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One Mile Away: Quest for peace among Birmingham's gangs

2013-02-26 13:39:22

One Mile Away

It's the documentary that shines a light on the murky world of two notorious Birmingham gangs - and which helped promote an uneasy truce.

One Mile Away tells the story of the war that raged between the Burger Bar Boys (B21) and Johnson Crew (B6) and reveals how politicians, police and gang members have worked together to bring peace to the streets.

The documentary - so called because one mile is all that divides the two postcodes - was made by acclaimed film-maker Penny Woolcock and was screened in the city at a special press preview last night.

Now Ms Woolcock, a former cabinet minister and one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process have been credited with achieving what was once unthinkable: bringing the two gangs together.

The film-maker was previously behind the controversial release 1 Day - a 2009 hip-hop musical set against the backdrop of gun crime in the city.

A year after its release, Ms Woolcock received a call from former Johnson Crew member Matthias Thompson, who wanted her to act as a neutral go-between for the two sides, to explore the idea of a truce.

He said: "I wanted to be able to look back when I was older and say I'd made history. I wanted to stop the violence rather than waste our energy running each other down."

At around the same time, the film's producer, former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell, set up a meeting with diplomat Jonathan Powell - one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement.

In a scene in One Mile Away, Powell and Purnell are shown sitting on one side of a long conference table, facing three gang members over neatly cut sandwiches and bowls of fresh fruit.

Powell warns them that achieving peace would be a long and difficult process, but that the most important thing was "to keep pedalling the bicycle".

"I did see interesting parallels and echoes from not just Northern Ireland but other conflicts as well," says Powell.

"With armed groups like the IRA or gangs you tend to find that they only talk to themselves.

"They exist in a cultural and physical ghetto with very little idea of what the outside world thinks of them.

"One of the first things is to persuade them to see the other person's point of view... Once you get people talking, it mustn't break down."

Powell believes the process could be rolled out to tackle other gangland feuds.

"Am I optimistic? Yes.

"There's no such thing as an insoluble armed conflict or gang conflict."

Critic's view

The Birmingham Mail's Graham Young watches One Mile Away

This documentary has an atmospheric edge with shots of graves and members of the gangs rapping in the streets.

But there is no sign of violence other than people pointing out where gun attacks have taken place, or where they have been stabbed.

Penny Woolcock involves herself in proceedings every now and then, but never takes the film by the scruff of the neck like Michael Moore.

Her interviewees are mostly men, but it takes one unnamed woman to talk the most sense about having a rivalry based on postcodes and not much else.

Despite the negativity of the men's backgrounds, there is a sense of optimism about the film that talking is the way forward, though Woolcock never explains how the community is funding itself.

As a documentary, One Mile Away feels more real than her 1 Day (2009) feature film and should have a more positive impact when screened to young people.

In June last year, One Mile Away became the first documentary to win the Michael Powell Best British Film Award at the 66th Edinburgh Film Festival. Now it is set to become a 'social enterprise' DVD to help schools reduce gang culture in the UK.

It will be on general release from March 29 and will screen during Birmingham's Flatpack Festival (March 21-31). It will be broadcast on Channel 4 in the spring.

Penny Woolcock said: "One Mile Away is about transforming and saving lives and will help us to get the message out to our inner cities."

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