This short film: ‘This is what happens to a black a boy with a BIG mouth’ ended up being included in a feature documentary: The 10 new commandments a multi-authored project we were asked to make a contribution to for the 10th anniversary of the European human rights charter. It was also sadly the last commissioned film that my then Producer and current life-partner: Marie Olesen worked on together through our production company autonomi.tv after more than an extraordinary decade of BAFTA nominated filmmaking.
How the film came about in the first place was itself a story in its own right, because the subject of the film Aamer Anwar a Glasgow based human rights and criminal lawyer had just been appointed as the defence for ‘Scotland’s first Islamic terrorist’ Atif Siddique
Aamer had pretty much pitched the story to us and we instantly knew it would enable us to achieve something that no one in the London Documentary establishment had managed to achieve at that point: gain access to the devout Muslim family of a boy who was making the headlines in the tabloids that his Father was selling at his corner shop in a place called Alva as: ‘Scotland’s first wannabe suicide bomber’
But if we thought accessing and gaining the trust of a Muslim family in an old mill-town which I can only really describe as being like a cross between a pumped-up/alcohol fuelled version of Trumpton and Twin Peaks was a tough call, then dealing with our commissioning editor down at channel 4 would prove to be even harder; Not least of all because he wanted us to pursue an editorial agenda which I can only describe as being like a cross between Chris Morris’s Nathan Barley and 4 Lions. Even worse though it soon became apparent to us that if our London Commissioner had wanted a ‘funny’ terror story then the Nations and Regions controller of channel 4 in Glasgow didn’t want a story at all and even accused us of harbouring a left-wing agenda and just wanting to cause unnecessary trouble in his ‘hood. Equally neither seemed the least bit interested in the fact that a potential miscarriage of justice may be taking place, or that the security services were chasing a stupid boy whose only real crime was to have on his computer the kind of stuff that you or I can also freely download from the internet, rather than pursuing a real terror threat.
The prosecution case at the trial meanwhile was relying on testimony from an American ‘Terror Expert’ with a dubious pedigree and the gossip of a key-witness in a student canteen to make their case, which under cross-examination was exposed as being as much about 20-something asian male machismo/female flirting and the sectarian divisions that exist between the Shia and Sunni Muslim communities then it was real proof of a plot to carry out a suicide bombing in Glasgow; While the credentials and credibility of the American Terror expert who included beheading videos on his website was also torn apart by legendary rottweiler Scottish QC: Donald Findlay.
So perhaps in the end we did have that funny terrorist story after all? The ‘1 Lion’ as we were calling it..
On top of covering what was happening at the trial – which the mainstream press from the outset was selectively reporting – our fretting commissioner also insisted that we work with one of the ‘Dark Lords’ who lurk behind the scenes of the UK television scene: An Oxford blue-blood with a 2:2 in law and an ‘expert’ on Irish terrorism, who from the very outset was frank with us about the fact that his job was to police us as much as make a film. But despite the control freakery and attempts to divide and rule that were taking place, we soon grew to like our ‘Dark Lord’ especially when he too saw for himself that it didn’t take an Oxford law degree or a Harry Potter wand and cloak, to see that the case and story had much more to it. I should also add here that from the very outset attempts were also made to pressure the Producer into replacing me on my film with a ‘professional’ who could work with ‘constructed reality’ and in the process perhaps tell a funny terror yarn. But in the end though it was simple: without me there wasn’t a story and that was something which both Marie and I agreed on, because even if I had been prepared to take the token pay-off on offer in return for my ‘work’ and just pissed-off back to the lefty-conspiracy land that they imagined that I came from, we both knew the end product would be the kind of parachute filmmaking that is all too prevalent in documentaries. Something which we as an ethical production company always fought against.
But perhaps more important than all of this was that we carried on with our filming.
We filmed in and around Atif’s show trial and hung about outside the courthouse with be suited posh-scot TV news presenters and their lackie film crews, tabloid hacks and the odd spook or 2, all of whom had already decided they were going to hang Atif out to dry and humiliate his family on national TV after the guilty verdict which was inevitable. But unlike these ‘professionals’ and ‘terror experts’ we also filmed with Atif’s father and his brother Asif at their corner shop as they sold alcohol to the locals on vodka and cider fuelled lazy Sunday afternoons; We filmed in the family home during Ramadan, watched home videos of Atif as a kid with his family, broke the fast and sat and ate Mrs Siddique’s fantastic chicken curry, before eventually getting what our ‘Dark Lord’ had craved the most: The moment and reaction when a Newsagent whose son was now a convicted Al-Qaeda terrorist opens his morning delivery of newspapers to see the headline: Baby Faced Suicide Bomber.
And then we filmed with the lawyer Aamer – who was never camera-shy – at work, play and in Glasgow central mosque during Friday prayers, before finally presenting some of what we had to our London Commissioner who begrudgingly agreed that although it wasn’t so funny that we had delivered and gained access to the family and shown the whites of their eyes. Then after some additional pressure from our ‘Dark Lord’ he agreed to commission the full film BUT – and it was a big BUT – we would be required to consult channel 4’s Nations and Regions own ‘compliance’ lawyer who we soon discovered was on first name terms with Atif’s trial judge. Yet despite agreeing to these compromises at that point – and I still think also we were talking about a funny terrorist film: our 1 Lion – which Atif’s brother quite liked the idea of when I’d mentioned it to him, we left London happy, returning to Glasgow with a rare thing: a Cutting Edge commission that wasn’t being produced by a big London production company or directed by a documentary establishment thoroughbred or former bed-mate of a TV controller.
But within a week of being back in the Nations and Regions the project was mysteriously de-commissioned.
So we carried on filming anyway.
And we carried on filming until we were approached to make a contribution to the film I’ve mentioned about the European human rights charter and were offered: Freedom of Expression as our theme.
Only would we consider doing something else?
Something perhaps with the Glasgow gangs we’d been filming over 2 years and why it was wrong to call them Neds rather than the Lawyer and Terrorist story?
By this stage the Glasgow airport Terrorist attack had taken place carried-out by what the security services refer to as ‘Clean skins’ – or people who were off the radar and not under suspicion/surveillance – While Atif’s lawyer Aamer Anwar now also faced contempt charges for speaking out against the trial judge at Atif’s guilty verdict which came in the same week of the anniversary of 9/11 and shortly after the Glasgow airport attack. I should also add that the TV crews got to humiliate the family too outside the courthouse, gloating over their revenge for the family’ s decision to remain silent.
And we carried on filming….
Right-up until Atif was eventually released from his gaol sentence on the basis of a miscarriage of justice and had moved back home to eat his Mum’s chicken curries and help out in his Dad’s corner shop in Alva. Aamer Anwar too was acquitted of all the contempt charges brought against him and he continues his work as a lawyer and – for better and mostly worse these days – as a Sun newspaper columnist.
As film-makers we’d fought long and hard to make even this shortened down version of our story, and had even found ourselves fighting to the bitter end with the agenda of the BBC’s own in-house lawyer, who was insisting on disclaimers and captions at the end of our film that pretty much went against what had happened at the acquittals. As a result we were left with no choice but to say that we would withdraw our film about Freedom of Expression for a celebration of the European Human Rights charter. Even the BBC realized they had a problem and that they now faced the situation of showing a film called the 9 New Commandments with the one clause in that charter that is perhaps close to the BBC’s own heart now than ever before: Freedom of Expression missing.
Finally they agreed to our choice of end captions but we knew it wasn’t the end of the matter. As a result we pretty much knew that what we’d made would mean that the doors which had opened to us over more than a decade of filmmaking were all now closing. As much as we still love Glasgow – which is still our spiritual home – we both knew that it was time to move on if we wanted to carry on making a living from what it is we do and still care passionately about.
As I write this now from Copenhagen the first snow of winter has arrived and I’m getting ready to head back across the Sea as I still do regularly for health and personal reasons due to my current status, only this time I’m on a mission of sorts. Because for the past few years in-between dealing with cancer, I’ve got to thinking not just about a film that never happened called: A Boy from Alva, but also about all the material I have in an archive from years of filmmaking in Scotland. A period of activity which began a few weeks before 9/11 with the murder of a Kurdish Asylum seeker on a Glasgow housing estate and which then took us on a journey into the very heart of the Scottish establishment, the criminal underworld and out into the nation’s marginalized and refugee communities. And with time, trauma, professional disappointments, creative failures and the wisdom that comes along with it, I’m left thinking that although I have a fantastic archive, that perhaps it’s really in the end been about all the stuff that was impossible to film. The things that happened in-between scenes and off camera that I need to address with the time I have left in this world.
All I can say at this stage is that it feels a bit like trying to make a unfilmable documentary with some great characters, that deals with hidden truths, media and political conspiracies, professional betrayals, violence, abuse, the war on terror and the farce and tragedy we witnessed going about our work as Documentarians. But to even attempt to tackle this I need also to deal with occult things which exist only in Dreamtime, in our nightmares, imaginations and subconscious as much as in our lived and recorded realities. Things we think and know and that we witness and retain a record of on our own internal hard-drives. So to this end I’m heading home to Glasgow to start to write that unfilmable documentary that’s set in a re-imagined post-industrial city at the end of Northern Europe and a place that I’m calling: Scotiastan