Who is Unsound Robin, and why did he make Injustice like this?

Below is the Who Is Unsound Robin piece and, here is why I chose anonymity. If you’ve come here from Julia H Downes’s piece, you might be interested to read the response here 

If you’ve come here from the press, you might want to watch this first.

Who is Unsound Robin, and why did he make Injustice like this?

Injustice is not a normal documentary. As any film maker knows, audiences tend to want you to make their film, and so there will always be bits missing, bits that don’t connect with the concerns of each and every viewer. At each screening of Injustice there is overwhelming appreciation, but there are also the inevitable questions about bits that are missing. At the risk of curtailing live discussion it’s a good time to reflect on some of the decisions in the film.

Immaterial conditions of production

While the film exists independently of me, it is clear that its production is not independent of my circumstances. Those circumstances necessarily limited the range of choices and possible options.

In the first instance the film was born of death. A name died and I became its ghost. Phantasmal existence deprives one of what named bodies take for granted. Normal relations are suspended. The material world is displaced. Identity vanishes.

Being a ghost means you have no resources on which to call. The death of two words, first and last names, removes history. There is no present, no future. No network, no contacts, no funds. There is nobody and nothing.

Sometimes you visit your own grave and ponder what others see. What remains of an existence cut short? You’ve passed over to another dimension and disconnected from the past but have no light to move towards. You understand the ghosts of the movies, those exorcised by a little old lady because they can’t let go of a past from which they felt too soon or unjustly removed. Almost prophetically David Scott speaks candidly about such matters in Injustice: “the focus on the past, the sense of a present that’s continuing forever, the sense of ended futures.”

You try to cling on to the life you’ve lived right until the point at which you realise nobody can see you. You’re already dead. You wait for Tangina Barrons to hold your hand and lead you to the light but there is none. You’re left as a ghost in this world but not ready for the next. For my part I chose to haunt the corridors of power through Injustice. It prevented the descent of my soul into a dark underworld.

Life as a ghost is curious. Initially those who choose to see are other ghosts. They see your soul. Some wonder around aimlessly, others, like Caspar, have learned how to use their powers, such that they enliven the world of the living. One such ghost, the Caspar of our domain, is Gethin Jones.

The friendly ghost

Gethin radiates goodness. Not the sanctimonious puritanism of the exorcists, but real goodness.

I offered to make him a film to support his goals for Unlocking Potential, but I had no money to travel. Gethin didn’t have much more, but offered to pay for me to get to Portsmouth, put me up for the night and fed me. There’s nothing like prison to teach humility.

On hearing Gethin’s account of his life, the task seemed obvious. The life known to so many isn’t occupied by all. Existence isn’t the same experience for all. Indeed many are born on the cusp of life. They grasp at life, trying to hold on against the odds. For all the guff the privileged spew about privilege, if you have to theorise it, you probably have it.

Marginalised existence is a truth that is self-evident, and the precarious balance between existence and non-existence constantly haunts the privileged. I can only presume the disdain in which the marginalised are held reflects in the eye of the beholder their own fear of non-existence. Look left, look right and you’ll see the same scramble to affirm existence through the death they wish on others.

Leading from Gethin’s insights, I moved from source to source. I found other ghosts, families of ghosts wondering around the country, and human beings who, like mediums in the absurd world of psychics, manage to reach out and communicate with the undead.

Material conditions of production

There was no plan for Injustice. There was no schedule, there was no idea beyond telling the stories of spectral existence, and relaying the insights of seers. The haze of marginal existence confounds the planner.

It’s difficult to get people to understand the choice between travelling to an interview and eating properly without hearing the soft sounds of violins. Just to say the film resists analysis under normal conditions of production.

It’s annoying to have to refer to the personal struggles of finding friends in whose homes I could shower, or finding places to get internet access to do research. Cafes have free internet, but if you can’t afford a coffee…

It’s also difficult to approach people for interview as a ghost without a name, without a history, without credentials, without anything other than “Hi, I’m nobody making a film, wanna be in it?”, or suchlike. This is why I have such fawning adoration for those who agreed to be in the film – they took a gamble, they trusted a ghost.

As such, there were many approaches that met with negative response or no reply.

The material conditions of production, as always, explain a great deal. I was amazed I managed to get who I got under the circumstances. Beyond that, I can only say in a belligerent tone: try it yourself.

Where are the victims?

Injustice was conceived in the agonising fury of death throes. That’s an important starting point. My fury was born of experience of the slow suffocation under a criminal justice system that seems to be none of those three words, unless it describes current justice system as criminal.

It’s a struggle to retain perspective under such circumstances. I now keep all that negativity in a box inside myself, leaning on it to keep it shut when it threatens to erupt. It terrifies me like nothing and nobody ever has.

Initially the mist of anger blinded me to victims. I didn’t care. I didn’t believe. I’ve witnessed lies, I’ve seen the pantomime of court, I know how fleeting narratives are constructed by those whose lives are sustained by death. Most of all I’ve witnessed how victim support groups knowingly lie and subvert justice, driven by ends that are anathema to it.

I was bitter, and I admit it was initially out of ego-driven anger that I excluded victim narratives from the film. My experience is not that of all. I remain angry at the effect that experience of victim groups had on my own sense of reality. I recall vividly drifting past newspaper stands, reading the headlines of the latest heinous crime and thinking “fuck you, don’t believe you”. I still resent them for that.

I’m still confused about recognition. As Tommy says about himself in the film “I’ve been beaten up hundreds of times”. #metoo. By men and women, with hammers and knives. I’ve been robbed, burgled, mugged – once three times in one night, when I was 15.

I’ve been defrauded, threatened, abused domestically and publicly. It’s quite embarrassing to tot up the number of times I’ve been a victim of crime. Yet I only called the police once, and that was for insurance reasons. The house down the way with “Grass” sprayed on it taught me about crime and the authorities. You sort it yourself.

Of course court doesn’t see you. There’s an act, not a person. I’d call the base simplicity of the court system child-like, but children are rather more sophisticated and have a greater sense of justice. With the pre-figuring of guilt that the CPS and MoJ have established the defendant is the perpetrator and the complainant is a victim. All that’s solid melts into air.

The idiotic dichotomy was presented to me when in stupidly trying to be honest in court (never ever do that) I was met with “so you’re trying to make yourself out as the victim”. I don’t hate the prosecutor for that cruel jibe, but it placed hatred in me. Breathe, relax, do the film.

As I sobered up, a more reasonable decision-making process emerged thus: I am unapologetic that the film is about victims of an unjust society who get caught up in a malfunctioning system that delivers barely existing people to the torture of prison to satisfy the dark viciousness of human being. Humanise convicts and prisoners, speak to them frankly, and you’ll not that most of them, as Faith Spear puts it in the film, are not bad people but people who have done bad things. Insofar as they are bad people, there is always a reason. To deny that is only possible with some kind of belief in an evil extraneous to the psychological development of a person over time.

On the other hand the dichotomous narrative of “pure” victims is everywhere. It is so pervasive that it has infected the courts themselves, where participants in legal processes are pre-defined as victims. The police, it is clear, have been forced to believe allegations. This is not justice, it is an impediment to justice. To shortcut difficult but necessary processes serves nobody but the unjust.

So where are the victims in the film? Well, Tony Blair speaks about them unhindered. I projected his speech to the Labour Party Conference onto a billboard on Tottenham Court Road to show how pervasive that message is – it’s so common, so natural that it is taken for granted.

In telling Alex Henry’s story I was fortunate that his sister, Charlotte, managed to dig out the CCTV footage the incident in which a man was killed. Charlotte presents the whole story, with her intonation changing when it gets to the point that a man dies. The CCTV footage focuses in on the murder victim, holding for a long time on his walk, his arm around another, fading to black and leaving the scene in silence.

It exists as a moment of silence for the dead man.

There’s a scene later in the film while Deirdre O’Neill is explaining her Inside Film project and I cut to one of her films. In that scene a man is sat on a railing talking to his friend when someone sucker-punches him, knocking him out.

It’s a shocking scene, horrible. My first reaction was the expected – what a scumbag. My next was – poor man, what must be inside him to need to do such a horrible thing. But Dee’s film makers cut from that horrible scene to a scene of a US soldier pointing his machine gun out of a helicopter at what we can only presume are Iraqi villages.

Few people complain when in the evening news we watch wars from the viewpoint of “our boys”. Then the victims don’t matter… Or rather don’t exist.

We are selective in how we conceive of victims, and that has more than a little to do with unfixed and complex power dynamics.

Where are the women?

It’s odd to reflect on my exclusion of women in prison from the story. My mind wasn’t steady in the early days of the film, which was further hindered by my intake of drink and drugs at the time. Lack of food and sleepless nights as my inner rage was subdued by said intoxicants did not make for good decision-making.

I did attempt to get women ex-prisoners into the film. One approached me after the premiere to apologise for not replying, telling me they’d been advised not to speak to “the media”, as if I am! But it’s understandable of course.

At the same time my personal experience this time got in the way of understanding injustices. I found it frustrating that such a small proportion of the prison population were to receive funding, for example from Sadiq Khan, to keep women out of prison… So then what? The prison population should be 100% men?

It wasn’t until after the film was released that Lucy Baldwin’s gentle response to just this point made me realise that generic support for prisoners presumed there were no gender differences in terms of need.

My fear was that identity politics would fragment and subvert a much needed unified front to reform or abolish prisons. Lucy explained that her objective was to address specific needs, not to undermine others.

Yet at the same time, the point of Injustice is to remain generic, to address the fundamental problems of the criminal justice system and the hate-filled culture punishment. In this sense, one can only do so much in any film, but even less as a ghost with few resources.

I did what I could in Injustice. But what it has done is to open a path to more. And so the next film will be about women in prison.

As it stands women play an interesting role in the film. Again, it is not of my own doing that women seem to be disproportionately involved in prison reform: Penelope Gibbs, Faith Spear, Deirdre ONeill and Charlotte Henry are key figures in the film. In my own experience those who stood by me most firmly tended to be women. As I reflect on this, my mind boggles with reasons. Do women have a better sense of justice? Are they more inclined to accept that people make mistakes? Does their status as historically marginalised people make them more sensitive to injustice? Is there are maternal element? Are they just stronger? Is there something of their material existence that makes them more able to be involved in such matters? I simply don’t know.

I’ll venture no further in explanation here, lest my musings be mistaken for assertions.

Ain’t no black?

Black men are disproportionately represented in prisons. They are more likely to be victims of crime as well as to be stopped and searched, or arrested on suspicion. They are more likely to be sent to prison. There is certainly racism in the criminal justice system, but there’s a deeper problem of structural inequality.

I’d approached a couple of black ex-prisoners to no avail. The aforementioned material constraints meant that I couldn’t dwell on the issue. There are documentaries about how black men are treated, notably a film with the same name, Injustice, which looks at deaths in custody.

So there I was with a white cast, with the exception of Navdeep, the ex-prison guard. Had I money and assistance and I could have spent time finding people and planning a narrative, but as it stood I was left with what I had.

But what of representations of black people in the film as it stands?

Charlotte Henry’s story, animated through the use of CCTV makes it quite clear that the men charged under Joint Enterprise were and are largely black.

There was, along the way, a mistake – I seem to have accidentally cut out a bit where Deirdre O’Neill mentions the proportion of the prison population who are black. I put that in the shit happens category.

However, devoid of black interviewees, does one get a white person to speak for black people? I’d have this no more than a man speaking for women. It is political principle to have people speak for themselves.

And so where do black people speak? Well, Dee’s prison films were made by black prisoners. This is where they speak, through their own representations, which Dee narrates quite clearly through the prism of class: as she says in the film, the story is different when in this case black – working class people tell their own stories than when they are mediated by the middle classes.

It was black prisoners who selected the footage of the sucker punch contrasted with the US soldiers. It is a black man who says “just because I’ve killed someone, does that make me a murderer?” – one of the most profound statements in the film.

It is a black man who says “they say I am what I am, who am I?” – a phrase that resonates with me, and I’m sure all people convicted. You are who you are but one moment redefines you completely.

I’ve explained elsewhere why I didn’t film inside prison. The only scenes inside prison are filmed by prisoners. For the riots I used only footage caught on the camera phones of prisoners. The rest is footage taken by Dee’s black prisoners as they made films about themselves. It gives a good sense of the proportion of black prisoners in the system, and represents them in a manner of their own choosing.

More to the point, the representation of black prisoners is – as far as I can see – positive, showing them being given a chance and taking that chance with gusto. It speaks volumes about the opportunities refused to young black men, and how they respond when pathways are opened up to them. It also shows how their hopes are crushed as the project was shut down.

A closing thought

There are many other exclusions in the film. I say nothing of political prisoners, religious denominations, dietary requirements, transgender prisoners and a whole host of other particularities.

In part I feel belligerent and would respond to critics of exclusion with “you make a film under the circumstances”. A less belligerent response may be drawn from Baldwin’s position – my inclusion doesn’t exclude you from doing your own thing. And if you do, please get in touch as I’ll help as much as I can.

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