No Solutions, No Condemnation By Barbara Lorey
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.
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.