A documentary about peace and reconciliation between two Birmingham gangs has scooped a major award at the 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival.
The Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film was awarded to the 90 mins factual film directed by Penny Woolcock, ‘One Mile Away’, the first time that this prestigious UK film award has gone to a documentary film. The prize was bestowed by a Jury headed by actor Jim Broadbent – last seen in ‘The Iron Lady’, as Dennis Thatcher – who was joined on the award giving panel by Japanese actress and producer, Kiki Sugino, and the founder and director of Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, Tiina Lokk.
The panel described ‘One Mile Away’ as “a brave and honest film” and “a singular achievement”. ‘One Mile Away’ also received its World Premiere at the Festival, attended by director Penny Woolcock, producer James Purnell and the twentysomething young Birmingham men in the documentary.
The film represents the debut as a producer of James Purnell, former MP and Labour Cabinet Minister, who has forsaken the House of Commons for the world of the media. ‘One Mile Away’ is Penny Woolcock’s third film to be shot in the city; she made ‘Macbeth on the Estate’ – the Ladywood estate – in 1997 followed by ’1 Day’ in 2009. ’1 Day’, a hip hop and grime musical, involved members of Birmingham’s gang culture and was controversially excluded from the city’s cinema screens. It won Best Film at the Birmingham Black International Film Festival, and was selected for many international Film Festivals, including London and New York. ‘One Mile Away’ is a factual follow up to this earlier musical dramatisation of gang life in the city.
‘One Mile Away’ is a gangland chronicle that follows the peace efforts of two major gangs in Birmingham – the Burgers, aka ‘the Burger Bar Boys’, and the Johnsons, aka ‘the Johnson Crew’ – who are separated by a single postcode district, one mile apart, and who have been engaged in the city in a decades long turf war and violent feud. The film follows Dylan and Shabba, members of the two rival Birmingham gangs, as they attempt to broker a peace agreement. They had been introduced by filmmaker Penny Woolcock, who previously had directed Dylan in the feature film, ’1 Day’
Gaining extraordinary trust from gang members past and present, Penny Woolcock’s film tracks the campaign within the respective gangs, and their communities, for a mutual peace, covering a time span from Autumn 2010 to the riots across England in August 2011. Her directorial stance as trusted – outsider puts herself occasionally in the picture itself, while producer James Purnell also enters the filmic fray, introducing Dylan and Shabba to Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, and a key negotiator in the Good Friday Agreement, which was a fundamental part of the Northern Ireland peace-process.
The film also benefits from a contemporary hip-hop soundtrack, which takes in rap interludes by the film’s participants, harking back to the musical sequences pioneered by Penny Woolcock in ’1 Day.’
The film is driven by Penny Woolcock’s conviction that interventionist film-making, and the direct participation of the gang members, can have a robust beneficial effect, expedite real life changes, and bring peace to hostilities, in the face of previously unsuccessful efforts by the authorities and community groups to ameliorate the prevailing circumstances.
The award success for ‘One Mile Away’ signals that independent film in Birmingham is in rude health right now. Other recent award winning documentaries include ‘The Last Projectionist’, directed by Electric Cinema mogul, Tom Lawes; and Deborah Aston’s ‘Made in Birmingham/Reggae Punk Bhangra’, while Pip Piper’s crowd funded homage to vinyl-rich record shops, ‘ Last Shop Standing’, will air in the near future.
The Edinburgh International Film Festival also saw the world premiere of ‘N F A’, the eagerly anticipated debut feature film by Birmingham director, Steve Rainbow, which in garnering very positive reviews further points to Birmingham’s burgeoning independent film culture.
Producer and Professor; Roger Shannon