Disquietingly similar to the issues facing us now in 2017, short documentary White Riot: London explores Britain in 1977 as the country finds itself divided by immigration tensions. This racial tinderbox gave birth to a punk fanzine which played an important role in challenging the status quo and uniting a generation against racism and escalating levels of neo-Nazi violence. Following White Riot: London’s screenings at Sundance and the Berlin film festival, DN spoke to Director Rubika Shah (who also created 2015 doc short Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under) about her look into Britain’s untaught history of racial struggle.
Although a historical documentary the themes of White Riot: London feel unfortunately timely. What brought you to this story? Was the project a reaction to current events?
We came across this story whilst researching a wider project about punk and British reggae in the 1970s. It was a dangerous time for those of colour and Jewish people. There were a number of right-wing, nationalistic threats in the UK – including a political group called the National Front whose members were getting airtime on British TV and radio (the BBC included!). Reggae had been banned and black British culture sidelined by the mainstream media. I became fascinated with the lack of concrete information available about this era from a non-white perspective. White Riot: London has contemporary relevance, as we are currently seeing a massive swing to the right across the west. I have lived in London and in the regions, I think this perspective allowed me to see what was happening around the country before Britain voted for BREXIT.
For those who won’t have seen the film, could you explain a little about Temporary Hoarding and its role outside of the mainstream media reporting of the time?
Temporary Hoarding – or TH as we call it – was a fanzine that was created by a motley crew of young artists in the late-1970s. It often reported the news the media didn’t, in a way that connected with young people. Britain was very stuffy and conservative in the 1970s – and TH was a breath of fresh air.
I became fascinated with the lack of concrete information available about this era from a non-white perspective.
How much of the archival material is the result of specific clips you were attempting to source vs opportune discoveries?
Most of what’s in the film are discoveries and archive we have collected over the last 18 months. I can’t say too much more than that, as I am currently working on a longer-form version with my producer and co-writer, Ed Gibbs. White Riot: London is a companion short for a feature we are developing with Creative England. (For those based outside the UK, Creative England is part of the British Film Institute – aka the BFI).
I’m presuming that the film’s DIY aesthetic echoes Temporary Hoarding’s fanzine design?
We very much wanted to pay tribute to TH, the founders, and its punk ‘zine style. The content, style, and tone were so important. It captured the DIY punk youth counterculture of the time. Punk was more than just fashion it was an approach to life for young people. TH was experimenting with new type fonts, The Clash were experimenting with reggae, dub, and rock and the 1970s was an exciting time to be a young arts-orientated person in Britain.
How did you cast the trio of modern poets who guide us through the film with accounts from this turbulent period?
I had seen Suli’s YouTube music video Why I Hate School But Love Education and was really impressed by his style. We discovered Nezyah through BBC Music. We just thought he comes across so well onscreen. Nadine Shah (no relation!) is a singer songwriter. I am a fan of her music – she’s got this fierce yet soulful attitude that we just love. We reached out to her and she was totally into the themes and ideas we wanted to explore.
Do you feel there’s a gap in Black British memory, especially amongst the younger generations, about the history of the race battles which took place on this island as compared to knowledge of the race struggle in the USA?
In the context of the film – and the 1960s and 1970s – black-British and Asian-British people were both referred to as ‘black’. I think there are many missing chapters in our contemporary history. From memory, I think history in school finishes at the end of World War II, so there is a feeling that the US is ahead in that sense. Also, US programming and documentaries really interrogate what it means to be American and African-American (for example) in the US in 2017.
Sometimes there’s a feeling that if you mention the “R” word (racism) that people will switch off, or that it’s somehow boring to talk about.
In the 1970s, the British were looking at America and their racial struggles throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s (MLK, Black Panthers, etc.) – and were hugely inspired… But that’s a whole other story. What was happening in the UK in the 1970s was cool – it was people coming together black, white, brown, green, whoever, it was Britain’s coming of age as a multicultural country. This is something we explore much more in the feature, set against the backdrop of punk and reggae.
Given where we find ourselves politically, what types of conversations are you hoping the film will spark?
We have experimented with the documentary form in White Riot: London – the narrative is experiential and I hope that audiences take away a feeling of what it was like to live in Britain during that time. It would be great for younger people (especially teenagers and those in their 20s) to start a discussion with their parents. Sometimes there’s a feeling that if you mention the “R” word (racism) that people will switch off, or that it’s somehow boring to talk about. I hope this film shows you can have an interesting discussion about it, but in a fresh way.
As you’ve mentioned, White Riot: London is a companion short, where can we stay updated on the coming feature?
Yes, we are working on a longer version. Watch this space. We’ll be updating on this page.