Fahim Alam is an Oxford law graduate, turned filmmaker. Fahim was falsely arrested and imprisoned, during the 2011 London riots. He decided to tell his story in the self- funded documentary Riots Reframed. Currently working on the DVD release, he took time out of his busy schedule to talk about the film and the challenges of making Riots Reframed.
Andrew Kiwanuka: What inspired you to make this documentary?
Fahim Alam: I was arrested for ‘violent disorder’ in August 2011 during riots in London; was refused bail and spent six weeks in prison on remand. After appealing the decision to remand me in custody, and being released subject to an ankle-tag and electronically monitored curfew, I spent six months on bail awaiting trial. During this time, I had already developed a relationship with the media. Tabloids and broadsheets alike had reported my story and the BBC and other channels approached me with offers to take part, present, or be interviewed for documentaries. I decided to reject these proposals and produce my own film despite not having the skills, knowledge or experience, let alone many resources. My aim was to intercept the narrative of the power-structure through framing voices of resistance, basing their analysis on structural, historical and global oppression, in an artistic piece of propaganda. I had already filmed most of the documentary by the time I went to trial in March 2013 when I was acquitted after a two-day trial by jury. This gave me further strength to complete the documentary and launch it to the world via dozens of local, national and international screenings.
AK: Did you have an idea of what kind of film you wanted to make?
FA: I’d like to say that I had ‘a vision’, which of course, I did, but it’s important to say that the journey created the film and not vice versa. I always knew that I’d be making something that united particular voices towards a resistant discourse, but I didn’t know what the final piece would actually look like. The reality is that the journey bred the type of film that it became, and every component of that journey added energy, knowledge and so much more to the film. Much of my own discovery, development, relationships and so on is intertwined with the story of this documentary. A lot of energy and emotion has gone into its production and dissemination. I hope that the end product and legacy is something which demonstrates how knowledge, poetic art, and resistance might be fused into a digital piece that can be used to bring people together either physically or ideologically.
AK:What kind of research did you do?
FA: I attended dozens of events, talks and so on; watched a lot of videos on the internet; talked to loads of people; conducted extended interviews with the participants in the film; and generally immersed myself in the historical and present, ‘riots discourse’. The interviews themselves amount to hours of footage with authorities speaking on police, racism, war, history, resistance and so much more in great detail; and each one of these severely disrupted and built my knowledge. I did do some online and paper research, but this documentary is not heavily research based; well, certainly not in the conventional sense of ‘research’. Again, much of the journey exhibited a domino effect that led me from one sphere to another.
AK:What kind of funding did you receive?
FA: I didn’t receive any funding to make the film. I bought a cheap camera, lens and tripod with my own money, and borrowed some money to buy some parts for a computer to edit on. My friend put the computer together for me and I hooked it up to a five-year-old screen I already had to complete the machine.
AK: Did you learn anything new about the riots, while making this documentary?
FA: I probably learnt most of what I know about riots from making this documentary. I thought I had a pretty good grasp beforehand, but it’s inevitable that the journey has shaped what I know and don’t know.
AK:Was there ever a point you thought this project would not be completed?
FA: There were many points at which I’ve had problems along the way. I still do. But not completing it was never a real option. I’ve had everything from my computer crashing and being out of use for months, to white academics undermining my credibility and knowledge at screenings, but getting the film made and circulated through a strategy of penetration has made sure that at every stage there is a sense of militant relentlessness invoked to push forward an underdeveloped narrative.
AK: What advice would you give to a first time filmmaker?
FA: I generally advise anyone to consistently push beyond the boundaries of expectation, the constraints of the norm and the imprisonment of the mind. We are always told that we have to get ‘this or that qualification’ or that we have to ‘do it this or that way’. We can break through this mould and be successful with it, it’s just that often, our minds restrict our confidence in our capabilities. We are all capable of being pioneers and now we have the technological tools to produce to the same or higher quality as the power structure, and we have access to global networks to disseminate as far and wide as they can too. So I would advise any filmmaker to go out there and do it – this will expose you to knowledge, people, mistakes (that build you too), resources and other opportunities. But perhaps more importantly, an art like filmmaking requires a lot of energy put into building yourself. Time alone is very important: either thinking, planning, learning technical skills, editing and so on. Also, knowing the broadest range of skills is fundamental, so wherever you are positioned at any given moment, you can understand what is needed from other directions; e.g. if you’ve spent hours editing and filling gaps for bad filming, this will eventually sharpen your filming skills. And build community. There is no such thing as heroes – we can only be heroes together. Meet people, talk to people and be blessed to people. If you have the capacity to employ someone who’s also learning, through a contract you’ve been given for example, share the love. All in all, beyond any specific advise, open your mind.
AK: Where can we see your film?
FA: Riots Reframed has now finished it’s screening run. The DVD is planned for public release in January 2015. This project is hyper-independent and therefore we might not make it for this date, but it’ll definitely be here soon. Updates, images, videos and more can be found on www.riotsreframed.com and follow us on twitter @riotsreframed or facebook VoiceOverRiots for news and updates on future projects too.
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Based in Edinburgh, Andrew Kiwanuka is a filmmaker, activist and blogger of African heritage. He is one half of an art collective called Visually Unheard. Currently working on a documentary highlighting the difficulties faced by people who look to seek asylum in Scotland. Find him on twitter @reluctant_the
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