Tuesday, June 19, 2007
An allotment in Bootle, just outside of Liverpool and a group of asylum seekers are introduced to gardening by a sympathetic social worker, as a means of healing their psychological scars. There’s some sharp, witty dialogue and shafts of humour as the allotment committee (some real crusty characters) try to impose new rules as a means of thwarting the ‘invasion’. When they try to get all the sheds painted red they have to deal with irascible rebel Kenny.
The film does deal with the trauma that many asylum seekers suffer during their journey, Kang, mourns the loss of his wife who died en route and he has a phobia about the containers they were forced to travel in. Through interacting and receiving advice from characters like Ali, a trained doctor, the allotment growers begin to change their attitude.
However, having set the scene the second half of the film chugs along like a 1950s Ealing comedy, or one of those amiable 1970s sit-coms. Unfortunately the film is dealing more with the prejudices of the 1950s – ignorance and fear of the unknown. There’s no real attempt to ask any awkward questions and get the audience thinking.
Asylum seekers are usually isolated and marginalized, placed in fractured and fragmented working class communities. The majority of asylum seekers in Liverpool were placed in damp, condemned tower blocks in Everton and were on the receiving end of almost nightly attacks from local youngsters (with few prospects themselves) who wanted to protect ‘their patch’.
The realities of racism in Europe are the French banalieues where youngsters of African descent face discrimination and police harassment, or East Germany where skinheads routinely attack people with darker skins. The film ‘East is East’ was a humorous take on race relations in the 1960s, but where is the contemporary film that deals with the riots in Oldham and Burnley or the 7/7 bombings?
On the other hand there is a danger that films can portray every asylum seeker as a ‘deserving case’ (the mass majority are) but neglect the way they are more likely to be exploited by people from within their own community – people traffickers and gang masters (the worst example of this the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers).
The main problem with the film is that there is no contrast, most of the characters are in soft focus. I read a study on Charles Dickens it made the point that what really lifted ‘Oliver Twist’ and put it on a different level was the introduction of pure evil – Bill Sykes. The raid by the Immigration Police and the menace of the mobile phone company are external threats, not from the community. The gardeners with their mugs of tea and zip-up cardigans are fairly harmless old buffers, it makes for a comfy slippers kind of film. The only character with any depth is Kenny, the rest we experience in a superficial way.
The premise behind the film is that with a bit of TLC and sympathy racism can be overcome and we can all work together, if only it was so easy. In some communities racism and prejudice is deep rooted, fuelled by the press ‘myths’ about asylum seekers being given free mobile phones and driving lessons. In the furore about council houses for white families the Dagenham MP John Cruddas said he knew of no single case where asylum seekers had ‘jumped the queue’. In fact the main problem has been the complete lack of council house building for the last ten years.
A much bleaker, darker film about a Russian asylum seeker in Sweden is ‘Lilya 4-Ever’, it doesn’t pull any punches, it isn’t afraid to make the point that many lonely old men will pay young girls for abusive sex.
‘Grow Your Own’ just doesn’t have a cutting edge. It needed a writer like Jimmy McGovern to draw this out. I remember a scene from the scripting sessions of the film ‘Dockers’ about the Liverpool lockout in 1995, the dockers had written a script that outlined the way they and their families had changed through the course of the dispute. Jimmy McGovern insisted that making one of the central characters a scab (played by Ricky Tomlinson) allowed the film to question why someone, a real character, would betray their work mates and their community.
‘Grow Your Own’ - a film that tried to press all the right buttons but just lost the plot.
How the film was made