It is one of the most flammable of the strawman arguments. You might hear it put this way: To decriminalise illicit drugs would mean allowing them into our schools, parks and streets, into homes where there are children. Yet illicit drugs are already there now, and drug policies only raise the stakes. Under prohibition, delivery becomes smuggling. Exchange becomes trafficking. Something as mundane as a dealer's lost cell phone becomes a major development in a turf war. Decriminalisation may not rid our public places of dangerous substances, but it just might put the mules and the traffickers out of work. Those in need of treatment could seek it without the fear - real or imagined - of a prison sentence.
Ben Drew’s film Ill Manors steers far clear from this policy statement or any other, but nevertheless a gritty wonkishness instructs every frame. Jake – a school-aged boy only looking to buy smoke – is taunted by the dealer into beating up a friend, stealing the kid’s money and ultimately joining the gang. Kirby, who has recently completed a 15-year prison term, tries to reestablish his influence, while forced to buy product from a much younger man, a former protégé. Michelle streetwalks to fund her crack and heroin habit, while Russian pimps hold pregnant Katya in a brothel, selling her out to those johns with more off-the-menu desires. With an identifying scar and addict mother, Chris is literally born into the drug trade. But the picture centers around pushers Ed and Aaron, friends since childhood, orphans together at St. Erica.
As the title suggests, this story is hardly set in paradise. Inspired by and filmed in Forest Gate, Ill Manors follows those who live and die in the shadow of Olympic stadium, itself a stark reminder of another, newly revitalised London, still just out of reach. Sport permeates the plot, and the viewer wonders if Drew is calling for drug reform, sex trade reform, or stadium reform. The events and aftermath of September 2008 proved that construction for its own sake is a hollow promise, but sports complexes add new dimensions to hollowness. Fueled by assurances of economic growth and improved city identity, stadium proposals are often impossible to defeat simply because of the popularity of the sports team. But the results are homes and businesses seized by eminent domain, higher taxes on local businesses, and massive buildings that lay dormant five, six days of every week. These are massive, barricaded compounds largely paid for with public funds, boasting names like FedExField and KFC Yum! Center.
We turn from massive arenas to the most microscopic of details: what is most striking about Ill Manors is its ability to lend crushing gravity to apparently insignificant events. In the opening minutes, Ed is arrested but Aaron escapes by scaling a fence. Ed passes his phone through the fence to Aaron, who briefly loans it to Kirby, who misplaces it and believes Michelle has stolen it. Ed – little more than a scowling thug – is happy to step in as pimp until Michelle can pay him back. In a concurrent thread, Chris stands up to Kirby, who in turn humiliates Marcel, who then slaps Jake around until the boy agrees to terrible vengeance. (Drew’s hip-hop soundtrack stands in place of expository dialogue and back story: a refreshing switch.) Audience members will stomp at brake pedals that aren’t there – desperate to halt this cruel momentum – particularly with Jake, whose fate seems determined from the outset. As the killings, arrests, and accidental deaths begin to mount, seemingly secondary characters gain in prominence, and any form of redemption seems unlikely. But there is always that infant abandoned on the train…
It is a painful narrative, but a necessary one, and in spite of Drew’s soundtrack Ill Manors never lapses into rap video. Cinematographer Gary Shaw shot the footage with a healthy balance of photojournalism, stop motion and the occasional kaleidoscopic flashback; this way the relatively light budget does not show. And before we leave the discussion of balance, Drew’s assessment of Forest Gate is refreshingly sober. There is plenty of blame to spread around, but watch the opening scene, for one. Aaron lights a cigarette while a local woman is interviewed by a television crew: “I have to put my foot down and make my kids do well in school I did my best with mine. A lot of the mothers and fathers have to be blamed for this as well.” A local man concurs: “It’s a definite bonus to have a strong family background.”
Like the tagline says, “We are all products of our environment. Some environments are just harder to survive in.” Ill Manors is available in Blu-Ray or DVD format at Amazon and Play.com.