Ultraviolence: LFF Review
It’s been almost twenty years since Ken Fero’s highly controversial documentary Injustice was released (a film that was banned from television and effectively banished Fero from the mainstream), but he’s now returned with another, equally shocking and revealing film that picks up right where he left off. With Ultraviolence, Fero gives us yet more evidence of prisoners who died under ridiculous circumstances while in police custody.
Fero, who narrates much of the film himself with the help of Cathy Tysoe, frames the film as a letter to his son; a document to be looked back on, of a time that he hopes will one day pass. He tells various stories of such incidents one-by-one, referring to them as ‘memories’, accompanied with CCTV footage and interviews with family members. It’s a bleak and uncomfortable watch, as it should be.
Ultraviolence opens with the ‘memory’ of Christopher Adler, who was left to die on the floor of a police station entrance while several officers belittled and mocked his condition, claiming he was ‘faking it’. The footage is harrowing, to say the very least, and it’s the start of things to come, as we’re soon shown film of Paul Coker lying almost naked in his prison cell as he dies, while officers on the other side of the door joke about it together. Coker isn’t seen by a doctor until almost thirty minutes after he dies.
Allowing the footage to play out like this is a simple but very clever technique, letting the truth speak for itself without the need for cinematic extravagance. Fero isn’t making any allegations here because he simply doesn’t need to; the truth is right there. His film is a cry for justice; nothing more, nothing less, and he goes on to look at several other cases, including his old classmate Brian Douglas, who died from a fractured skull, and Jean Charles De Menezes, who was shot seven times in the head while trying to catch a tube, each story as shocking as the last.
Fero only strays from his bare knuckles approach during fleeting moments of animation, which he uses to illustrate how these men came to be in custody in the first place. It’s masterfully done, although the basic style of the rest of the picture does become a problem. It’s an understandable approach, but it doesn’t necessarily always work, often coming across quite jarring and confusing the tone he’s going for.
While Ultraviolence is a work brimming with anger, the heart of the stories comes from the familial interviews, which are compassionately observed by Fero. The victim’s families are articulate, intelligent, and every bit as frustrated as you’d expect. Their determination is admirable, as we follow them through meetings, campaigns and on various marches. The film would’ve been a far stranger experience had it not been for their inclusion; the interviews serve to brilliantly humanise the people we sadly watch dying before our very eyes.
Fero often comes across as something of a pessimist. He notes that outrage has only ever been temporary, cleverly comparing it to the footage of Vietnamese children suffering from the effects of Napalm in the seventies. Sure, people were angry at the time, but it never stopped the use of phosphorus gas in Iraq years later. They knew it was wrong, but they did it anyway, the outrage soon forgotten. Fero posits that the same has long been true of police brutality such as this.
But he’s truthfully something of an optimist, dreaming of a revolution and confident in future generations. He believes he’s doing the right thing to get through to people, noting that ‘endless brutality requires endless resistance’, and while this is mostly a brutal work that is unashamedly confrontational, he really believes things can change.
Ultraviolence is another startling exposé of police brutality that’ll stick with any kind-hearted individual watching, but it’s not just a record of the incidents themselves. Rather, it’s a story about the ongoing fight for justice, and the importance of holding guilty people to account. There are clear issues with its style, which all too often distracts from the content at hand and completely messes with the tone, but for the most part the stories themselves are enough to get the message across. Fero’s approach is sincere and personal, and while his film may be one of the most painful you’ll ever sit through, it’s one that simply must be watched.
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