As part of their Black History Month programming Museum Of Liverpool is screening Sin Bin Of The City, a new documentary looking at the 1981 Toxteth Riots and the conditions and circumstances in Liverpool 8 and across the UK at the time of the unrest. Using first hand accounts and ITN newsreel the film looks to tell the story from the point of view of the Toxteth community for the first time. Jessica Greenall asked director James Arthur Armstrong about the production; how he put the film together, how he collaborated with the residents of Liverpool 8 and his thoughts on how the area has changed in the last 36 years.
What made you decide to investigate the Toxteth riots?
It’s an important issue in my home of Liverpool that I feel has never been fully addressed by the city or the wider communities. I’d had the idea to make something on the Liverpool 8 disturbances for a few years, after watching a Channel 4 documentary from 1999 that I thought was an awful, overdramatized telling of events. It left you with a feeling that Liverpool 8 was some kind of ghetto slum, when in fact, it’s quite the opposite. I wanted to show how Liverpool 8 is a vibrant community, full of creative and friendly people. When I won the ITN Source Short Film competition at Sheffield International Documentary Festival 2016, an ITN executive asked me to pitch a film to them on the spot that they could help me make using their extensive archive – pitching ‘Sin Bin of the City’ felt like a natural choice. You don’t need to overdramatize this story – what happened in 1981 and what hasn’t happened since, is shocking enough.
You previously made a documentary on the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was killed by armed policemen in 2014. How did making this documentary compare with making Sin Bin of the City?
Regarding the actual process of making the film with archive footage, it felt very familiar. I had previously worked with ITN on Ferguson, Missouri so I was aware of how to approach a story using their archival footage. What made Sin Bin of the City a slightly different process was I needed to get involved with the community first hand and listen to their side of the story before using the archive to tell it. Revealing the real stories behind the newsreels was a big process in finding the narrative spine of the film. For Ferguson, Missouri I made it from afar allowing the archive to simply tell the story. From the outset, social media and the mainstream media’s portrayal of Ferguson was my hook into making that film. Sin Bin of the City needed more research and interaction with the community for it to be an honest telling. But what makes going from Ferguson, Missouri to Sin Bin of the City a natural progression for me as a filmmaker are the similarities between how both black communities were treated by the police and their city. It’s scary how similar they are even though they’re 34 years apart.
Was it difficult to find interviewees who were around during the riots who were open to discussing their opinion and experience?
It wasn’t hard finding people who wanted to share their stories. The tricky part was gaining their trust and being able to reassure them that I was capable of telling their story honestly and in their voice. We decided to only use audio interviews, as we felt that giving interviewees visual anonymity would help them feel more comfortable sharing their story with us.
What were the responses from the L8 community when you told them you were making a film about the riots?
At first, some were hesitant, which is more than understandable. I’m a white filmmaker trying to make a film about a black community that feels invisible in their own city. Add to the fact that ITN is attached to the project, straight away I understood why they may have felt hesitant to speak given they had been burnt in the past by how media had portrayed them. But once I met with them one-to-one and explained my vision for what I wanted the film to say, they were more than open and have been incredibly supportive ever since.
How did the reaction from community members differ from police officers?
I was inundated with emails from former officers giving me their stories. I spoke to a handful but we made a decision quickly to not include any police, because at its core, this film is not about the police. It’s about the Liverpool 8 community and how they’ve never had their side of the story told in an honest manner by any form of media. The police have had decades of mainstream media support and it’s only fair to hear the other side of the story of those involved.
When comparing your research with today’s Toxteth, do you think there has been a positive change since the riots?
Liverpool 8 has improved in small pockets since ’81, but it’s like an onion. On the outskirts of Liverpool 8, like Upper Parliament Street, for example, everything seems fine. But when you peel away and look deeply into Liverpool 8 and the inner city, there’s still a fundamental problem with racism in Liverpool. It feels like the black community of Liverpool is still desperately lacking in job opportunities, business opportunities and social infrastructure.
What do you hope the documentary will provide for the L8 community and beyond?
A voice. The whole idea behind this film was to give the L8 community a voice; let them be heard for once. Liverpool 8 is the oldest black community in Europe, yet nobody knows this: there’s no sign of the community in existence in the city centre. I’m proud to be from Liverpool and there’s a lot of great things to shout about here, but there’s also a lot of important issues that need to be tackled quickly. We’re far from being the integrated community we all may think we are. Liverpool’s black community deserves to be celebrated and acknowledged more, and the city, and those who can make a change, need to realise this.
Do you feel a responsibility as a filmmaker to bring injustices to light and document history?
True stories have always piqued my interest, and telling a story as honestly as possible, even if controversial, is what documentary filmmaking should be about. For many people, the events of ’81 are something that should be forgotten – a blot on the history of a city and community that is best left in the past. But, now more than ever we need to talk to each other, to listen to each other and understand how we see other people, and cinema is one of the best mediums for doing this.
What are your plans around the release of the documentary?
We’ll be screening the film on Saturday 14th October at the Museum of Liverpool which is included in their Black History Month programme. The film will then screen at Constellations on Wednesday 8th November. At this screening, we will launch a two-week long exhibition that will display newspaper excerpts, photographs and more unheard audio interviews from the people who feature in the film. After that, the film will begin touring the film festival circuit, with the festival premiere at Norwich Film Festival on 19th November.