VoiceOver | Riots Reframed (2013) is Fahim Alam’s first film, shot in the aftermath of the 2011 riots in London and other UK cities, while Alam was under conditional release and forced to wear an ankle tag after being arrested during a protest.
The film mixes archival, CCTV, and cell phone footage of the riots with interviews recorded both during and after the events, replaying some of the mixed-source footage to show different aspects of the same key moments during the riots. The low resolution of much of the footage taken from inside the riots plays up the harshness of these events and creates a strong sense of being completely immersed in them.
The alternative perspective offered by this mix of visual sources is underscored by the variety of subjects interviewed. Alam attempts to weave these disparate elements together using quick cuts, music, spoken word performance, and infographics with mixed success: While some segments are outstandingly well done and remain with the viewer long after the film ends thanks to a moment of beauty or a particular insight, others need some slight adjustments.
One segment in particular stands out for its nearly poetic visuals. While attempting to interview a detainee’s daughter outside a prison, Alam is told by a guard that he must stop filming. Alam then points his camera down but leaves it running, the result being an intense close-up of the guard’s hands and keys as he tries to intimidate Alam into leaving the site entirely. Alam stands his ground, and the rest of the sequence, consisting of the detainee’s daughter sharing her thoughts on the situation, is one of the most visually stunning in the film. Filmed from a low angle and wildly overexposed, the surreal, bleached-out visuals underscore the daughter’s meaning beautifully as she explains that no one wants the public to see what goes on inside, saying that “it has an atmosphere, it really does, it’s dark, nasty.”
Adding to the attempt to convey an idea of the true prison experience is a segment intercut with the daughter’s interview, in which Salim, arrested during one of the riots, talks about his own incarceration. As Salim describes the mental cycle of think/stress/think/stress that he experienced, the rhythm of his speech is punctuated by flash cuts to another man, in what seems to be a jail cell, curled in on himself as if he is also locked in a think/stress cycle.
As beautiful as this sequence is, it is not without its problems. While the words spoken make it clear that the main subject is a detainee’s daughter, the chyron identifying her is not on screen long enough or at the appropriate moments for the audience to really note the information. Missing or inappropriately timed chyrons are an issue throughout the film, which is both frustrating and distracting given the high number of interviewees and intercut segments in the film. It is doubly unfortunate that it is entirely possible to leave a screening of this film without having a clear idea of who the subjects are when many of their insights into the riots relate to a sense of disenfranchisement.
Also problematic are the sequences in which Salim rolls and smokes a fairly large joint. His interview has been filmed with a short enough lens that the size of the joint is greatly exaggerated in relation to his face, adding a comic element that undermines the seriousness of Salim’s statements and that, in some viewers’ eyes, would also undermine his credibility.
In addition, the film has some issues with pacing. While the flash cuts during Salim’s description of life in jail punctuate his testimony perfectly, many other cuts happen a few frames too soon for the subjects’ statements to really sink in for the audience. Conversely, several sequences towards the end of the film run just long enough that the film seems to be ending well before it actually does.
There are also some colour correction issues to deal with, aside from the happy accident of overexposure outside the prison, but Alam seemed to already be working these issues out when they were raised in a Q&A session after a screening in Montreal.
Overall, this is a strong start from an emerging filmmaker who, in the discussion after the screening, showed himself to be deeply knowledgable and invested in his subject, as well as open to suggestion and eager to advance his filmmaking practice. Alam appears to have found his calling as a documentary filmmaker and activist, and I look forward to seeing the final cut of VoiceOver as well as his next film.
Kristi Kouchakji is a student, filmmaker, and is-there-a-god?mother. When not writing essays, chasing money, or being chewed on by a teething infant, she can be found skulking around Twitter as @badyogi. Image: Riot Coppers by Banksy.