We meet the director of ‘The Hard Stop’, a film following the best friends of Mark Duggan, the man whose death at the hands of cops spread chaos across the country
On August 4 2011, a 29-year-old north London resident named Mark Duggan, was shot fatally at the hands of 31 armed police officers. It sparked the worst riots in British history. All sorts of aspersions were cast about who these rioters were, and what sort of man Duggan had been (he was born and raised on Tottenham’s notorious Broadwater Farm estate and the policeman who shot him alleged he had been holding a gun – despite evidence suggesting otherwise). But in spite of this, no media outlets seemed to do anything more than scratch at the surface of what had really happened and why.
A year later, London-born documentary filmmaker George Amponsah – whose previous endeavours had included The Importance of Being Elegant (2004), a portrait of Congolese singer Papa Wemba, and The Fighting Spirit (2007), which followed three Ghanaian boxing champions – felt compelled to turn his lens to his hometown when he was introduced to two of Duggan’s closest childhood friends, Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kurtis Henville. The resulting film – dubbed The Hard Stop after the procedure armed police use to pull over a suspect at high speed – is a compelling and vital study of the two men, shot over a three-year period as they struggle to redefine themselves in the aftermath of their friend’s death (Knox-Hooke serves a jail sentence during this time for his role in the riots).
It offers Duggan’s family and friends a platform for their frustrations surrounding the case, and sees Knox-Hooke and Henville striving to make positive changes where the police are not. Here ahead of its UK release this Friday, we sit down with Amponsah to discuss the motivations behind the film and the crucial need to find the humanity in victims of police brutality, alongside an exclusive clip.
Why did you first decide to make the film and what your aims were when you started out?
George Amponsah: I’m not sure if ‘decision’ is the right word for it, it was more of an organic thing that happened. I met a lovely lady called Yana at a party in Tottenham, and she’s someone that you could consider a community leader from that area. We got talking and the subject of the riots came up – this was 2012, so a year prior – and I told her that I’d love to make a film about people who had had a genuine reason for rioting. She said, “Well, I know two people who were childhood friends of Mark Duggan, who were involved and who might be interested in making a film’. So she put me in touch with Marcus and Kurtis and it just progressed from there.
So you began making the film without knowing 100% where you wanted to go with it?
George Amponsah: Yeah, to begin with I was really just curious because, like a lot of people, I felt there were questions still unanswered. A year after the riots of 2011, I still wasn’t quite satisfied with what I’d got from the media – certainly about the riots themselves. I felt that there perhaps should have been an inquest into them. But I was also curious about the man, the humanity of the man whose death had sparked the riots. I felt like there were questions unanswered about him also because the process of the police rounding up all of the ‘perpetrators’ of the disturbances took a year, which detracted a little bit from, actually, 'who was this man'? And then the media had done a bit of a disservice [to him] as well because certain headlines and categorisations mean that certain newspapers sell better, you know?
So you just wanted to find out who Mark was?
George Amponsah: Yes, so I didn’t really know what I’d find. And then what I started to realise, as I began filming Marcus and Kurtis and getting to know them, was that I defaulted to doing what I’d been taught to do – I went to the National Film and Television School and my tutors were people like Kim Longinotto and Nick Broomfield and what we learnt was to make observational films about people. Not about themes or ideas, but about people. And what hit me was, look Mark is no longer here in the land of the living, he’s no longer with us, so [I need to ask] what’s happened to these two guys who grew up with him, who loved him, who were a reflection of him? And when we first met, one of them was wearing an electronic tag around his ankle and was being accused of basically starting the whole thing in Tottenham. So all my instincts as a filmmaker were just to follow these guys and try and find some sense of who Mark Duggan was by seeing who they are and what they’re about. And I think this is revealed in The Hard Stop, over a period of time.
Definitely, it’s really striking that by the end they are both making these changes to positively improve their own lives and, in Marcus' case, young people's lives too, but for all intents and purposes it doesn't seem like the police force is looking to change many of the things that it's doing wrong…
George Amponsah: Yeah, I’m glad you said that because that’s the kind of intentional mathematics of the film. There’s a Tolstoy quote which is: “everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to change themselves”. And because you’ve been with these two guys for over a year, and you’ve seen what they're going through and what they're trying to do, you really feel that. I think you recognise within that that they're no angels, and they don't try to portray themselves as that – you get them warts and all – but you do recognise some truth in the fact that they are really trying, in the face of everything against them. Take Kurtis for instance, he had to go all the way to Norwich [from London] to get a job, and when you put next to that the basic statistic of 1500 deaths in police custody since 1990, but not one conviction of a police officer, it just doesn’t look like the police as a body are really trying to change in that sense.
“Personally, I find I have an allergic reaction any time an American cop is anywhere near me; I wouldn't say that I hate them, but I feel a hell of a lot better when they're nowhere near me” – George Amponsah
There’s a lot of focus on American police misconduct, especially at the moment, but you don’t hear many of these statistics about British police.
George Amponsah: Yes, they’re no angels either. But I've worked in America and in the course of making The Hard Stop I did a lot of research and watched a lot of horrific YouTube videos of police brutality in America and the police in Britain I don't think are comparable to that. It's a different system because we don't have the right to bear arms here, thankfully. Personally, I find I have an allergic reaction any time an American cop is anywhere near me; I wouldn't say that I hate them, but I feel a hell of a lot better when they're nowhere near me. But with the British police it's a bit more ambivalent than that – I'll approach a British officer and ask for directions if need be. I think that by and large the police in this country do a good job. You’ve got to remember that for every Mark Duggan incident there are thousands of other incidents where someone doesn't get shot, where someone gets saved.
In this film, it’s more that the London police refuse to accept any form of accountability for their errors?
George Amponsah: Exactly. Marcus makes that point in the film – he says that they should just hold their hands up and admit that they made a mistake. I mean it's not actually asking for that much in this case, but there’s this notion of an honestly held belief that Mark posed a threat to the police officers on the scene – of which there were about thirty, armed police officers – so much so that he needed to be shot. Twice. The first shot hit him in the arm, and had he been carrying a gun, which it was proved in the inquest that he wasn't, even if he had been carrying a gun, it would have been in his right hand and would've dropped out of it. So given that that mistake was made – and it was concluded by the jury that it was a mistake, that he didn't have a gun in his hand – why was it necessary then for them to make a second mistake and shoot him again? Fatally in the chest. These are questions that need to be asked. And then, at the end of all of that, the conclusion was that he was lawfully killed because the officer had an honestly held belief that he was carrying a gun; that his life and the lives of his fellow officers were in danger. And it's that honestly held belief that is very, very contentious here, because how can you contest someone’s personal belief?
The Hard Stop is in cinemas from July 15.