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(Credit: BFI)


"The Endless Campaign": A review of Ken Fero's powerful documentary 'Ultraviolence'


Politics is the art of selling pain.” – Ken Fero

Nineteen years in the making, UK documentary filmmaker Ken Fero has produced a startlingly prescient and powerful chronicle of a broken system which continues targeting marginalised individuals, people who have been stripped off their human rights. Ultraviolence is a lot of things: it is a letter to Fero’s own son, it is an archive of documented injustice, it is an unceasing battle-cry for equality but more importantly, it is needed. A lot of media attention in 2020 has been focused on the brutal murder of George Floyd. Critics of the BLM movement dismiss such instances of police violence as exceptions to the norm, unrelated acts. However, an insurmountable amount of evidence has pointed to the contrary, to the reality of systemic racism. Ultraviolence does not make the mistake of claiming, it shows.

“I wanted to gather on a film what many do not want to know. So, here are the traces of that time: images and sounds of violence and death. Moments captured of hope and resistance,” this is Fero’s statement of intent. Ultraviolence is a painful collection of security camera footage featuring recorded deaths, interviews of mourning families and friends as well as glimpses of mass-protests. It begins with the frightening statistic that there have been over 2000 deaths in police custody over the last 50 years. Fero covers some of the horrible tragedies that occurred between 1995-2005 and tells his son: “I’m leaving this film to you and your generation as the evidence of that struggle.”

Structured in the form of memories, Fero transitions from one act of police brutality to the next. He employs inter-titles like Jean-Luc Godard and is conscious of the conventions of filmmaking but how does one frame death? The documentary shows footage from the camera of a police station in Hull. Christopher Adler, aged 37, is lying on the floor of the precinct dying as the officers joke and dismiss his serious condition. Fero uses animation to introduce Adler’s story but stuns us with reality. There are no cinematic techniques anymore, this is the realm of unmistakable truth. Fero reflects: “The filmmaker Pasolini believed that the long take was the central element of cinema. In filmmaking, death is often displayed as sudden. Here, we watch death happen. It is not cinematic. It is brutal.”

Ultraviolence keeps showing us acts of deferred justice, again and again and again. Camera footage from the cell of Paul Coker reveals that he was left to die on the floor of his cell, his clothes torn from his body. During his last moments, the officers outside can be heard discussing the events of his arrest. One officer laughs and says, “We had a lot of fun anyway.” Fero documents the outrage after the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian who came to the UK to work and study. He was misidentified as a terrorist and without any due process, he was shot seven times in the head. Through interviews with family members, the film recounts the death of Fero’s classmate Brian Douglas whose skull was fractured by police officers. “The Endless Struggle” keeps flashing on the screen, signifying the hopelessness of the people trapped in a failed system. Futile conversations with relevant authorities lead to nothing. One disillusioned family member says:

“So for every meeting we have, you’ll come away thinking, ‘Oh, right. Okay. Yes. They’re on our side.’ They’re on their side. They’re on the side of the job [and what] it entails and that is to contain. We are being contained.”

Countless others have shared the same tragic fate. Some of those stories have been addressed by Fero, like Roger Sylvester who was restrained by eight police officers outside of his home and died later or Harry Stanley, a carpenter who was shot dead because the police thought he was holding a weapon when, in reality, he was holding a table leg. Some of those tragedies have been brought to light, most remain buried in police records and lazy newspaper headlines. At its core, Ultraviolence is an act of forced remembrance. It is vital that we acknowledge the failures of the system when those failures are continuously and consistently amounting to deaths and destruction of human lives. Fero shows us a happy childhood picture of Paul Coker and immediately follows it up with a snapshot of his corpse: “Outside one frame, there is love. Outside the other, there is violence.”

Fero hesitantly harbours dreams of a revolution but he also acknowledges how quick people are to forget the reality of this violence. When people were exposed to footage of Vietnamese children melting from napalm in 1972, there was outrage and then it was forgotten. That did not stop the war in Iraq from happening. Ultraviolence is a self-aware documentary which knows the limitations of its influence but does its duty as an exigent chronicle of our time. Fero rightly declares:

These are the crimes that I accuse my country of and for which it cannot be forgiven.