Gangland (2016)

Gangland first published by RealCrime Magazine

Channel 5 hosts many series devoted to Britain’s crime and ‘hard men’- but what distinguishes Paul Blake’s two-part Gangland is its genesis, and its unusual method of production (note that we have seen only the first part, Turf Wars). 

Alarmed by the statistics on knife and gun deaths amongst young black males in Britain, Blake fostered relations with gangs over 12 years, gradually gaining their trust. He also placed GoPro cameras in ‘dead drops’ to allow gang members to film themselves, free of the documentarian’s presence. The results are a blend of intimate camerawork and extraordinarily candid interviews. 

Some contributors, like ‘Mikey’, ‘Bonnie’ and ‘Clyde’, conceal their identities behind masks, as they discuss the attractions and dangers of their illicit business. Former gang member Quincey Thwaites, who, after firing an Uzi in 2002 on rivals and police in South East London and serving his sentence, can now talk openly about the escalation of street violence – but what is more surprising is the willingness of Jordy, a dealer from the Woolwich Boys, to discuss his chosen career, even while facing serious possession charges. Now in prison, in a sense Jordy has been lucky – three other boys with whom Blake had been in contact were murdered during the nine-month production. 

When ‘armed’ with the GoPros, the gangsters tend to focus on weapons, drugs and braggadocio – and Jordy and his girlfriend Aliciah also emphasise the bling that comes with their lifestyle. Yet all this is offset by less glamorous details: not just the sense of fear and desperation that slips into several of the interviews, but also highly graphic footage of ‘plugging’ (the secretion of drug bags in/from the anus), with Jordy explaining just how unclean heroin and crack are at the user end of the narcotic food chain.

Blake says he regarded the gang scene as a “warzone”, and that he used ‘fixers’ to negotiate filming sessions “just like you would if you were going to Afghanistan”. Indeed, while visiting a criminal outfit in the Parisian banlieues, Blake had a gun pulled on him and was subjected to a terrifying mock execution. Yet what fast becomes clear in Gangland is that young men are drawn to this perilous world chiefly because of social deprivation and neglect. “Noone’s got anything around here,” Jordy says of the estate where he grew up. In turning to crime, boys like him are “just trying to make a living, to get the normal things that normal people get.” So the irony is that these gangsters are the heirs to Thatcher’s legacy: they are the young, upwardly mobile embodiments of free enterprise. The problem is that so many of them are killing, and being killed.

© Anton Bitel