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FILM REVIEW: Ultraviolence – The BFI London Film Festival 2020

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Tariq Mehmood

Director: Ken Fero

Deaths by police action inflamed our summer, sparking the #BlackLivesMatter protests but while the most famous cases have happened in America, Ken Fero’s new film, Ultraviolence highlights the story of several UK families whose relatives have died in police custody after excessive force was used and their subsequent quest for prosecution. Unsparing in its anatomy of failures of the justice system, Fero’s film is a difficult but important watch.

Framed as a letter to his son, this documentary contains several case studies of violence in the public realm that lead to rising societal tensions and result in the unlawful deaths of innocent individuals. From wars in the early 1990s and terrorist acts a decade later, Fero draws a direct line between aggressive foreign policies, popular protest and the deaths of the specific individuals he focuses on. The film is, Fero explains, “a memory of those who cannot forget and a warning to those who refuse to see.” His film focuses on the context in which violence is created and then perpetrated by those tasked with protection.

Ultraviolence employs a rather old-fashioned approach in its construction including voiceover narration by Fero and Cathy Tyson to frame the story, combining archive footage, interviews with family and bold graphics to link the various sections together. With 2000 deaths in police custody since the 1960s, Fero’s accusatory tone is unstinting and while it includes footage of formal inquiries and briefings, Fero does not balance his film with testimony from the law enforcement perspective.

But then perhaps no balance is necessary given the subject matter and the extraordinary CCTV images of Paul Coker and Brian Douglas dying in police stations as well of photographs of Coker’s tubed body still in the cell. This is not easy to see, particularly as police officers laugh at their prisoners, accusing them of faking their conditions. Some of this is also described by family members, an unfathomable experience for them, having to see and discuss footage of their loved one’s death.

Fero’s film also includes animation that recreates some of the events that led to the arrest and subsequent death of the men that help the viewer form an understanding of the sequence of events – something that becomes important to the legal challenges and activism that fill the rest of the documentary as families seek to prove when and why death happened.

Ultraviolence argues that the deaths of Douglas, Coker, John Charles de Menezes, Roger Sylvester and Nuur Saeed among others is an Establishment cover-up where the media plays its role in hiding the truth by recasting the lives of those who died to protect the police and law enforcement. Occasionally the collusion narrative can feel a little blunt and Fero is clearly outraged by the things he has recorded, but the presentation of evidence and the family interviews seem to make an undefendable case about the use and effect of violence on UK citizens.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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