Tony Grisoni: stranger in Kingsland

Tony Grisoni, screenwriter for such films as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and In This World is about to begin work directing his new film, Kingsland. Funded by Channel Four, it is being produced by Kate Ogborn of The Bureau.

Grisoni says he has always wanted to write about where he lives: “I was looking for a way of connecting with what was around me.” And having for many years collected stories from people in North London, he decided to mould them into a narrative.

His new film is rooted in the experiences and lives of a particular group of people who have arrived in the city to make their way: the Kurdish community in North London.

On hearing their stories, Grisoni discovered that the cultural position of the Kurds is doubly precarious: they have both long been oppressed in their homeland; and they have also since struggled to carve out a place for themselves in the UK.

But the tables were turned when Grisoni began researching his project, for it was he who experienced cultural estrangement. He says that: “People probably saw me as a stupid non-Kurdish man who wants to make a film about Kurdish people”. But gradually he began to get to grips with the issues by simply talking with people, listening to their tales, imbibing their experiences, perceptions and feelings about life in London.

He has plans for a feature-length film on this topic, for which he is currently trying to raise finance. Meanwhile, the short film Kingsland is drawn from the opening of this feature.

The feature is to be loosely based on a famous street-fight that took place in North London several years ago. Grisoni admits that, as an outsider, the exact reasons that the fight took place are still to not entirely clear to him. But he has sifted and distilled what people have told him, and in so doing pieced together an account of the coming-together of a community in the face of organised criminal activity.

As far as he has been able to work out, “there were problems with some young Kurdish men in particular – boys – who were looking for excitement, and danger, all the things that young men look for, and some of these got involved in criminal activities, which were being run by very powerful crime families around that area.

“I spoke to some women who were talking about the horror of finding a gun under their son’s bed, and quite a number of people I spoke to talked about how they decided that they as a community would go and speak to this crime family and tell them that they were not to come near their kids, and that they would not put up with it, and that the fight resulted from that.

“But if at the heart of that, if there is some truth there, I find it a very optimistic story, because instead of a story where the gangster is hero – which seems to me like the dumbest thing you could do and the dumbest story you could tell. It seems to me it’s tantamount to glorifying the mafia – what we have instead is a story where people group together and resist exploitation by the criminal fraternity, and I think that is an extraordinarily optimistic tale”.

In the making of Kingsland, Grisoni hopes to capture some of the “sacredness of everyday life”, and the authenticity of the real. So he’s decided not to use professional actors – instead, the ‘stars’ of Kingsland are what he describes as real people, in real locations, speaking the way they really speak.

He continues, “Everything that happens in this short film is drawn from those first-hand experiences and from those stories I heard. But as well as being a film, it’s something of a poem as well – I hope. And although they may well speak in Turkish, and some Kurdish and bits of English, hopefully we can make it so that it’s the kind of film you could watch as a silent movie, in that you are watching what happens rather than relying upon dialogue.

“You know the tale Of Dick Whittington, you know the tale of someone who arrives in the city, looking for fortune and whatever else, and you know to follow them and to see the person, who they get involved with , whom they should trust, what happens then and how are they misunderstood.

“It’s not a new tale, but hopefully what will make a difference is everything is informed by the Kurdish experience, and everything is being played by Kurdish people. And because they’re non-professional actors you get an extraordinary quality – just from them really, and the film camera photographs that.”

Grisoni describes what he does as ‘serious play’. And it’s certain that, in exploring the experiences of ‘the stranger’ in Kingsland, he is indeed a serious player.

Update 22 August 2010: Watch Kingsland here. (Note: external site).

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