|Towards the end of festivals devoted to debut films, when,
as a juror, you have seen a number of decent films and you have even more
or less agreed with your co-jurors on a possible winner, there is often still
the disconcerting feeling of waiting for THE film, a revelation, the one
that rivets you to your seat, and stays with you long after you leave the
theater. In Miami, this film happened to be the last one on our list, and
Amma Asante's A Way of Life was our unanimous choice.
Filmmaker Asante's astonishing directorial debut tackles the intertwined
complex issues of the British class system, race, poverty and uneducated
youth. Her harrowing, terribly moving though unsentimental drama about a
group of lost adolescents in a run-down, bleak industrial city in Wales unfolds
within the emotional wasteland of broken families, absent fathers and a working
class ravaged by unemployment, xenophobia and blatant racism.
A boy playing ball on a street, the ball rolls up against a baby stroller
stan.ding strangely alone in the middle of the empty street, Suddenly a man
emerges on the scene chased by a group of three boys and a girl, punching
and kicking him violently until he falls to the ground, trying to protect
himself, but the boots continue to pummel his face and his head.
This shocking, utterly violent opening scene of A Way of Life is almost
unbearable in its brutality. The film then goes back and unravels the story
that leads to this vicious, and fatal assault. Anne-Leigh, (Stephanie James,
stupendous in the role of a single teenage mom) struggles hard to raise her
baby girl in a council estate. There's not even a fridge in her house, and
most of the time, the electricity is cut off, leaving her sitting in in her
sparsely furnished candle-lit living-room. When she isn't hanging around
with her only "family", her brother Gav and his two pals, Robbie, and Stephen,
who live in a nearby squat and provide her from time to time with stolen
goods, we see her "marching"with the baby stroller, grim-faced, through grey
and empty streets .
The baby is suffering from eczema and chronic respiratory problems but Anne-Leigh
is fiercely protecting her from any outside help. She lives in constant fear
that social services will take the baby away from her, the only thing she
lovesand which gives status and sense to her life.
Director Amma Asante
But this is not just another film about the tough yet vulnerable working-class
girls dear to the politically sensitive social British cinema. Anne-Leigh
and her pals are not at all lovable outcasts mistreated by the system, but
rather are overt, blatant and vicious racists, "Would be different if I'd
a black face, wouldn't it?" she hollers at the woman at the welfare office.
Her enemies, responsable for their misfortune and hopeless life are
the "Pakis", and "Paki" is everybody who is not white, including the
Turkish neighbor, at whom all of her inarticulated frustration gradually
becomes directed. Driven by her ever worsening circumstances, her hatred
spirals into paranoïd racism, and she takes her friends along for the
ride towards disaster.
Amma Asante's gritty, stark film provides no solutions and offers no condemnation
of "the system", in which the lines between perpetrators and victims are
blurred. As viewers we are appalled by their violent outburst yet, we can
feel the hopelessness of their situation, full of missed opportunities, wasted
potential and the absence of redemption. In the end, we are left without
the faintest hope for them, yet remain unable to judge them, This film kicks
us right in the stomach, leaving us in stunned silence.
© FIPRESCI 2005
Besides the Fipresci Prize Amma Asante also won the Grand Jury Prize in Miami,
and a day later she received a BAFTA for « Special Achievement
By A British Director In Their First Feature Film »