Just days after last month’s world premiere of The Hard Stop at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), director George Amponsah was quick to note that his latest entry may be a documentary, but it is “first and foremost a movie.”
Referencing Michael Moore and his now-infamous 13-point manifesto at last year’s TIFF Doc Conference, the British-Ghanaian filmmaker says he had the Where to Invade Next director’s advice that documentarians make more commercial fare in mind when making his film about the 2011 police shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan in Tottenham, England.
“[Moore] made this manifesto and said, ‘Look, don’t just make a documentary, because you’re telling a story that’s really important,’” Amponsah tells realscreen. “‘Make it into a movie, make it into a story that’s going to engage people.’ Because a lot of people switch off when you say, ‘Here’s a fact-based program and you’re going to have lots of talking-head interviews with people with bookshelves behind them.’”
If you make it into a story, he reasons, you can convey the message to a wider audience. Not surprisingly then, cinematic The Hard Stop eschews expectations of its subject matter by focusing less on Duggan, and more on the impact of his death on his two friends, Marcus Knox and Kurtis Henville.
Duggan was shot and killed in August of 2011 after the vehicle he was riding in was stopped – a maneuver labelled a “hard stop” – by specialist firearms officers who suspected him of carrying an illegal firearm. Police did not later find a gun on Duggan, though a handgun stuffed in a sock was discovered in a park within meters of the body. The killing – which many believed was the result of ongoing racial tensions between police and Tottenham’s black community – ignited riots across London and other parts of England, costing millions of pounds in damage.
“Make it into a movie, make it into a story that’s going to engage people. Because a lot of people switch off when you say, ‘Here’s a fact-based program and you’re going to have lots of talking-head interviews with people with bookshelves behind them.’”
Amponsah – who was introduced to Henville and Knox through a mutual friend – follows the men over two-and-a-half years as they come to terms with Duggan’s death. While Knox is imprisoned for his involvement in the riots, Henville struggles to find employment and to support his family while seeking justice for his friend. The doc culminates in the January 2014 findings of a judicial inquest, which resulted in a lawful killing verdict.
“From a documentary point-of-view, it’s good that you can tell that story over a long period of time, but from the point-of-view of the Duggan family, it’s horrendous,” says the director, adding that he frequently wrestled with the burden of responsibility. “My greatest anxiety was that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the trust and faith those people put in me in order to make this film.”
The Ga Films-produced documentary – which was supported by the British Film Institute, the Sundance Institute and Bertha DocHouse – premiered in TIFF’s ‘City to City’ showcase during a critical intersection for racial politics in North America. Following the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 and the ongoing ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, Amponsah points out that The Hard Stop is meant to examine the humanity of the victims.
“We’ve just tried to get close to a sense of who are the people who lose their lives in this manner. Who are the victims of these killings?” he explains.
“Marcus and Kurtis come from exactly the same place as Mark Duggan, so you watch the film and consider at the end of it, ‘Well that could be Marcus or Kurtis.’ And how do you feel about that now that you’ve seen what those guys are actually about?” he adds.
Amponsah also emphasizes that The Hard Stop is a strictly observational film, and offers a purposely imbalanced presentation of the Duggan case, with no interviews or interaction with law enforcement.
“Perhaps it is one-sided, but we were never going to get access to a police officer and follow that person for three years and get that kind of personal access, and be with their family on Christmas day,” says the director. “It’s not that kind of film. It’s not trying to be a balanced, panoramic film in that sense.”
Dionne Walker, the doc’s producer who was also in Toronto for the world premiere, adds that the team always intended for The Hard Stop to take an observational approach.
“It was always the intention to make sure the film represents the voices that we don’t hear – that was the decision,” says Walker.
Tel Aviv-based sales agent Cinephil picked up the global rights to the film in September, ahead of the TIFF premiere, and Walker says an extensive outreach and impact campaign is being planned around the film, along with grass-roots screenings featuring Knox and Henville.
But before all of that, the director says it’s the doc’s reception at the BFI London Film Festival this weekend that will be the most telling measure of the film’s appeal.
“It’s really unfortunate that so many people suffered as a result [of the riots] but it does have the effect of making everyone invested in what happened,” says Amponsah.
- The Hard Stop screens at the BFI London Film Festival tomorrow (October 17) and Sunday (October 18). For more information, click here.
- Check out a trailer for the film below: