Britain, late-1970s. Punk is exploding. The country is deeply divided over immigration. The National Front, a far-right and fascist political party, is gaining strength as politicians like Enoch Powell push a xenophobic agenda. Outraged by a racist speech from Eric Clapton, music photographer Red Saunders writes a letter to the music press, calling for rock to be a force against racism. NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds all publish the letter.
Flooded with responses, Red discovers many share his views. Teaming up with like-minded creatives Roger Huddle, Kate Webb, Syd Shelton and Australian graphic designer Ruth Gregory, the team bands together to create Rock Against Racism (RAR) and a fanzine, Temporary Hoarding. Speaking directly to the youth, Temporary Hoarding reports stories and issues that the mainstream British media ignores, like immigration, the Catholic side of the Northern Ireland conflict, and the police’s controversial “suspected persons” (sus) powers. They give a voice to the voiceless. The National Front begins to strike back, committing acts of violence against RAR supporters and petrol-bombing their HQ. Despite this, RAR spreads virally across the UK and into Europe, becoming a grassroots youth movement. The Clash, Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson and other top bands of the day jump on board.
White Riot is a moment in time when music changed the world. When a generation challenged the status quo. It’s Woodstock meets the March on Washington, punk-style.
Directed by RUBIKA SHAH / Produced by ED GIBBS
2019 / 80 min / UK / English / Documentary
Q&A W/ PRODUCER ED GIBBS
What were your influences for the documentary?
A number of films have inspired our storytelling – films like Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Stevan Riley’s Fire in Babylon, among others. We had to find a way of telling a complex story with multiple characters in a clear and compelling way. The spirit of punk and the campaign for social justice were also powerful forces to draw from.
What was the motivation behind expanding the short?
The short was an experimental piece with spoken word, which traveled really well on the festival circuit. We always wanted the feature to be a more narrative look at the movement, from the point of view of those who created it. It’s an amazing story and it feels very relevant to today.
How difficult was it to gain access to the archive and interviews with the bands?
Finding archive is often riddled with problems. Many people don’t know what they have tucked away in their attic. Others can be reticent about sharing it. Some want absurd amounts of money before they’ll release it. The whole process takes time. Sourcing interviews is usually more straightforward. As journalists, we’ve had to interview a lot of performers over the years.
Despite it being a largely archival film, the film feels timelier than ever. How conscious were you of current events while making the film and in what ways did it inform the production?
The timeliness of it just kept magnifying day by day. It’s crazy how relevant the film is now. The grim reality of Brexit and the resurgence of the far right was obviously uppermost in our minds, but then Extinction Rebellion came along, giving us hope. So the film had to end with a sense of that.
What role does animation play in enlivening the archival footage?
The animation and VFX help bring the worlds of the fanzine and the moving image closer together. It was vital when telling this story to bring the pages of Temporary Hoarding to life. The fanzine is over 40 years old. So we wanted a contemporary audience to really connect with it.
What are you working on next?
More documentaries – one about a forgotten British punk band and another about a giant of American music, amongst others – plus a couple of dramas inspired by real-life events. We are up for pretty much anything if there’s a good story to be told.