Film made by Lambeth youth premieres at the Ritzy

Markus Burke, who plays Leon (by Damwin Photography)

Markus Burke, who plays Leon (by Damwin Photography)

By Carli Forrest

‘Tiny’, a short film created by St Michael’s Fellowship and Latimer Creative Media, premiered last Tuesday at the Ritzy, Brixton. On one of the warmest days of the year so far, most people would have thought twice about a trip to the cinema but this invite-only screening proved to be the hottest ticket in town as people of all ages congregated outside the cinema to celebrate the talent of 50 young people from Lambeth and listen to their message.

The film takes its title from the name given to the youngest members of a gang and follows the experiences of Leon, a young school boy who is groomed by a local gang member. We watch how Leon strays from his school books and enters into criminal activity in the hope of gaining respect on his estate, resulting in tragic consequences.

‘Tiny’ was made in response to the growing concerns among people in Lambeth following the recent sentencing of four teenagers from South London for the murder of Zac Olumegbon, a 15 year-old boy brutally stabbed to death outside the gates of Park Campus School in West Norwood in July 2010 .

The screening of the film was followed by a Q & A with the cast and crew. Sandra Moody, who plays Leon’s mother in the film said: ‘There is a horrible reality out there that we cannot ignore.  This project is not just about a film, it is about promoting the reality.”

But the evening was far more than a seminar about how difficult things can be. It was about how brilliant they can become, as the film demonstrated a fantastic showcase of exciting new talent that Lambeth has to offer. Like many of the cast and crew who created ‘Tiny’, 16 year-old Marcus Burke has spent time in a Young Offenders Institute. He was persuaded by his mentor to get involved with the project. Watching him play the lead role of Leon on screen, it is impossible to believe that he had no prior acting experience.

Now back in school and finishing his GCSEs, I asked Marcus what is next for him. “I was thinking of doing electrical engineering but now I wanna take acting further, I wanna go up. I believe that I can do it. It’s just as much my right to do it as anyone else’s.”

That seemed to be the general consensus in the room. Inspired by the project, all involved spoke about a new sense of self belief and motivation to do well. Kassidy Chaplin, who plays the film’s villainous gang leader Sniper, spoke about taking control of his own path: “Everyone has an option, everyone has a choice. Peer pressure can be a strong thing but you can overcome it. In my area there are people I know that are still trying to do their thing on the street. I try and speak to them and say they should use their talents. It’s hard watching it go down the drain. You have to keep on talking to them people, show them that encouragement.”

That encouragement is something that Sue Pettingrew, Director of St Michael’s Fellowship, knows the value of as the charity strives to meet the needs of disadvantaged families across London and the south east. ‘Tiny’ is the third film drama that the St Michael’s Fellowship has made to help tackle the social problems faced by the families they work with.

“Each film drama has been made in the same way”, said Sue. “Responding to a need identified by young mums or dads and then involving them in developing the story, acting the parts, being part of the crew.  Harnessing their talents, encouraging self-belief, has led to some of them moving on to jobs and training, a brilliant outcome. Our previous films are ‘Kim’, a drama about domestic violence in a young relationship, and ‘Big Man’, a drama about a single father who begins to understand what it means to be a ‘dad’.”

Although met with rapturous applause, some members of the audience complained about the film’s final scene. “Do we always have to have an unhappy ending?”, shouted a disheartened local.

Award-winning writer Alex Wheatle, famed for his novels about Brixton life, was brought in on the project as script consultant and explained the need for a tragic end to the film. ‘The ending was talked about the most, there were all sorts of different ideas. We knew that it was important and we decided to go for something hard hitting and bang that message home. But also something real. Something that could happen if a young person joins a gang, some real scary consequences.”

Wheatle proudly congratulated the young team who wrote the script together. “What we did with the story, we just punched out scenes. OK, scene one this happens, then this, the director allowed the young actors to improvise it and create it because basically they know street language better than we do. So we trusted them to come up with the scenes and they pulled it off magnificently.”

They really did. Watching the film is very much like sitting on the wall of an estate and watching kids hang out. Opening with a shot of the 35 bus driving into a bleak Brixton evening you are hit with instant authenticity. The gritty dialogue can be compared to that of HBO series ‘The Wire’ and for those less acquainted with the South London street tongue, following Leon’s story could prove a real challenge.

But the evening was less about the sounds of gun shots and more about the sound of applause. Once the titles rolled, Chukka Umunna, MP for Streatham, took to the stage to present everyone involved with a certificate for their official AQA accreditation. Ummuna praised the young participants: “As part of my job I spend a lot of time travelling around the UK and meeting young people like you. And I always tell them how the young people of Lambeth are by far the best. Well tonight you have met the rhetoric that I use to describe you all of the time. I am so proud of all of you. We expect to see you on television or in Hollywood. We expect you to reach for the stars. It is your right to go on to become the next big actor or actress.”

Made up of teachers, mentors, parents and staff from the job centre the audience could not have echoed Chukka’s pride any louder. Each young member of the team walked on stage to collect their certificate to a roar of whooping and whistling.

‘Tiny’ and its message are now going on the road. The film will be shown in different schools and youth clubs across the UK to encourage communities to get to grips with how young people get involved in criminal activity and how it can be stopped.

Adamant to raise the issue on a national level and command real action from the top, Umunna ended the evening with a mission statement: “Samantha Cameron is a patron of Latimer Creative Media and I think we need to get her talking to her husband about this issue. I think the prime minister needs to watch ‘Tiny’. In fact, I am going to make it my mission to show ‘Tiny’ in the Palace of Westminster and make sure every party leader is there to watch it. They need to watch it. We need to ask them ‘what are you going to do about this?’”

It looks like this could be just the beginning of a very exciting journey for the ‘Tiny’ team.