On a pre-COVID Sunday back in March, in her native Hackney, 17-year-old Bukky Bakray is making her six best friends erupt into uncontrollable laughter. These include Kosar Ali, who also happens to be her on-screen best friend in Rocks. The only non-Londoner of the group is Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, who is fiercely proud of her hometown of Nottingham, making Afi Okaidja counter with a hundred reasons for the capital’s superiority. Tawheda Begum and Anastasia Dymitrow are the quietest of the cast, preferring to let the others take the limelight, while Ruby Stokes is the eldest, returning to reading her copy of Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie in between posing for this shoot.
There’s a tangible power to seven teenage girls getting together. No topic is out-of-bounds, the possibilities feel limitless, and everything is funny. “There’s that theory (the Bechdel test) about women on screen,” explains Bakray, the first-time actress and star of Sarah Gavron’s coming-of-age tale. “If they have a conversation on screen it’s basically always about boys, so seeing us just laughing and vibesing, we get to show our genuine experience. I don’t think you see that on screen enough.”
It’s this spirit that director Gavron went to extraordinary lengths to capture in Rocks. On the hunt for non-actors who could speak to a generation’s concerns, she joined forces with Lucy Pardee, the casting director behind discoveries like Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank. After spending time in east London schools and youth clubs, the duo invited prospective cast members for nine months of workshops. When they eventually found their final seven – many of whom had never acted before – they invited them to share their own ideas and feedback on the script, written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson.
Set in and around Hackney, the film follows Bakray’s Shola – ‘Rocks’, to her friends – who is forced to look after her younger brother when their mother, who suffers from mental health issues, walks out on the family. Sofa-surfing while also navigating social services and school politics is a precarious situation for a teenager, but when Rocks’ friends come together, she finds a galvanising strength in numbers.
Rocks is so authentic that, at points, it feels more like a documentary. Years of austerity and cuts to public funding – more than 100 youth clubs have shut in London alone since 2011 – make Shola’s on-screen struggle even harder, and while it may be technically fiction, the film deals with a reality that the now close-knit cast are familiar with.
How did you get involved with Rocks?
Bukky Bakray: Sarah (Gavron) and Lucy (Pardee) started going to schools and youth clubs, researching how girls interact. They came to school – where me and Anastasia go – and after observing our class they invited us to the workshops.
Afi Okaidja: I went because I didn’t have anything else to do. When they finally told us it was for a film we were like… ‘OK!’ I’m happy that I didn’t know from the beginning, we wouldn’t have been so natural.
Ruby Stokes: I had (actually) done a little bit of acting before, but Rocks was different because we were also involved in the story-making process; it came from us. Sarah really nurtured us, too; it was an environment where we could say whatever we thought.
Kosar Ali: We’d see a storyboard of what they were thinking, and we would add our ideas on Post-it notes. We’d say how we would actually react to (what was happening in) the scene if it was us.
Can you tell us about your first impressions of each other?
Tawheda Begum: I was so shy for the first couple of workshops; I was scared to get involved but then the girls made me feel comfortable. Everyone was so welcoming; you never felt judged. It was such a happy environment.
Anastasia Dymitrow: They took us out, too. We did karaoke, bowling...
Shaneigha-Monik Greyson: We did a singing competition. Bukky rapped!
Bukky Bakray: Everyone was getting so gassed.
Shaneigha-Monik Greyson: We went to Nando’s before that.
Afi Okaidja: She got the hottest wings…
Shaneigha-Monik Greyson: ...because you told me it wasn’t that spicy!
“We used to have a youth club, but they changed it to an adult centre, which is so backwards – I’m sorry, but what do you adults need? Don’t you have work or something?” – Kosar Ali
Why were those off-screen moments so important for you?
Afi Okaidja: We were friends first. Sometimes they were recording without us even knowing; we’d just be doing our own thing. We got used to having a camera in a room without looking at it.
Kosar Ali: It wouldn’t have been the same filming if we didn’t know each other.
You were shooting around Hackney, where most of you grew up – what do you love most about London?
RS: The transport system!
KA: It’s diverse. You can find halal food anywhere.
AO: And chicken and chips.
BB: Nah, nah. That’s secondary grub.
RS: There are so many free opportunities, like youth clubs and workshops.
Many youth clubs have now been closed, how has that affected your generation?
KA: There’s not much funding being put into places where people our age can go. Young people need activities and resources. It’s better to have them off the streets and in an environment where they’re safe, but I feel like there’s a lack of those spaces now. We used to have a youth club in my area but they changed it to an adult centre, which is so backwards – I’m sorry, but what do you adults need? Don’t you have work or something?
TB: You have to invite friends to your house instead, you can cook something.
BB: Yeah. Going out, everything is so expensive.
What are some of the biggest issues affecting your generation?
AD: Everyone says it’s social media, but I think it’s school.
AO: The people who say social media are adults. They haven’t even asked us!
SMG: I do think (there’s a lot of pressure around) image. Growing up, you feel like you’ve got to look a certain way, and social media does have an impact. Some people get it into their heads that they’ve got to look like her; they’ve got to be that pretty.
AO: (But) I do feel like you can control what you want to see on Instagram. If you’re seeing girls in bikinis and you don’t want to, you can change that. If you follow motivational accounts your feed will be full of motivational quotes instead – the ball’s in your court.
AD: Yeah. I don’t follow the Kardashians.
KA: Same. You have to ask, ‘Do I want this on my feed all the time?’ No. For me, the biggest issue is the public stereotype of being a teenager in London. Adults see a group of teenagers together and there’s this negative stigma. We’ll be at the library (and it’s like), ‘I’m here to study, what’s the issue?’ You know what I mean? We’re just sitting here and already there’s an issue. Everywhere we go it’s, ‘Why are you guys here? Can you move along?’ The media plays a big part. People see teenagers and think gangs – why always focus on the negatives? What about the positives, the young entrepreneurs and the people doing great things? Why aren’t you putting that on the news?
AO: People complain about gangs but there’s not enough funding for youth clubs, so what do you expect young people to do?
Rocks really flips that narrative by painting British teenagers in a positive light, did that feel powerful?
BB: I don’t think any of us realised the significance of it until we actually saw people’s reactions - especially other young people, school teachers, youth club workers... Hearing people say they’ve been waiting years for a film like this – that’s when I thought, ‘Rah, this is something!’
SMG: I’ve cried every time I watched it, except for once. (Normally) I’m emotionless, I don’t cry at things, but it’s just so heartening. In the scene where Bukky and Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, who plays Rocks’ brother) are crying, I was like, ‘Wow, this happens every day and we don’t know about it.’ You just don’t see it in films about young girls, normally they’re about heartbreak or boys. But this isn’t that film.
RS: At Toronto (Film Festival, where Rocks had its world premiere) I remember I could hear some audience members snivelling behind us. There was this quiet energy.
TB: I was super-overwhelmed seeing it all come together. There are so many aspects of growing up as a teenager in London – the difficulties you face and the happy moments, too. Everything just felt so authentic. It really blew me away; I’ve never seen a film like that.
Why is it so important for everyone to be able to see themselves on screen?
BB: Representation matters! I think people underestimate the power of film, and everything creative to be honest. Being able to see yourself (on screen) empowers and motivates you. There are so many marginalised groups missing out on that feeling and it’s unfair. Films like this need to keep being funded; they are just as important as Bond.
Rocks is an authentic portrayal of female friendship – what’s the best thing about your own relationships with each other?
KA: The bants!
AO: Our friendship is so calm. We’re not out here like, ‘Someone took my man,’ not all girls are like that. We have deep conversations, or we laugh about I don’t even know what.
RS: It’s empowering to know there’s always someone there to support and understand you.
AO: Bukky and Kosar are so good in a crisis, they’re like old ladies! They have ‘Bluetooth’ – it’s where you don’t have to speak but you just look at your friend and they can feel your vibe. I would just look at them and they’d go, ‘Are you all right?’ Not everybody has Bluetooth, so if you have it you’re lucky.
Would you say as a generation you’re very engaged in British politics?
RS: I think so. If you look at climate activism, it has grown massively in the last three years because of people like Greta Thunberg, and it has actually affected policies. It’s so (good) to know that, because of our generation, some things are changing.
AO: I can’t wait to use my vote. The age should be 16: you’re telling me I can register at 16 but I can’t vote? What’s the point? Most votes that are happening (now) are going to affect me the most, why are you old people voting when in a few years you’re not going to be here? It’s gonna be my world – ha!
Do you enjoy school?
RS: I’m not in school any more and I do miss it, as stressful as it is. Just the banter you would have in the canteen, the deadest things. Like, someone would drop a plate and everyone goes crazy! The absolute bum-rush to get to the canteen was hilarious.
AD: The only thing that makes it stressful is the teachers. But then again, some of them are so amazing and you’re like, ‘Where have you been?!’ You’re grateful for those amazing teachers.
KA: I get in trouble when I speak my mind, because teachers don’t want 16-year-olds telling them what they think. There was a class fight once where a boy said something to another boy like, ‘Look how dark you are, you look like a monkey’ and the teacher just totally dismissed it. I said, ‘Miss, did you not just hear that?!’ Then the whole class started shouting and I got in trouble! I only asked if you’d heard it, so why are you getting offended? I’m not being aggressive…
AO: ...I’m just trying to talk to you. A teacher the other day told me to ‘know your place’ – what’s my place? What do you mean? It got me mad. I feel like teachers don’t like it when kids are more educated than them, but I’m on social media all the time.
KA: It’s true. I was talking to a teacher recently about concentration camps in China. She was like, ‘How do you know about that?’
SMG: We see what’s going on.
AO: Snapchat, Instagram. You just see so much, and somebody like Kosar, she keeps you updated about what’s going on in the world. I see something, I repost it and my friends repost it – it’s like a chain.
“Hearing people say they’ve been waiting years for a film like Rocks – that’s when I thought, ‘Rah, this is something!’” – Bukky Bakray
What changes do you all hope to see in the future?
SMG: I would like to see an end to knife crime. For the last person – the last son or the last daughter – to be enough. It needs to end.
RS: Our future feels uncertain at times, but I’m excited to see how we develop politically and if future generations help us to uphold our values. I’m excited to see what these guys do, too. Watching everyone grow over the past few years that we’ve all been doing this has been amazing!
KA: Future is a big word! Like Ruby said, I’m excited to see what everyone does; you’re all incredible. You’re gonna pull big things out of the bag.
BB: Four years ago I had no idea I was going to be in this film, so I’m trying to focus on the now and take every day as it comes, but I am excited to see what our generation does. We have amazing, intelligent, powerful people, so I really believe big changes are coming.
Will you keep on acting?
SMG: I do want to carry on acting but I don’t know if I want to be an actor or not. It’s definitely given us a taste for it, a hunger. This film could blow up and we’ll be the next Beyoncé!
KA: Acting is lit.
Rocks is in UK cinemas this autumn
Hair Naoki Komiya at Julian Watson Agency using Bumble and bumble., make-up Kristina Ralph Andrews at D+V using Glossier, photography assistant Luca Strano, styling assistant Molly Robinson, hair assistant Charles Salisbury, make-up assistant Eoin Whelan