From Goldie to Edwina Currie, leading figures from music, politics, film, charities and the media assess Plan B’s directorial debut
Founder of Kids Company, a London charity for vulnerable young people
The film is an incredibly accurate portrait of that kind of environment. It wasn’t two-dimensional in that the characters weren’t just purely evil โ the good in them also showed. I’ve met all those characters in the course of my work. The little boys terrorised into joining the criminal network are just so real. It demonstrated what I keep telling people: don’t say a child chooses to join a gang; there is no choice. The cycle of brutalisation, with kids brutalising kids, the girl fights, all of it is so accurate.
I want to get a copy of this film and deliver it to the prime minister and say: “This is another bit of your country that you don’t talk about, you don’t see, but nevertheless, large numbers of children and young people are trapped in this life.” I’ve already spoken to an MP. I want to organise a showing in parliament. I’m going to call Plan B’s people and see if they’ll make it happen. For the past 16 years I’ve been trying to describe what these kids’ lives are like. It’s very difficult for people to visualise the way they live.
Kids Co did an exhibition at Tate Modern, and I got 10 children whose parents were addicts to recreate the home environment they’d grown up in, and the kids spent some time just putting together a room, showing a mother stooped over the crack and the father sleeping in his vomit. The children turned round to me and said “Camila, are you really going to show them what it’s like?” and I said “Yes, this is your truth and people need to see it.” This film has that kind of impact, these children are living with such dark secrets. That’s why it’s so important.
There’s a theoretical disjunction between what Downing Street policy-makers conceptualise as the vulnerable child and what is the reality of the vulnerable child at street level. I’d argue that the exposure to violence and sexual assault of children in street gangs at the moment is, in scale, a bigger child protection issue in this country than the violation of children in family homes. I remain hopeful that at some point someone will stand up and take the lead on this.
Film and documentary director
From a film-making point of view I thought iLL Manors was very accomplished. It started a little uncertainly โ the first 15 minutes felt a bit precarious โ but after that it was very inventive. If anything, Plan B over-egged the dark side. There is more humour and warmth and love and talent and fun in the “hood” than you would believe from watching the film. I also had some difficulty with the way that all of the female characters are crack whores and victims. In my experience it’s not really like that. There are a lot of powerful, mouthy, confident women in these communities. There are also a lot of women who are sole parents who really do try their best. And it is difficult. You do lose control of teenage boys at a certain age.
There is a whole culture that is being criminalised and we ignore it at our peril. I’ve been making films in these communities since 1994 and when I started there were no guns. There was rough justice but it was meted out with baseball bats. Now everybody has a gun. That huge change came in with crack. So it’s not all to do with terrible parenting; it’s much more profound than that. It’s to do with a parallel world that we have allowed to develop where the streets are awash with guns and nobody does anything about it until some white kid gets shot, or a woman. It’s been allowed to get out of control because it is not seen to affect middle-class people. At schools in London, certainly, and many other cities the police are outside the school gates every day. But middle-class people don’t send their children to state schools in inner-city areas; we are living more and more separate lives. We can’t continue living in parallel worlds. Something absolutely tragic and terrible is happening in our cities, at the bottom of all our streets. We need to wake up, and in that sense I think this is an important film.
One Mile Away, Woolcock’s documentary about inner-city gangs, will be screened at the Sheffield documentary festival and the Edinburgh international film festival next month and on Channel 4 in the autumn.
Musician and music executive
Plan B is a genius; the fact he’s actually written and directed the film himself is just off the wall. The way he’s constructed the story and included the songs as part of the narrative is really clever. He’s always been super-talented at telling stories through his music, so that part didn’t surprise me, but the way he managed to tie in the different stories was really impressive. I could relate to it, because I grew up in that part of east London. You might not experience something as extreme as that every single day, but you hear about it. Nothing felt forced in the film, even the language, it all felt very true. I even recognised some people in it, I was like “Oh, I used to play football with him.”
I think Plan B was just trying to show how easily you can get sucked into things in that environment. Like the little boy who just wants to buy a little bit of weed, then ends up getting drawn in to the gang life and having to shoot someone. He’s also trying to show the frustration of people who don’t feel part of society. They feel society doesn’t help them or care how they are, so they just do whatever they have to do to get by. There were a lot of messages in the film, and I hope people pick up on them and think about their choices.
Some people might watch it and think “Is this what happens? Is this how people live and sell drugs? Shooting people?” But Plan B’s trying to point out there’s more to it than that; it’s not that simple. He’s trying to raise awareness of issues, and people in those environments will appreciate that, because they think they’re ignored. Some people turn a blind eye to what’s going on, and some people just don’t know, so as many people as possible should see the film.
Some people think those involved in last year’s riots took advantage of the situation when it might have been a good opportunity to raise some issues. But the riots came from somewhere. In the film the policeman stops one of the young characters and explains it’s just a routine check, and he says, “But all I’m doing is standing here”. That happens a lot. People don’t realise how much that happens. I also don’t think the Olympics will touch the lives of the kind of people in east London you see in the film. They’re not excited by the Olympics.
I don’t necessarily think it’s a musician’s job to talk about issues like Plan B has done. Music should come from the heart. We write about what we see and feel and hope that people understand and relate. Some artists like Plan B have a passion and a skill for talking about these kind of things, and that’s cool. If you can do it from the heart, like Plan B, then that’s great.
The “Hackney heroine” and activist who stood as a Lib Dem candidate in the Hackney council elections earlier this month
I thought the film was very to the point, and summed up how easily you can get dragged into that kind of life. Because times are hard at the moment, it’s even harder to escape. You’re surrounded by people like that on your estate, and unless you’re very strong-minded and have parents or family around to support you, it’s so easy to get dragged into it. You can’t show weakness in that environment, because if you do you will be picked on for the rest of your life. It’s a dog eat dog world; it’s pure survival. I’ve been there. When I came out of jail [Pearce was sentenced to six years in prison for importation of drugs, after being caught with a jar containing cocaine on a flight back from Jamaica] someone gave me a number and said: “If you need anything, ring him” but I didn’t want to. Months down the line, I was trying my hardest but nothing was working out, so eventually I rang the number and they gave me ยฃ200 to help me out. Then you get asked to drop a package off to pay off your debt, and before you know it, you’re initiated. In the end my car was smashed in with a sledgehammer, I was run over and my life was threatened, so I ran away to Hackney [from another part of London]. People don’t get enough support to escape gangs. If someone went to the police, the first thing they’d want to know is “Who are they? Where are they? What they do? Have they got guns?”
The film was set in east London, but there are ghetto areas like that all over London. Most people who have lived a similar life will relate to the film. I was crying, I was angry and even had a little laugh at one point. There are a lot of well-off people in this country that have no idea how the other half live, and the gap is widening, it’s getting worse. We’ve got a cabinet full of millionaires, but millions on the poverty line. It’s 2012 and we’ve got food banks for the poor. I can’t remember that happening outside wartime.
Writer and founder of West London Free School
I was pleasantly surprised by the film. Some of the early reviews of iLL Manors frame it as a blast against Cameron’s broken Britain and I imagine that people involved in the making of the film think they have made a searing indictment of it, but the central message of the film is actually a very conservative one. I found it to be refreshingly conservative, with a small c, and I think Ben Drew is probably a Tory and doesn’t know it. The clear message is that these characters are morally responsible for their actions and if they do good they should be praised and rewarded and if they do bad they should be condemned and punished, in some cases by the criminal justice system. There’s no sense that the criminal justice system is at fault in any way, or indeed the police. We see the police arresting a Russian pimp who in a previous scene was beating up one of his prostitutes, ie doing their job well.
In the final scene, they stop and arrest a man, who in an earlier scene we see murdering two individuals, and who has a satchel full of drugs in the boot of his car. So even though he makes noises about police harassment, they should be stopping him because he’s a murderer and has a satchel full of drugs in the boot of his car.
It was crystal clear that the worst criminals in the film are not being depicted as victims, but as morally responsible โ people capable of making moral decisions and choosing to be bad. You’re not invited to absolve them because “they’re harassed by the police” or they “were let down at school” or “they ended up in care”. My view is that Ben Drew is clearly someone who has a great deal of common sense and so it’s not surprising that he’s come to a fairly conservative conclusion.
People on different sides of the political debate and policymakers of all shades will take what they want from this film. But what I took away from it is that the best way to address broken Britain is to support the police and the criminal justice system and to start handing out tougher sentences. The main beneficiaries of this will be the poor people who we see are the victims of the criminals. The lesson I took from it is that the most vulnerable members of our society, in particular women, aren’t being adequately protected.
Journalist and author of Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City
I’d heard the song iLL Manors before I saw the film and liked it, and had read it was being hailed as the return of political music. I’m not sure if iLL Manors hails the return of working-class cinema, which we haven’t had for a while. I think Plan B is out on his own a bit here, rather than being part of a wave of new cinematic social commentators. He’s trying to give a voice to the voiceless and I hope it does become part of a wider trend.
I found the first hour extremely gruelling because you’re watching some pretty appalling things. Some people will walk out of screenings. But once the narrative took over it became a really moving and compelling film, until the fairytale ending. I felt that was unrealistic, but it made me able to watch it, because without that the lives he was showing were unbearable. It needed space for hopes and dreams, however unrealistic they may be.
The film communicates the importance of the way you’re brought up, how your mother and father from day one, or other adults, will shape your life, how violence begets violence. He could have been more subtle, but he wasn’t trying to be subtle. Perhaps he feels there’s no room for subtlety if he wants to reach both liberal readers of the Observer and people like the characters in the film from Forest Gate.
Plan B is unique. Very few people get to where Plan B is from where he came from, a pupil referral unit. If they do, they often don’t want to speak about it, and are keen to have moved a million miles away from it, and the fact that he hasn’t is a credit to him.
Novelist and former MP
I thought the film was terrific: vivid, disturbing and achingly sad. It was entirely believable. My husband was a detective who led the operation against the Yardie gangs in Brixton and he confirmed my view that there’s nothing manufactured about this film at all.
Ben Drew’s strapline on the trailer for the film is: “We are all products of our environment.” But I think that is ever so slightly sentimental. Like real people, his characters all make choices, although some of them are forced into choices very much not in their interests. The young boy who is keen to join a gang and then ends up in trouble: his character and what happens to him rings all too true. But at the same time he could have made a different choice, the choice to walk away.
I come from quite a tough background in Liverpool and I grew up with kids who went wrong. But I always felt very strongly, even as a teenager, that you have lots of options. The option of drugs and theft and crime looks like the easy option because it puts money in your pocket and it appears to raise your status in the gang culture. But I had my eyes on a different option, which was the stepladder up to university and out. What took Ben Drew out of his childhood environment? The choices he made.
Having said that, a lot of people are failing these children, both in the film and in real life, starting with parents. Where is the strong mother who says, “Don’t you dare”? Where are all these these kids’ parents? They’re in the pub. The dads are the ones who are paying the prostitutes. God knows what the mums are doing. They’re not keeping tabs on their children, that is for sure. Lots of people are failing to take responsibility. We see kids in the playground knocking each other around โ where are their teachers? There are good tough teachers around; some of our inner city schools are extremely well-run and they are giving children that ladder of opportunity up and out. But too many are failing to do that.
Ben Drew has a clear idea of what is right and wrong and it comes across in this movie. He strikes me as a 21st-century Dickens: highly intelligent, portraying it like it is, a social commentator and a social artist. He is explaining how some people go bad, how some people would go to help an injured passer-by and then rob him. He’s not excusing actions like that. The life he is portraying these people as living is nasty, brutish and short.
Chief executive, Community Links, a charity tackling exclusion in east London
It’s a remarkable film. Really intense, quite gruelling, and I found big chunks of it difficult to watch but it blew me away. It was remarkable how he traced every character back to their childhood and showed that if you put a child in a brutal environment, you end up with a brutalised person. If each character had an adult who cared about them they might have been able to send them down a different path. As it is, they are trapped in these hideous situations where they feel they have no choice or hope. If you grow up in such a high-adrenaline environment, your response is always fight or flight; it’s very difficult to react to any situation in a measured way. Some of the characters found the strength to do something amazing, when most of us would feel utterly overwhelmed.
For the majority of people in Forest Gate and the people we deal with, life is not like that, but for some people that is reality. It only takes one adult to take an interest in a young person and care about them to transform their life. That doesn’t have to be a parent or social worker. Lots of our frontline workers are former users of the services, so they’ve been in the situation but know it’s possible to make different choices, and that’s such a powerful thing. If you give a child confidence, skills and hope that their life can be different, they can do amazing things. But if you tell people over and over again that they will never amount to anything they start to believe you. Once you get past the grimness of the film, I think there’s a message of hope in there, but it’s also a challenge to society. Do we think it’s acceptable to let people grow up like this?
It was interesting to see the Olympics in the background, because we’re talking about a once-in-a-lifetime investment of billions in east London. I do think it’s having an effect on opportunities for people who live here. We are seeing positive change, but we clearly haven’t done enough yet. If we didn’t have the Olympics things would be worse in east London, but it is a challenge to us all, because if we can’t use those billions to transform the lives of those on the doorstep of the Olympics, then the situation is hopeless, isn’t it?
Musician, artist and actor
It’s a superb piece of film-making, very powerful, and I don’t say that lightly. I’m not friends with Ben, so I don’t need to big him up, but I think it’s seminal. He’s captured the zeitgeist, the state of a spiritually broken nation. I’ve lived on estates like that, and he obviously has, where everybody’s lives are stacked on top of each other and it’s fucking chaos.
People will be touched in different ways by it. One thing that touched me most, having grown up in the care system from the age of three to 18, was seeing the old Super 8-style images of the characters as kids. We all start out in life quite innocent, in what we think is an innocent world, then society rips your heart out. For kids like me, the street was your father, and the street can be an abusive father. People in these situations, in what we call “the ends”, don’t see a way out. It’s all right people outside the bubble saying, “Why don’t they do this or do that?” Trust me, when you’re in a situation like that it’s almost impossible to see a way out.
I’d like to do a reality show. Take all government ministers’ children who are under the age of 18, and get them to exchange positions with the kind of kids that are in the film. Forget coming to the ends for a quick publicity picture, come and experience it for real. I guarantee it would be a huge wake-up call. We’ve got to rethink completely how we tackle these issues. The government are Neanderthal in their approach; they are living in the dark ages. Unfortunately, my gut feeling is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. When I first went to New York in the early 80s, I met drug dealers and gangsters whose fathers were drug dealers or gangsters. That was unheard of Britain, but it’s all broken down since, and now we have second or even third generation drug dealers here.
Every single politician should sit down with their family, get the popcorn out, and watch this film. Because if you think this is fiction, you need to wake the fuck up. This is reality, and I lost my son to it [Goldie's son Jamie Price was jailed for life for the murder of a rival gang member in 2010]. A case happened between two kids, and one is gone forever. Two mothers and two families distraught. Over what? A postcode. Over nothing. I’ve had to question myself about it. Could I have done better as a father? I tried to pull him away from it. I think Ben is destined for even bigger things. I don’t blow smoke up people’s arses easily, but if you talk about power, for Ben to use his position the way he has done, that’s real power.
Editor, the Spectator
It’s an incredibly powerful film, almost brutal in its vividness. It almost makes you feel sick during and after it. Not because it is gory but because it is a representation of what is happening in real life on the streets of this great rich country of ours. I don’t think it is representative of our times โ this is the narrow and brutal world of heroin and crack โ but it shows very vividly how young people can and do get sucked into this world. It made me go home and think that this is happening within two miles of my office in Westminster. There is a fire burning in our society and we have not managed to put it out yet.
But you could argue that it is a very conservative film. The police were not portrayed as villains, nor the government. This was not a nihilistic story about how authority is your enemy. Also, the choices that characters made were seen as very important. Aaron had the choice to help the prostitute and he did. He was a virtuous character trying to break out of the cycle of deprivation and violence and he did.
One of the things Plan B was trying to say was that the root of much of this lies in institutionalised care. Two of the main characters had grown up in care homes and there were several flashbacks and multiple references to the problems that occur if you are not raised by a two-parent family. I don’t think any Conservative watching this would have gone away thinking that was a lefty film. He was saying: where are their families? If they had families everything would be so much better.
Even Plan B’s reference to David Cameron’s broken Britain is not a disparaging reference. In a song about the death of the young murderer he says, “He’s now a poster boy for David Cameron’s broken Britain.” That wasn’t disparaging, it was just a statement of fact.
I’m a fan of Plan B’s music, but I was quite surprised by the film. I work quite a bit in east London, so recognised the landmarks, but it was an insight into a side of east London I don’t know that well. I’ve seen films that have captured urban life in London, but I haven’t seen the life of crack addicts documented before in such a way. There were quite a few parts that I found difficult to watch. The scenes where a young girl was being pimped out were really shocking, but maybe I’m a little naive. I saw the film with a friend from east London and when I told him I didn’t think that really happened, he said: “Of course if does.” That was an eye-opener, to see how desperate people in that situation are.
Riz Ahmed is a fantastic actor and I really felt for his character โ a person who has been through care and finds themselves in a loveless world but despite that is still looking for people to make a human connection with, and still trying to do the right thing. What I found really sad about the whole story was these people that just want to be loved and be normal, but they’re trapped in this system. These people are not heartless or uncaring; underneath the violence, the film showed they have a softer side. Unfortunately, there are pockets of these environments all around us, but the only time we usually pay attention to them is when they impact on the perfect world, for instance when a child from the right side of the tracks is killed. The sad reality is this stuff happens every day.
Most people in east London feel completely disconnected from the Olympics. They don’t feel any of the wealth generated will be fed back in to the community in a way that will affect them; it’s not going to trickle down to the people at the bottom of society who need help the most, the crackheads on the corner or people just struggling to get by. For a debut film, Plan B has taken a lot of risks, and I hope they pay off and it provokes a lot of discussion.
Labour MP for Walthamstow
The film was a really powerful piece of storytelling. It was obviously a bit of a homage to Pulp Fiction, and the fact that so many things happen at the same time was exaggerated a bit to create the storyline. But do I recognise those characters and those issues? Yes, I certainly do. I used to live in Forest Gate, and it’s not far from where I live now and the area I represent. You can tell Plan B is a local and that he cares. The beginning was a bit clunky, in terms of some of the dialogue setting up the story, but that’s a minor detail.
One of the film’s strengths was that although it was bleak, there were elements of friendship and love, and there was a positive ending. Most of the central characters had moments where they did good things for other people, or showed care and compassion for each other. The most powerful message in the film is that you can choose different paths in life. All the characters are reacting to the environment around them, and making choices, be it the kid that beats up his mate to join a gang or the man who goes back in to the burning building to try to save a baby.
There are lots of issues in the film that reflect the work I do with my local community, and I hope it’ll get people talking because these are issues all of us need to address โ the very day I went to see the film we had another fatal stabbing in Walthamstow. Plan B can be immensely proud that he’s produced such a challenging and provocative film. Considering that’s the first film he’s made it’s incredibly accomplished.
I’d seen the video to the single iLL Manors, which gave me an idea of what to expect. I thought it was really well structured, especially the way some of the poetic raps linked the story. For people who listen to his music but don’t know the environment, it paints a fuller picture. I’m literally down the road from where Ben grew up, so I could relate to a lot of the film. It was very real. The way people are on edge, and the way the hierarchal system works โ there’s always a higher boss above each boss, and the boss at the top is never really seen.
There were a couple of bits that were a bit exaggerated, a bit Hollywood, like the scene where they kidnapped someone and had him tied up, but most of it was pretty real, especially the way people were acting in the pub scenes, and the pimping and prostitution. A lot of that happens in east London, I’ve seen it.
It’s hard to see a way out of those situations. Even myself, I used to hang with some moody boys, and when I wanted to get out of that circle it was an issue. They were like, “Nah, what do you mean, you’re with us.” Luckily music showed me another life.
Plan BR&BUrban musicPop and rockDramaTinchy StryderCamila BatmanghelidjhChildrenFraser NelsonToby YoungPauline PearceLethal BizzleEdwina Currieguardian.co.uk ฉ 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds