‘Here in Britain, we know much about the Americas…slavery, civil rights, but very little is known about the black British struggle. It’s not just people abroad, Britains living here are very unaware of what it is to be born and raised in a country that’s foreign; and on a wider level I think it just humanises the immigrant experience. In my story I just hope to show the love and heart of who I am as a black person.’Adewale ‘Eni’ Akinnuoye Agbaje
Here’s an incredible premise: In the 1967 right-wing English town of Tilbury, a Yorubá-Nigerian couple, in the UK to study law and accountancy, hand over their 6-week-old baby, Eni, to an unknown illiterate couple, after placing an ad in the newspaper.
That baby grew up to create an identity for himself in a violently racist local skinhead gang. The protagonist of the story, actor Adewale Akinnuoye Agbaje (The Bourne Identity, Lost…), says he started writing the screenplay years ago because he couldn’t sleep at night. In development since 2012, the script progressed while he was part of the Sundance Film Institute.
Until 1960, Nigeria was a British colony and had been for the previous 70 years. Once liberated, British imperial administrators departed, leaving a system of government with few skilled leaders. Suddenly professional possibilities opened up to Nigerian citizens. Akinnuoye Agbaje’s parents were among a generation of Nigerians to come to the “mother country” to get a university education they could take home and use to build democracy in their newly independent nation.
However, with no extended family to turn to, young couples went looking for childcare, providing a way for parents to work and study before their return home, and their children to be immersed in English culture. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, thousands of Nigerian children were informally fostered out by their educated parents to white working-class families, who often took in too many children, attracted by the undeclared payments, and lack of supervision from welfare services. “Every day we get to make a new choice”, Eni’s teacher Ms. Dapo (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) tells him; the one person looking out for him.
She had seen a disturbed but clever teenager amongst the mediocre, bored, discriminatory small-town life of Tilbury, a fertile recruiting ground for nascent far-right groups in the years after Enoch Powell made his “rivers of blood” speech. A place where bingo and the pub were the highlights of the 80s; and the practice of fostering small children was called farming – children were goods to be bartered and manipulated as a means to an end. Their names were changed to ‘Boy, Divvy Cods, Dopey, Mingle, Madam and the rest of them…’ and their dog shears were used to cut the children’s hair.
The film is both important and brutal to watch. The violence is incessant and vivid, earning it an R rating in the US. Containing some of the most humiliating scenes I’ve seen in a film, young Eni is transformed from an imaginative young boy seeking love and solace to a young man (Damson Idris) desperately needing self-protection. Amongst the swollen-lipped and broken-toothed gang members, Levi (John Dagliesh), the manipulative leader of the Tilbury Skins, brings a particularly malevolent edge to the film. One that is shaped by ambiguous relationships.
This is a film principally about self-protection and urban day-to-day survival. Akinnuoye Agbaje describes it as “…about triumph over adversity, challenges and obstacles, finding a sense of belonging, finding self-worth, learning how to love one’s self and these are things that everyone can relate to.” Not only did he play the role of his father, Femi, he also wrote, directed and produced as well as writing, performing and producing most of the soundtrack. He describes it as “…only a low budget film in terms of finance, but not in terms of aspiration.”
What do you do when you’ve been endlessly rejected by both societies into which you were born? In Eni’s case, use your imagination. How did a young man move into such extreme self-protection? With nobody to rely on, he’d been practising for 17 years.
FARMING won the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film at the 2019 Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Listen to a controversial account of what life was like in 1980s Tilbury here:
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