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Still from tasting Freedom, dir. Ken Fero
Still from tasting Freedom, dir. Ken FeroCourtesy of Migrant Media

The seminal 90s documentary that exposed the abuse of Britain’s refugees

Ken Fero on his groundbreaking 1994 film Tasting Freedom, an exposé on the demonisation of refugees that feels more relevant today than ever

“All this abuse was happening all the time, unreported… so we wanted to provoke the national debate.” Filmmaker Ken Fero is talking me through his 1994 documentary Tasting Freedom from a room in Regents University, where he now teaches. After an award-winning career as a documentarian, activist and lecturer (Germany – The Other Story, 1991, Sweet France, 1992, Injustice, 2001), he’s reflecting on the egregious language of today’s ‘hostile environment’ and how much our immigration agenda causes him shame.

It’s 25 years since Tasting Freedom, a searing exposée into the brutality of the British demonisation of asylum seekers, was made. The final shot, which sees a group of detainees on a roof, fenced off, protesting via a hunger strike as they shout “freedom!”, is an image that has been referenced in activist circles and filmmakers throughout the years since. The film, which focuses on first-hand accounts from Algerian and Zairean conflict refugees in detention, has echoes of our current moment of “crisis” regarding refugees in 2019.  As we reel from news of the treatment of the Windrush generation, Yarl’s Wood sexual abuse and hunger strikes, and the inhumane deportations intercepted by the Stansted 15, the “hostile environment” appears in full effect under our current government. It feels urgent to watch Tasting Freedom again in this context – or to watch it for the first time, to get a sense of the frustratingly glacial pace things move forward, but also to see that small, worthwhile successes do happen.

“Our focus is only on the stories of resistance” says Fero, reflecting on the film, a collaboration with Migrant Media, a network of activists, filmmakers and migrant voices. Twenty-five years on from organising hunger strikes and capturing B-roll of Pentonville roofs, the acclaimed documentarian talks about where we are now, why we should fight, and the lie of being “bogus”.

What is the lasting legacy of Tasting Freedom?

Ken Fero: At that time there was abuse, killings in detention, wholesale criminations of communities, fear within communities, people being deported back to Algeria and killed, all in the name of the British government’s policy on immigration control. This info was coming directly from the community who knew someone who left and didn’t return. So, we did our investigations and checked with our sources to confirm whether they certain family members had in fact, been killed or not and they had.  There’s this clip in Tasting Freedom where family members call a mother of one of the guys who was murdered. We needed people to react the only way they could, which was to start supporting asylum seekers and demanding their release.

How important do you think it is to document the archive of historical activism?

Ken Fero: Of course at the time you never think ‘I’m creating an archive’, you think you’re just doing some writing or taking film or whatever, but I think it’s important that stuff is kept because it’s important for the future. I’m hopeful and there are people who are militant and organised and we work with them and try to guide them so they know what happened before.

What were the archives you were looking at at the time?

Ken Fero: We were looking at film that was being made across the Middle East, and at records being made by filmmakers in the States around 60s anti-Vietnam stuff, and stuff that was made around the Panthers and Malcolm X. There was (1968 Black Panther film) Off The Pig, Patricio Guzmán’s The Hour of The Furnaces focusing around struggles around Latin America, and a lot of arthouse cinema that was coming out of the Soviet Union and Eastern countries, that was really interesting for us. We were also influenced by the archive-based film workshops such as Black Audio Film Collective and Ceddo as well as by artists like Mona Hatoum.

How do you compare the regime and the approach to immigration and migrant bodies in Britain between then and now?

Ken Fero: I think the national situation feels weaker to me. One of the issues is the history of resistance on film and the archives is denied to young people [through not being on the curriculum]. They don't get this in schools, they don’t get taught this, there’s only certain things that they cover. The state doesn’t teach children the history of resistance and of course, why would they?

If the ‘hostile environment’ is part of the government rhetoric now, what was it then?

Ken Fero: ‘Bogus Asylum’. AKA, ‘this is not real, these are not real situations, there's no problem, anywhere’. The links between British colonialism and their relationship with those countries wasn’t part of the debate, it was just about ‘these people’ wanting to come here. The language was just as brutal as today. Within our communities, everyone knew what was going on but the government had their line – bogus housing, bogus work, bogus people, but these ‘bogus people’ were dying; it wasn’t bogus blood.

Also I suppose the mainstream cultural language of radical action has changed or means something different.

Ken Fero: We used to spend all our time radicalising the youth. They’ve taken that word (‘radicalising’), which was used to empower, and change and turned it into something negative. That’s no accident.

“(Change) has happened because of collective resistance; because people have struggled, small groups of people who had a massive impact judicially and politically on the country” – Ken Fero

If we talk about existing debates, do you think we could infiltrate the institutions that exist, or do you have to build your own?

Ken Fero: I think it’s impossible to infiltrate institutions. I believe that if there are people on the inside that want to whistle blow, they can do it. But putting pressure from the outside is much more effective than negotiating on the inside. Nobody when I was in my 20s said ‘you have to do this for the rest of your lives’, but activism is a lifelong commitment.

Maybe the most powerful moment in the film is when Myrna Simpson, the mother of Joy Gardner (a Jamaican student who died while being detained in 1993) says, ‘I really hope this doesn’t happen again’. It’s doubly powerful because of course, we know history repeats itself. Does that depress you?

Ken Fero: The fact that it has happened again? No, because you have to make demands at the time, and you have to pursue that call for justice. What we have to remember in this country, before the Mangrove 9, if anyone went into a court and accused a police officer of lying they would get sent down for  contempt! You couldn’t actually accuse a police officer for lying until the Mangrove 9 took that case on and won that case and proved to the whole population that police officers lie. Before that, the Bradford 12, it was impossible for people to actually defend themselves against an aggressor – whether they were in uniform or not, that was irrelevant, it was the right to self defence. It wasn’t until Stephen Lawrence that the conversation of institutional racism arose.

All this has happened because of collective resistance; because people have struggled, small groups of people who had a massive impact judicially and politically on the country. You have to believe that one day these things will be achieved. One day. People might say, ‘But we’re still not there’. But we’re much further than we were 10, 20 or 30 years ago. People need to fight.

You can watch Tasting Freedom here