August 23, 2008

‘It’s Really What is Happening in Modern Britain Now’

By Tim Cornwell

SHOOT on Sight, the first British feature film to tackle the July 7 2005 Tube bombings in London and their tragic aftermath, opened yesterday. The film was made on an extremely modest budget of GBP 4 million and its cast comprises a formidable international mix.

Naseeruddin Shah, the Bollywood actor best known here for Monsoon Wedding, plays the film's central character, Tariq Ali, a Muslim policeman rolled out as Scotland Yard's very convenient spokesman after the shooting of a man mistaken as a terrorist suspect. Ali is torn between his career ambitions as a British police officer and the suspicions cast at his race and religion in a sudden climate of fear.

The cast also includes the leading Scottish film and stage actor Brian Cox, playing a London police chief, and the Italian-born Greta Scacchi as Tariq's wife, an English woman living as a Muslim. The acclaimed Indian actor Om Puri, last seen in Charlie Wilson's War, plays a sinister imam recruiting potential terrorists.

Despite the clout of its cast and the topicality of its plot, the film has struggled to find a release in the UK. It will be shown in just 60 cinemas here, including two in Scotland.

Shoot on Sight was inspired by the killing of the young Brazilian man Jean Charles de Menezes soon after the attacks, in which he had no involvement, when it was claimed, falsely, that he fled from armed police on the London Tube. Earlier this year, a row erupted over the film's planned premiere in July, close to the third anniversary of the bombings. Family members of the 7/7 victims are said to have criticised a lack of respect over this "insensitive" timing and asked why they had not been shown the film first. Its release date was duly put back.

There is little need to be angry, Cox said yesterday, in his only interview to date about the supposedly controversial film.

"The one thing that we are supposed to do [as artists] is hold the mirror up to nature - and if nature is pretty abhorrent that doesn't mean we stop holding the mirror up."

He cites the example of the gritty, gripping film United 93, about the passengers who fought to retake control of their flight from the 9/11 highjackers, as another dramatic story drawn from a disaster "that informs you in a way, that looks at something in a different perspective".

"United 93 was a tremendous piece of work, a very hard piece of work, but very necessary. There was a gong of truth hit in that movie that wasn't hit in Nicolas Cage's movie about the Twin Towers." That film, World Trade Center, he dismisses as "sentimental hogwash".

He himself has yet to see Shoot on Sight, pleading pressure of work in New York during its London screenings, and seems uncertain about its quality. Filming was a "strange" experience for Cox, who was on the set between two other film projects, The Escapist and the science-fiction film Wild Blue Yonder.

"It was produced like a Bollywood film, with an all-Indian crew flown in specially to film it. It was a very ethnic experience, as if one was filming in India rather than London," he says.

Of Shoot on Sight, he says: "I thought it was an interesting idea, an interesting notion, that it should be presented from an Indian perspective. In that sense it was quite [a new] cultural experience."

Cox appears to pick his words carefully around the film, conscious of the constituencies that could be offended. He calls the Menezes killing a "classic balls-up all round".

"I thought at the time that clearly somebody had panicked, on both sides, that [De Menezes] certainly had panicked. I don't know why [he would] leap, if he did... as soon as you leap across a turnstile at any Tube station on a day that bombs have been going off, you are begging a big question for yourself."

Equally, Cox has a real problem with "men with guns" and says a "terrible mistake" should have been admitted to straight away.

The film "certainly comes out of 7/7, it's really what is happening in modern Britain - the tension that exists now."

His character is not a sinister manipulator, like the role he has played in the Bourne franchise of films in Hollywood, but more like that of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, whom he describes as "by-the-book British" and New Labour at the same time.

Playing the fictional policeman Ali's boss, he says, "I put this man in there as a PR exercise, I put in somebody who becomes a negotiator, who is a Muslim - it's all done from a laudable but ultimately patronising point of view."

The effect is to throw a career officer on to the front line of race relations as an exercise in tokenism, he said.

Cox won't say whether he believes the film is good or bad. "The proof is in the pudding," he states. There's an element that was very melodramatic, and [at the time of filming] I didn't know whether it was going to work or not."

"I know there were a lot of people lost in that event. The one thing [we have] to face up to is that it's not the UK of the 1950s, 60s or 70s: it's the 21st century, a different composition. Here are people that, today, are citizens of this country, that have rights. They also have responsibilities to behave along with those rights."

The genesis of Shoot on Sight certainly reflects the multiculturalism of the 21st century. A story about Muslims in Britain, it is produced and directed by Hindu Indians. The director, Jag Mundhra, was living in London in July 2007 and personally experienced the backlash that was - in the wake of that horrific and devastating terrorist attack executed by three British Muslims and one Jamaican-born man resident in Britain - aimed at many dark- skinned men.

He then noticed how, in the aftermath of de Menezes being gunned down on the Tube, a Muslim police officer, assistant commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, was suddenly presented as the 'face' of Scotland Yard.

A story of divided loyalties began to take shape and Mundhra enlisted his regular collaborator, the American screenwriter Carl Austin, to create a film script. The fictional Muslim policeman, Ali, becomes an object of suspicion among his fellow Muslims and police colleagues.

As Mundhra sought funding and stars for the film, his friend Aron Govil agreed to put up money for the entire project. Govil's US company, the environmental technology firm Ducon, boasts annual sales worth some GBP 200 million. But he too had suffered practical prejudice since the 9/11 and 7 July attacks, and was keen to show the viewpoint of a moderate Muslim.

"I personally get singled out," he said. "I travel a lot internationally and, because I am a brown-skinned guy, they pull me out [of the airport security queue] while everyone else is waved through. I can't blame those people, because some of us do bad things - and that's all we are showing in this film."

"I thought it was a very contemporary topic and - when the script came to me from Jag, who is an old friend of mine - I thought it should be made.

"Globally, we are affected by terrorism, and life for everyone [has changed] - especially brown-skinned people: Hindus, Muslims or whatever, they are all categorised the same way.

"It's a sensitive topic, I know families are still grieving and nobody really wants to talk about it, but we need to start a dialogue on this topic."

As well as paying GBP 4 million for the film, Govil has personally paid GBP 500,000 to release it, without the support of a conventional distributor. He had 75 prints of the film made and bought space on cinema screens across the UK in order to show it. The bill went up again when he had to rebook and reprint posters after the release date was changed.

Cox is furious about the film's difficulty in finding distribution. He argues that, like the French, "We should guarantee that at least a proportion of our cinemas should show British films. We are constantly fighting the blockbusters.

"Our government should help by making sure certain British films have a place and that they are not fighting the 12th Dark Knight."

* Shoot on Sight is showing at Showcase Glasgow and Paisley

Terrorism on film

UNITED 93: Directed by Paul Greengrass, the 2006 film followed events aboard United Airlines Flight 93, when passengers fought back after it was hijacked during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The scrupulously researched, real-time reconstruction was the first film to emerge on the attacks and was praised as a sober, unsensational and dramatic account.

World Trade Center, directed by JFK director Oliver Stone, starred Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as officers with the New York City Port Authority, who are pitched into the 9/11 terrorist attacks when trapped in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Based on a true story, it shows them buried up to their necks in rubble, staying awake and alive by talking to each other. The film earned polite but unenthusiastic reviews.

Munich: Steven Spielberg's (2005) begins with the infamous 1972 Munich hostage-taking and massacre of 11 members of Israel's Olympic team by Black September gunmen. Controversially, it moves on to the story of the Israeli team, who set out with a hit list of the alleged Black 2September members to track them down and kill them, in the so-called Wrath of God operation. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

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