I sat down recently with Jamie Jones and Sophie Kennedy Clark, the director and lead actress of what was undoubtedly one of the best films of the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year: the brilliant, brutal Obey. During our chat, we talked extensively about the hotly-debated topic of gentrification in London, in which Jones told me that he, himself, “saw the transition towards gentrification in Hackney” and laments on probably having “been a part of it himself”. As we talked, both he and Kennedy Clark lamented on the culture clash that is often found in London these days and the uniqueness of the city. “You have these huge high-rises, massive estates, right next to the most expensive houses! You get gang crime and you get people sitting drinking champagne and Peach Bellini’s in London fields.” Indeed, Jones even told me of a story of gentrification that he had once been involved in himself: “All these hipsters, I was amongst them, we were all just sat drinking champagne, the sun was shining and then we just heard a gunshot and a helicopter comes down and somebody was shot in the leg, and it just happened right next to us!” These sorts of opposing moments are found all throughout Obey, scattered across the film in various different manners, from individual scenes to the presentation of characters such as Kennedy Clark’s Twiggy and her band of bohemian friends squatting alongside Leon’s estate.
I point out a scene in which Leon is brushed off by a pop-up business that has set itself upon in east London and Jones tells me that this particular moment was inspired by a scene which played out in real life for him. “That scene actually happened to me – I was the white, gentrified guy and I was sat, I was working on something that I was really stressed out about and this guy comes in, he was a black kid who must have been around seventeen […] he asked if we had any work experience and I was so wrapped up in what I was doing that I said, ‘oh maybe just ask the guy downstairs or check the website’.” Jones went on to tell me that once the teenager walked out, just as Leon does in the film, he leapt up and “ran to try and find him […] and thought in that moment, that poor kid, it must have taken him so much courage to walk into that space but I was so wrapped in my own stuff in that moment.” I mentioned the fact that many of us, including myself, are often so concerned with what is going on in our own lives that we sometimes forget that we can help those around us and both Jones and Kennedy Clark nodded in total agreement – and took a brief moment to reflect on this thought.
As our conversation progressed, I decided to ask Kennedy Clark and Jones why it was that they chose to pursue a project such as this; a topic that is so rarely covered in British cinema, which truly explores the complexities and adversities of life for black, working-class communities and does not once hold back from closely examining uneasy subjects. “I was there when the London riots broke out,” Kennedy Clark explained, “I know girls like Twiggy. London has wrapped this great amount of shame around the riots and it has just been so swept under the rug – we showed this film at Tribeca and people there had no idea that this even went on in England because we show them The Crown! Obey just felt like this honest, gritty depiction of youth culture and the kinds of parties I go to and you don’t often get to read that in scripts.” Kennedy Clark went on to say that she knew Obey would be “a lot of fun to film,” and that she felt that many people that had rioted were “demonised, that many failed to realise that these people were oppressed and struggled to find a way to get out of that oppression. This shows both sides and shows that these kids were mixing together – it wasn’t simply a matter of ‘bad’ and ‘good’.”
When I spoke of the importance of depicting the riots and the impact that they had on British society, Jones told me that he felt that the riots covered almost all of the issues that he wanted to explore, from the financial meltdown that came in 2008 to the subject of gentrification, and pointed out the way that he wanted to portray all characters with empathy. “Twiggy is a bit reckless as a character but she isn’t a bad person, she doesn’t always realise the consequences of her actions,” Jones said, “whereas Leon knows that if he does something wrong – he could be arrested and beaten by the police.” The theme of white privilege, both Jones and Kennedy Clark agreed, is a central one to Obey and is repeatedly explored in great depth throughout the course of the film – done in order to truthfully expose the injustices of a biased society.
As our conversation came to an end, I asked Kennedy Clark and Jones what direction they thought British cinema was heading in following Obey and what they hoped people would take away from the film and they responded with optimism and fervour. “With this project, what I ultimately wanted to do was split the audience,” Jones told me “and create debate. For me, Obey was about opening a debate about the way we structure society because if we don’t discuss it, events such as the riots will happen again, if we aren’t talking about it.” Kennedy Clark stated that she felt that one of the most important feelings that she wanted audiences to leave Obey with was a sense of empathy. “We are scare-mongered by the media to the point that you might cross the street to avoid just because you’re casting aspersions as to what you think they might be like. People will have a much wider understanding of what happened during the riots, of why certain things happened – in the papers, we often only hear one side of the story and I think that Obey really does show so many sides, so many different perspectives on what happened.”
With our interview drawing to a close, Jones considered the fact that the riots were “bad for everyone, for everyone involved. They were guys dressed in riot gear and, of course, they looked terrifying but I wanted to humanise them as well, too. If we debate and we work our way out of it, then it will be better for us all.” Indeed, Obey is the kind of film that will undoubtedly pave the way for necessary debate on issues of social structures, class systems, and gentrification in modern Britain. As both Kennedy Clark and Jones pointed out, Obey strives to show as many sides to the story of the London riots as possible, for that reason, is a brave and admirable piece that should be seen by many.