For this documentary about gang rivalry, filmmaker Penny Woolcock returns to the setting of her 2009 rap musical 1 Day and finds a story that's even more powerful than the first time around. For this exploration of the feuding gangs in Birmingham - the Burgers and the Johnsons - Woolcock centres on one man from each side who has dedicated himself to finding a route to peace between the gangs. It's an extraordinarily simple approach, and profoundly involving.
Since members of the two gangs can't be seen to be talking to each other, Woolcock arranges for them to meet in a hotel safely out of view. Everyone is so paranoid that it will be a miracle if anything changes, but they have to be like this to survive. Dylan, who starred in 1 Day, is from the Burgers, and he quickly finds high-profile support in his neighbourhood for his work to bring the city together. By contrast, Snabba spends nearly a year talking to members of the Johnsons before he finds one person who is willing to join with him.
As in 1 Day, Woolcock uses the local music to add textures to the situations, often re-enacting shootings and narrow escapes in the rappers' songs. She covers a full year in the city starting in autumn 2010 when official statistics recorded an average of three gun crimes per day among the gangs. And it ends with the August 2011 riots, which Woolcock captures from an angle we never saw in the news. Skilfully shot and edited, the film follows the likeable, charismatic Dylan and Snabba into some startlingly tense situations as they meet with friends and rivals. Wollcock also talks to tough guys who are nervous about the constant threat of violence around them.
Everyone on screen has a forceful, memorable personality, often with a lively sense of humour and real artistic gifts. So it's haunting that none of these people knows why the gangs are locked in this deadly battle. Back in 1985, everyone banded together against a common enemy: the racist police force. But now it's a pointless tribal war based on pride and revenge. And as Woolcock digs into the causes behind black-on-black violence, what she discovers is revelatory. It's no wonder that these people feel so desperate when police, bankers and politicians make it clear every day that they don't care about them. So should we be surprised if they team up again one day to fight back?