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White Riot: Charting the Rock Against Racism movement

Rubika Shah’s searing documentary explores anti-racism through music, set against the hostile backdrop of late 1970s Britain. Shah told us more ahead of a screening and Q&A hosted by Sensoria.

White Riot Syd Shelton Copyright 2
© Syd Shelton

Rubika Shah’s documentary White Riot explores a moment in time when music changed the world and a generation began to challenge the status quo. Developed from Shah’s 2017 short film, it’s a brilliant depiction of how punk influenced politics in late 1970s Britain.

Through archival footage and interviews, we are transported back to a hostile environment drenched in anti-immigrant frenzy which saw the National Front gaining strength as politicians like Enoch Powell stood on a platform of xenophobia and outright racism.

The Rock Against Racism movement was born as an outlet for resistance, growing from its humble Hoxton fanzine roots to the 1978 antifascist concert in Victoria Park featuring the likes of The Clash and Tom Robinson.

I spoke to Rubika ahead of a virtual screening of White Riot followed by a Q&A (Thu 30 July, 7pm), part of this year’s Sensoria Festival.

What inspired you to tell this story?

The White Riot story first started to take shape about five years ago. Me and Ed [Gibbs], the producer and co-creator of the film, stumbled upon the footage of The Clash playing Victoria Park in 1978 and instantly became intrigued by the story behind the gig.

We initially thought it was just some kind of festival, then we became aware of the Rock Against Racism movement. So we just started digging and digging, like we all do on the internet. We found out that it was first developed by a group of friends who gravitated together due to their shared beliefs.

What piqued my interest was that something so monumental for music, politics and civil rights grew out of such a small collective.

In what ways was music an essential tool in this movement in the 70s?

Music was a huge part of this group’s lives already. They were all music fans or involved in it in some way. As is the same for a lot of young people, music was a part of their DNA.

Roger Huddle and Red Saunders, when sat in the pub, decided to put on the Rock Against Racism gig as a statement of solidarity. At a time when there was such a massive political swing to the right and a lot of violence towards people of colour, it was striking to have black and white artists in equal numbers performing on stage.

White Riot Syd Shelton Copyright
© Syd Shelton

Were you considering current events like the Black Lives Matter protests when making the film?

I had no idea that this was going to happen, that a snowball effect of activism would resonate all over the world. The question of race relations was certainly centred in America at first, but then it grew and grew into the level of anti-racism that we are seeing in the UK today. It just so happened that it became timely in that way.

Do you think these current events will have an impact on the reception of the film?

I hope that people will connect the dots. I made the film because these issues are important to me, so I hope that other people of colour will feel that as well - even just people that are interested in this era and civil rights, which I think most people are. It touches so many people’s lives.

How did you go about collecting the archived footage?

It was really difficult in so many different ways. You’re basically asking people to go and check their attics and basements to see if they have anything useful. It’s difficult trying to get people to do things at the best of times, never mind when you’re a complete stranger.

There’s a reason why people haven’t been and looked through this stuff already. Most of it had been in a box for 20 years. We had archive footage given to us from various other sources, such as from old TV shows that nobody had watched since it aired. After finding it all we then had to spend time working out who owned it. It was a long process.

White Riot Ray Stevenson Copyright
© Ray Stevenson

Your work primarily explores youth culture and identity. What is it that drives you to delve into these issues?

Actually, somebody asked me this recently and I realised that I’ve never really considered the reasons behind it. You know, I just plough on ahead trying to make films and get them funded.

Maybe there is something unresolved in my world. It is something that interests me, but I haven’t spent time figuring out why. It is fascinating to explore both youth culture today and also from when I was younger and uncovering certain influences that have a meaningful impact, big or small.

Making films can be such a long process that requires you to invest a lot of time. The motivation comes from simply enjoying it.

What can we look forward to seeing from you next?

I’m currently working on a short film about finding happiness during the pandemic, which will be released next year.

My next endeavour will be creating more feature-length documentaries. I’m interested in making one about Alien Culture, the Asian punk band from the White Riot film.

Learn more

Rubika Shah will be in conversation with John Robb, alongside White Riot producer and co-creator Ed Gibbs, on Thursday 30 July at 7pm, hosted by Sensoria Festival. Tickets to the virtual screening and Q&A are £9.99.

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