Here’s a sentence that’s been a long time coming: I’m writing this the day after visiting a new exhibition.
On 19 May, the Whitworth Gallery finally made good on its mocking ‘Welcome Back’ banners and opened its doors once more to the great unwashed. Its comeback exhibition is ‘the destructors,’ a film exploring young British Muslim men’s experience of alienation. It’s split between two screens, cutting back and forth between a series of poetic monologues and shots of what looks like the inside of a school or sixth form college (but could, equally, be any generic local authority building).
Trust and mistrust
A running theme throughout the film (which feels shorter than its 25 minutes) is these men’s feeling of being distrusted by British society, as compared with the powerful bonds of trust that exist within their families and friendship circles. The latter is reflected in a series of trust exercises between the four men, filmed from a ‘drone’s-eye perspective’, as they guide one another, blindfolded, across a figurative ‘minefield’ (a sports hall floor covered in halved sports balls) and fall backwards off a bench into what they hope will be supportive arms.
By contrast, the mean speak of how their faith and the colour of their skin mark them out as implicated in terrorist acts. One speaks of a white British man, a stranger, telling him, “I forgive you” – as if there were anything to forgive. They are always on the alert, always waiting to be asked to account for their behaviour: “the balls of my feet ache whenever I hear sirens.” Or, as another says, “We know what we are accused of but not what we have done.”
It sounded disturbingly familiar. I taught for two years in a Muslim-majority school in Tower Hamlets, the east London borough where Peretta workshopped his script. Many of my A level students were so worried about the Islamophobia they expected to face outside of their community that they settled for inferior universities closer to home rather than venture outside of London. I saw firsthand the self-perpetuating nature of ‘social death’ (a sociological term used by Peretta to describe the dehumanising effect of negative stereotypes).
The film’s script still bears the hallmarks of its origins as a longform poem – to my ear, it occasionally felt stilted and constrained by adherence to form. Some viewers may find this distancing. I have to admit that, for the first few minutes, I was longing for something more naturalistic. I wanted to hear these men speaking in their own words, not their own words having first been processed into a poem by someone else (however good that poem might be).
However, once you adjust to the choice, the poetic language delivers some powerfully moving moments. The last speaker describes caring for his dying mother and struggling to receive assistance from an austerity-wracked welfare state. Musing on what this says about the relative worth of ‘brown bodies’ in the UK, he tells her, “I know why, when you hugged me, you held me so tightly and so long; to remind me that my body belonged to someone, even if it felt like it didn’t belong to me.”
At the same time, the decision to split up the screen and have each panel randomly flickering between different shots, fragments the viewer’s attention, making it harder to follow and interpret the poetry. Functionally, this doesn’t make sense but as a representation of how these men’s voices are silenced and overlooked in our society, it works brilliantly.
The film also uses magic realist elements: sinister black smoke infiltrates the building through air vents, while the building slowly floods with water from an unknown source. Peretta has said that his aim was to show black deaths in a non-literal way, to avoid further desensitising white audiences to dead black bodies. He wished “to show violence without showing violence.”
The smoke imagery evokes an external danger seeping into what should be a safe space. I remembered the sense I had in Tower Hamlets, that no matter what we did to make the school safe for the students, we could never entirely protect them from what lay just beyond the school gates. They could watch Islamophobic speeches on their phones whenever and wherever they wanted to – and did.
Imran Peretta’s ‘the destructors’ is available to watch until Autumn 2021. Free tickets must be booked in advance on the website.