I was profoundly touched this week by a great example of the best kind of documentary making, My Child the Rioter, shown on BBC 1 on Tuesday evening.
It carefully and sensitively allowed young people involved in last summer’s riots and their parents to share their experiences. The gut reaction politics at the time set the agenda for the police and the judiciary. There was to be no leniency, no consideration of extenuating circumstances, these ‘feral’ children were to be dealt with and dealt with decisively. In allowing the vilified to speak, the complexities of the causes and the human cost of such an uncompromising reaction unfolded.
One young student Ryan claimed he had got involved for political reasons, his only regret that he hadn’t ’done’ more. It wasn’t clear what point he was trying to make but what did come over is the excitement that swept over the rioters. This was echoed by Lei who had been jailed for his part. He said ‘everyone was rejoicing in how much stuff they could take’. His only regret was getting caught. I didn’t buy Ryan’s motives for one moment but he wasn’t a young man who was ever likely to be troubled by self-criticism. Lei came over as a more complex young man, supporting his family after he had stood up to his father following years of abuse. He was articulate and likeable, but with no sense that what he had been part of was morally wrong. One wondered if some of this was bravado, protecting a vulnerability.
There were lives that had been ruined by minor criminal acts, dealt with harshly by the courts. Much of it could be put down to naivety and being swept away in the moment. The fall out was heart breaking and it made the approach to these young people look crass and lacking in thought and real judgement.
The account that touched me the most was that of 19 year old Fabiano and his father David and never such an odd father and son couple would you ever see. David was a well-spoken, considered, middle aged man who presented rather like an architect or a university lecturer. His son was a tall, handsome boy, of mixed race who talked like he came from the ganglands of New York. He sat confidently and laughed about his arson charge. He acknowledged that what he had done was stupid but didn’t seem to really get it at a deeper level. My husband Rob and I both remarked that Fabiano seemed similar in some ways to our eleven year old son, who also laughs at times of great import, can excuse the gravest deed and can behave in a way much more appropriate to a younger child. It then emerged that Fabiano, like our son, had been adopted. He was frequently stopped and searched by police and his mother had recently moved to Brazil, a move which he had made with her but which had not worked out. I could take a guess at the issues of identity, security and self-esteem that Fabiano struggles with and I could also guess at what he may have unintentionally put his parents through. And like all good documentaries, the viewer was left to fill the gaps with their own pre-conceptions and experiences. But there was one intervention by the voice behind the camera which really got to the heart of Fabiano.
‘Are you worried about the future?’
He could not keep up the act any longer and crumbled, tears rolled down his cheeks. He was a boy, uncertain how he could keep out of trouble, scared of ending up in prison, not sure how to navigate his way in life. It is easy to see cockiness and strutting over-confidence as just that especially in strapping young men and maybe in some cases it is. But in our house at least it is warn as comfort blanket, hiding pain, loss and fear.
I’m not seeking to excuse what Fabiano and the other young people did and neither did the documentary, but behind shouty news headlines always lies a complexity worthy of exploration. Many of the young people were certainly guilty of immaturity. But rushing to simplistic judgments whilst our bellys were full of anger? That wasn’t particularly mature either.