Gang of one: Penny Woolcock’s new documentary

Over a cup of tea in a cosy, cluttered flat in north London, a 63-year-old middle-class grandmother is telling me about her work, which in recent years has involved making friends with gangsters, receiving death threats and fighting a court case against the police (which she won).

'We were all completely terrified. A lot of people in the gangs did not agree with what we were doing’

All of this happened to the film-maker Penny Woolcock while she was working on One Mile Away, an eye-opening and life-changing documentary that charts attempts to broker a truce in Birmingham between two gangs, the Burger Bar Boys (based in the postcode B21) and the Johnson Crew (from B6). The film won the Michael Powell award at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year and will be in cinemas later this month.

Woolcock, who has been making films since the early 1980s, is also a scriptwriter and director of theatre and opera (the latter at the New York Met and the English National Opera). Her lyrical film about the British and their relationship with the coast, From the Sea to the Land Beyond, was released in January.

She is certainly prolific. But it is One Mile Away – and the work keeping children out of gang culture that it inspired – that still occupies much of her time and energy. Woolcock explains how the film came about: “I suppose in some ways it is completely ludicrous that a middle-class white film-maker should be right in the middle of getting some sort of truce going between gangs in Birmingham, but in a way it all makes sense, because it is based on friendships.”

She had first met gang members in 2007 while researching her hip-hop musical film 1 Day (2009), which follows a day in the life of a street hustler. Woolcock often uses non-professional actors in her fictional films: the Bafta-nominated Tina Goes Shopping (1999) and its two sequels were performed by residents of a housing estate in Leeds. It takes months to win the locals’ trust: “[In Leeds] everyone thought I was undercover police, or that I was from social services and was going to take their children away. And what happens eventually is that you meet somebody you like, and they like you, and a friendship develops, and they introduce you to other people.”

After 1 Day, Woolcock had remained friends with Dylan Duffus, the charismatic, “Burger”-affiliated man who played the lead. She also stayed in touch with a man she very much liked from the Johnson side, Shabba (real name: Matthias Thompson). When Shabba called Woolcock out of the blue in October 2010, asking her to help him try to put a stop to the violence, “I, very naively, said yes.”

Because Duffus trusted Woolcock, he agreed to meet Shabba in a neutral hotel room. “We were all completely terrified,” Woolcock says. “A lot of people in the gangs did not agree with what we were doing.” She was threatened but was more worried about her friends. “The real risk was to the boys. And that was the sleepless nights, I mean, really, for a whole year, I just could not sleep.”

One Mile Away, filmed over more than a year, evokes the claustrophobic, inner-city life of gang members, told from their own (very eloquent) perspective. Woolcock describes it as a “little hermetically sealed world, they don’t leave their postcode”. The men she got to know found it incredible that this woman in her sixties had never known anyone who’d been stabbed or shot. “That was sort of unbelievable to them, if you ask people there how many people they know [who have been killed] they can’t actually count, it’s not like one or two, they don’t like to [say] in case they leave somebody out, and that would be disrespectful. I mean, this is the same country that we live in but it is a parallel world.”

This waste of life makes Woolcock angry when we talk but her on-screen ire is directed at the police. When they tell Woolcock to stop filming, she is indignant and keeps the camera rolling. “The police ended up taking me to court, they wanted my [film] rushes.” Why were they so intent on getting the footage? Woolcock’s usually calm voice rises a little. “They wanted to know what I was talking about because obviously they were interested in those people. It’s the old argument: don’t talk to terrorists. Well, if you want to stop a war you have to talk to the perpetrators – who else are you going to talk to?”

Incongruously, the former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell produced the film. (The pair struck up a friendship after a chance meeting in a sandwich queue at a conference.) He appears on screen, having fixed up a key meeting for Shabba, Duffus and Woolcock with Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, the negotiator during the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This meeting was pivotal, Woolcock says, as they had been getting nowhere with their own negotiations. “Jonathan said, the only advice I can give you is that you just have to keep going, and if you persevere it will work.”

This is exactly what the group did. They have since set up a social enterprise, also called One Mile Away, which mentors children who might be at risk and has piloted outreach education programmes for primary schools; all with stunning results. Crime in the postcodes where One Mile Away has been working dropped by 50 per cent last year in one area and 30 per cent in the other. Woolcock says January 2013 was the first month for many years without a single firearms incident being recorded in the locality. “There are people from both sides, they all work in the same office. Things have really moved on.” Woolcock hopes the model might inspire people elsewhere to do something similar.

What strikes me is that unlike observational documentaries, which can come across as middle-class voyeurism, this film is properly transformative for those involved. Woolcock nods. “By making a piece of art, by making a film, that was also transforming the reality that it was reflecting – I have never had the chance to do that before and I sort of blundered into it really blind … But we know we have kept a dozen, but probably more, people out of prison.”

Many of her film projects share an aim of connecting with communities outside society’s mainstream, and finding out what makes them tick. “I suppose I am interested in trying to understand how to walk in other people’s shoes rather than make judgments.”

Woolcock herself has more of an outsider status than her middle-class English accent would suggest. Born in 1950 in Buenos Aires, she grew up in an affluent Anglo-Argentine community. “It’s very commerce-orientated. There was no interesting culture and my only window on the world was through books. Through books I knew there were artists and people who thought differently, and that there was a different kind of life I could lead. That was exciting.”

She left at the earliest opportunity and, in Barcelona, she had a son, Dylan Martinez (now 43, and Reuters’ chief photographer for UK and Ireland). Having moved to England as a very young single mother, “I had a 15-year period when I was pretty much living on the edge. I always worked, washing up in hospitals and things like that, but could never earn enough to get off income support.

“Because I have experienced poverty I don’t condescend to people, I don’t assume they have got miserable lives or that they are not interesting or haven’t got as full, if not a fuller, range of emotions and intelligence as everyone else. I don’t pity people. Compassion is different.”

She got into film-making almost by accident, aged 34, while working with a group of unemployed teenagers in Oxford in 1984. Woolcock suggested they alleviate the boredom by making a film for Channel 4. “And we did. And it kind of went from there.”

Woolcock has plenty of new projects under way (including plans to direct again at the ENO next year). But she spends a couple of hours a day on the phone or emailing with Birmingham. “I will be involved with the One Mile Away people for the rest of my life. It sounds cheesy but it is about love, in a way. I really believe in them and what they are trying to do.”

Isabel Berwick is associate editor of FT Life & Arts. ‘One Mile Away’ is on general release from March 29 and will be broadcast on Channel 4 in April.

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