A glimpse of conflict

How will cinema remember the riots?

It may seem slightly redundant to wonder how the riots that have broken out across London and in provincial cities over the last few days will come to be represented. That is, of course, if they come to be part of filmic or literary memory at all: it's an appropriate coincidence that they have broken out thirty years after the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 1981, which have yet to spawn any films. But the cultural reaction to outbreaks of social disorder over the last 30 years or so can give some idea of the representational and imaginative blind-spots in the everyday social assumptions that riots rupture.

The film that seems closest to the current situation is Matthieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995). Set against the backdrop of the Parisian banlieue riots of the early 1990s, sparked by poverty, entrenched unemployment and police mistreatment of Afro-Caribbean and Maghrebin youth, most of the film takes place during a lull in the disorder. The lead trio - Jewish Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Afro-French Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Algerian Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) - travel into Paris for the day, and an eerie quiet and clarity hangs on the soundtrack; the trio are surrounded by empty, space in each shot. The riots appear as outbursts of action and noise that punctuate this: the clatter of police boots chasing the protagonists through a subway tunnel, raised voices between them and as they scuffle with skinheads. The raw black-and-white cinematography echoes the racial differences that are constantly called up by the characters - differences identified and emphasised by hostility, violent action and the air of tension that pervades the film. To the trio themselves, these are not very significant: the three of them maintain a friendship mediated by the usual crass banter; their families on their estate all know and support each other. It is the social context - their run-ins with white, well-off Parisians in the city itself - that sparks them into deadly significance.


By contrast, the riot in New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant that closes Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (1989) is all noise and colour: a blast of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" initiates the fight that starts the tumult; the frame is crammed with bodies, with struggling and roiling limbs, with faces black and white, mouths open in shouts. The roll-call of black power leaders that Pino (John Torturro) cites to Mookie (Spike Lee), and whose faces Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) wants on the pizzeria's "wall of fame", sits uncomfortably with the tumult we see shortly afterwards: the pizzeria smashed, invaded, set alight. Race limits their actions to a perverse outburst of self-destruction: as the shop burns behind them, Mookie answers police demands to go home with "This is our home!" The violence and skill of Lee's cuts, though portraying well the speed and frenzy of events, ultimately contain and stylise the drama. The problem goes to the heart of how to portray disorder, confusion, crowds: narrative cinema demands focus through the lens of a small number of characters; it aligns with a need to simplify, to make riots comprehensible by rooting them in individual and concrete motivations. The opening credits of La Haine, made up of news footage from the riots, are in some ways more effective than the rest of the film: shell-suited, masked and anonymous youths pouring out of shopfronts; police, made anonymous by riot gear, kitting up, charging; smoke roiling from burning cars.

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Kassovitz's incorporation of documentary footage isn't a much-used tactic, because it isn't sensational. As the Clash - or, indeed, Public Enemy - proved, riots are glamorous. A point driven home in Julien Temple's adaptation of Colin Macinnes's Absolute Beginners (1986). The film's motor is the excitement of London's racially mixed jazz scene; the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, that close the book and film, and engulf the teenage protagonists, come out of this friction. The riot-scenes are choreographed as dance sequences a la West Side Story. The film's contradictory investments in race are masked, resolved, by aestheticisation and by the force of identification with Colin (Eddie O'Connell); the larger conditions that lie at the root of the riots do not even leak through; events, with causes and consequences, are turned into blank spectacle. O'Connell is a little too slick for the role of working-class hipster Colin, and emphasises his distance from the black rioters with whom he all too recently mixed.

The fact is that the riots are already representing themselves: within hours of the outbreak in Tottenham a rash of footage was on Youtube and news broadcasts. The strangeness, perhaps even ugliness, of the film is striking. We see people doing things that no-one expects under normal conditions, and they keep doing them, in a torrent; they are pixellated, badly framed, shaky. But they are, nonetheless, something we would expect to see only in a film - though not, perhaps, any particular film we've seen. In a sense the traumatic impact of these images tells us all we need to know - about the grinding social reality that surrounds the moment of riot, that makes the thrill of action, no matter how reckless and self-destructive, seem preferable; about the reality, beneath social apperances, of a society divided against itself. Whether art will catch up with this insight is another question.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.