, Souleyman Garcia, Ken Fero
Editor: Steve Morris
Animation: Ryan Potter