Rubika Shah: 'There was a lot of positivity and people coming together; black, white, Asian, whatever. Solidarity'

Rubika Shah: 'There was a lot of positivity and people coming together; black, white, Asian, whatever. Solidarity'

credit: Syd Shelton

Director discusses her debut White Riot, which documents the shortlived yet immensely influential grassroots movement Rock Against Racism

'Our job was to peel away the Union Jack and reveal the swastika,' says Red Saunders, founder of Rock Against Racism (RAR). White Riot, a new documentary by Rubika Shah, produced by Ed Gibbs, charts the rise of the mighty grassroots cultural campaign and protest movement that began in London in 1976 and went on to organise 500 gigs over six years. Shah's film follows RAR over two years until the first Carnival Against Racism, a DIY event where 100,000 people marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park for a concert featuring The Clash, Tom Robinson, Steel Pulse and X-Ray Spex.

'The atmosphere was really dark and hard,' remembers Saunders, describing the sinister backdrop that prompted him to set up RAR: social service cuts, racist scapegoating in the right-wing press and a surge in interest in the National Front, who were selling their newspapers outside schools. Run by a team of activists, RAR began organising gigs in East End pubs and sharing tips for DIY gig organisers who wanted to set up other UK nights on a shoestring, ideally without crowds getting injured or PAs being destroyed. They published the fanzine / mini manifesto Temporary Hoarding, with artist interviews and photocopied collages, and sold it for 20p at gigs. 'We want rebel music, street music,' wrote radical socialist David Widgery in the first issue. 'Music that breaks down people's fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is. Love music, hate racism.'

Rubika Shah: 'There was a lot of positivity and people coming together; black, white, Asian, whatever. Solidarity'

credit: Syd Shelton

'I just couldn't believe this story hadn't been told before,' says Shah, who had made shorts about David Bowie, Spike Lee and Gore Vidal before winning Best Documentary at the London Film Festival last October for this, her first feature-length film. White Riot mixes deeply nasty footage of Enoch Powell speeches with archive images of Siouxsie Sioux wearing a swastika armband, or an ex-Rod Stewart fan declaring his former idol 'full of shit' after hearing him say, 'this country is overcrowded: the immigrants should be sent home'.

The documentary also recognises that many punk acts of the time had National Front followers for fans, some of whom were open to having their minds changed while others were not worth reasoning with. Despite chilling stories of firebombings, bullets in the post, urine through letterboxes, and police brutality during demos, Shah's film manages to beam out an energising, defiant and resilient tone. 'I'm glad that's coming through because it wasn't all doom and gloom in that era,' she says. 'There was a lot of positivity and people coming together; black, white, Asian, whatever. Solidarity. Which is good for us to remember, 40 years on.'

White Riot, Cineworld, Fri 6 & Sat 7 Mar. White Riot Afterparty with Love Music, Hate Racism, The Blue Arrow, Fri 6 Mar.

White Riot

  • 2019
  • 1h 20min
  • Directed by: Rubika Shah

Rubika Shah's feature version of her short film from 2017 follows the Rock Against Racism movement in the 70s.

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