Guer­rilla takes us back to a volatile Bri­tain of rad­i­cal vi­o­lence and po­lice bru­tal­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blundell Guer­rilla, David Strat­ton’s Sto­ries of Aus­tralian Cin­ema,

Writer and di­rec­tor John Ri­d­ley was un­til re­cently best known for his 2013 Academy Award­win­ning Years a Slave screen­play; now he is a big player in this new era of in­no­va­tive tele­vi­sion sto­ry­telling. His Emmy-win­ning an­thol­ogy drama Amer­i­can Crime, a clever, densely worked so­ci­o­log­i­cal tweak on the clas­sic cop pro­ce­dural, proved com­plex nar­ra­tives could still find a home on net­work TV in the US (in this case ABC) and not only on ca­ble or the pro­lif­er­at­ing stream­ing ser­vices.

His lat­est, Guer­rilla, is a six-part co­pro­duc­tion be­tween ca­ble net­work Show­time in the US and Bri­tain’s Sky At­lantic. It is pri­mar­ily writ­ten and di­rected by Ri­d­ley, and is so good, so driven, so com­mand­ing and so stylis­ti­cally en­gag­ing, that it might also hoover up awards. It is also won­der­fully em­blem­atic of Ri­d­ley’s com­mit­ment to “pop­u­lat­ing the cul­ture with driven and com­pli­cated peo­ple of colour”.

Set against the back­drop of the Bri­tish Immigration Act of 1971, in which cit­i­zens of the Commonwealth lost their au­to­matic right to re­main in Bri­tain un­less they had lived and worked there for five years, Guer­rilla is a se­ries that plays out across the racial and class di­vides of that trou­bled time. It was a pe­riod when, largely for­got­ten now, the coun­try was en­gaged in war­fare with many of its own peo­ple, those who mil­i­tantly dared to chal­lenge sys­temic racism. Immigration was a vi­o­lent bat­tle­field.

As Ri­d­ley so pun­gently re­veals in this fic­tion­alised (though largely based on fact) se­ries, it was a time when reach­ing out to re­spect and ide­alise cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies was part of a more dif­fuse quest for al­ter­na­tives to a so­cial sys­tem seen as un­just, op­pres­sive and ine­gal­i­tar­ian. He presents us with the har­row­ing tale, and res­o­nant and timely it is too, of a young, ide­al­is­tic cou­ple who, as he says, “get to the point where they think they can only af­fect change through the bar­rel of a gun”.

The se­ries is pref­aced by a quote from Ho Chi Minh, one of the fash­ion­able cul­tural heroes of the late 1960s and early 70s. Like Che Gue­vara, Fidel Cas­tro and Mao, he was eter­nally iden­ti­fied with guerilla war­fare and po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence: “Peo­ple who come out of prison can build up a coun­try. Mis­for­tune is a test of peo­ple’s fidelity. Those who protest injustice are peo­ple of true merit. When the prison gates are opened the real dragon will fly out.”

Mar­cus Hill, a black, bookish Bri­tish cit­i­zen with Nige­rian par­ents, and Jas Mi­tra, In­dian by birth and the tena­cious daugh­ter of im­mi­grants, played with in­tense con­vic­tion by Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto re­spec­tively, are in­volved with the grow­ing anti-es­tab­lish­ment move­ment in their com­mu­nity, largely as a re­sponse to the vi­o­lence and cor­rup­tion of the London po­lice. But also, as chil­dren of the colonies that built the em­pire, they daily con­front the ques­tion of iden­tity: are they cit­i­zens or merely vis­i­tors? Coun­try­men or in­ter­lop­ers?

As Mar­cus fu­tilely looks for em­ploy­ment as an English teacher — he al­ready teaches lit­er­a­ture to in­car­cer­ated black men as part of the prison re­form move­ment — and Jas works at the Ham­mer­smith Hospi­tal, they are dra­mat­i­cally rad­i­calised by the ac­tions of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Po­lice’s sinister Black Power Desk. Known as the “hard heart” of Spe­cial Branch, headed by the fer­vent anti-ac­tivist of­fi­cer Ni­cholas Pence (Rory Kin­n­ear), the Desk re­cruits heav­ily trained cops from South Africa and Rhode­sia to weed out black rad­i­cal trou­ble­mak­ers. (The Desk was ac­tu­ally es­tab­lished in 1967 by or­der of Roy Jenk­ins, then home sec­re­tary, and kept black ac­tivists un­der sur­veil­lance for many years.)

When their friend Ju­lian Clarke (Ni­cholas Pin­nock) is bru­tally mur­dered in broad day­light by the Desk dur­ing a demon­stra­tion against right-wing ex­trem­ists, the Na­tional Front, they plan, adamantly led by the fiery Jas, to lib­er­ate a charis­matic po­lit­i­cal pris­oner called Dhari Bishop (Nathaniel Martello-White), who has been in­car­cer­ated in Worm­wood Scrubs for stab­bing a man while rob­bing a bot­tle shop.

She’s de­ter­mined the fight must be fought by trained mil­i­tants, like the Ger­man BaaderMein­hof gang, com­mit­ting ter­ror­ist acts in the name of Marx­ist-Lenin­ist-Maoist rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideals, or the Broth­er­hood of Eter­nal Love, the lawless Amer­i­can evan­ge­lists who had formed a church in de­vo­tion to the trans­for­ma­tive power of LSD. “We need a sol­dier who can take the fight to them,” she tells Mar­cus. “When Dhari talks peo­ple will lis­ten; when he points his finger at the belly of the beast, we will know ex­actly where to cut it.”

The se­ries is in­tense and vis­ceral, its vi­o­lence of­ten quite con­fronting — though black­outs are used at the most ex­treme mo­ments. Ri­d­ley’s ur­gent sto­ry­telling style drama­tises the pe­riod’s sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to the at­trac­tions of rev­o­lu­tion­ary vi­o­lence, the use of vi­o­lent meth­ods be­ing viewed as proof of au­then­tic po­lit­i­cal com­mit­ment and per­sonal courage.

As in Amer­i­can Crime, a se­ries that is also chal­leng­ing to watch at times, scenes run un­nerv­ingly long, the cam­era re­main­ing fo­cused on sin­gle char­ac­ters in con­ver­sa­tion, re­verse an­gles largely ab­sent. Much of Guer­rilla is shot in ex­treme close-up, and Ri­d­ley holds on his char­ac­ters’ faces for long mo­ments when they are lis­ten­ing, re­fus­ing the con­ven­tional op­tion of cut­ting to the speaker. The style has been called “brac­ing” in strip­ping away ex­tra­ne­ous de­tails to keep the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal in bal­ance. Brac­ing, in­deed. Far re­moved from the vi­o­lent world of wouldbe rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and slip­pery po­lice cor­rup­tion is the dap­per, thought­ful pres­ence of film critic David Strat­ton, who this week con­cludes his en­light­en­ing bi­o­graph­i­cal study, David Strat­ton’s Sto­ries of Aus­tralian Cin­ema. The se­ries is writ­ten and di­rected by the highly ac­com­plished Sally Aitken ( Get­ting Frank Gehry) and pro­duced by fine film­mak­ers Joanne McGowan — who most re­cently gave us Be­tween a Frock and a Hard Place, the doc­u­men­tary that looked well be­yond the his­tory of The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to the so­ci­ety from which it grew — and Jen­nifer Pee­dom, one of our great doc­u­men­tar­i­ans, who was re­spon­si­ble for the award-win­ning Sherpa, the third high­est gross­ing Aus­tralian doc­u­men­tary in cin­ema his­tory.

And their se­ries, as one might ex­pect, is sim­ply splen­did, a three-hour ex­plo­ration of our film in­dus­try in all its of­ten wretched, knock­about glory that Aitken de­scribes “sim­ply as a love let­ter to Aus­tralian cin­ema”.

Strat­ton (a long­stand­ing writer for Re­view) is the per­fect com­pan­ion, a critic who has al­ways ap­pealed to our need for il­lu­mi­na­tion, and while over the 28 years of his TV ap­pear­ances he has ap­peared some­times hope­lessly and charm­ingly gen­teel along­side the mer­cu­rial Mar­garet Pomer­anz, here he presents a rather dif­fer­ent per­sona. As Aitken says: “In re­al­ity the man be­hind the critic, be­hind the for­mal tele­vi­sion per­sona, has a rather devil­ish sense of fun as well as an emo­tional vul­ner­a­bil­ity never seen be­fore.”

Ever alert to nu­ance, Strat­ton steps out of the studio and goes on the road, vis­it­ing such film locations as the Bro­ken Hill of out­back hor­ror film Wake in Fright, which echoed through David’s own ex­pe­ri­ence as an unini­ti­ated Aus­tralian, the or­di­nary Mel­bourne house in which The Cas­tle was filmed, and the desert where Walk­a­bout and Rab­bit-Proof Fence’s tragedies and tri­umphs played out.

At times it is a touch­ingly per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence for the critic, who mi­grated to Aus­tralia in 1963, when the in­dus­try con­sisted of a cou­ple of de­cay­ing lab­o­ra­to­ries, two or three small film com­pa­nies mak­ing com­mer­cials for some­thing still called “the idiot box”, and half a dozen stal­warts grind­ing out a liv­ing mak­ing spon­sored doc­u­men­taries. Lo­cal pro­duc­tion com­prised ads for Mortein fly spray, Kia-Ora soups and Du Mau­rier cig­a­rettes.

It was, as Phillip Adams was fond of point­ing out, as stuffed as Phar Lap. It would soon change, as Strat­ton so per­sua­sively re­veals, in­ter­view­ing many of the veterans and pi­o­neers and an A-list cast of di­rec­tors, writ­ers and ac­tors in­clud­ing Ni­cole Kid­man, Rus­sell Crowe, Geoffrey Rush, Rachel Grif­fiths, Eric Bana and Jacki Weaver. “A na­tion found its iden­tity through cin­ema, and so did I,” he says.

He once told me a story of hav­ing din­ner in London in 1982 with The Guardian’s film critic Derek Mal­colm and di­rec­tor Bernardo Ber­tolucci, “when he was mak­ing good films”. Mal­colm was asked why he had never di­rected films him­self, un­like other crit­ics such as Jean-Luc Go­dard, Fran­cois Truf­faut and Claude Chabrol. Ber­tolucci in­ter­rupted. “Don’t take away our crit­ics,’’ he im­plored. “We film­mak­ers need them as a bridge. The critic is the link be­tween us and the au­di­ence.” In a time when pro­fes­sional crit­ics and arts writ­ers are dis­ap­pear­ing, we should be grate­ful for be­ing able to share time with Mr Strat­ton who, as al­ways, ad­dresses us with clar­ity, ci­vil­ity and com­mon sense. BBC First, Sun­day, 9.30pm. ABC, Tues­day, 8.30pm.

Dy­namic pairings: Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay in Guer­rilla, top; David Strat­ton and Mar­garet Pomer­anz, left

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