Review: Ultraviolence

Directed by Ken Fero and written by Tariq Mehmood, 15 years after Fero’s ground-breaking film Injustice, which examined deaths in police custody, comes a compelling follow-up that feels as timely as ever.

This documentary is formed of a mix of testimonials from the friends and family of those who have died while in police custody, actual footage of the incidents and of protests that have taken place to fight for justice. It begins with some of the most harrowing footage that the film has to offer; a man who was clearly injured, in need of medical help and was acting irrationally due to head trauma but instead of receiving medical attention, he was quite literally dragged to a police station and left on the floor to die. The multiple police officers around him claimed his moans of pain and struggling to breathe were simply for attention, and it wasn’t until he stopped breathing entirely that they checked on him but it was too little, too late. Watching that footage is a shattering experience, the callous and reckless behaviour of the police officers present leaves you speechless, to see them so casually endanger a life is excruciatingly infuriating. The entirety of footage used throughout the film is quite possibly the strongest element it has to offer because presenting this harsh reality captures the entirety of the message its sending, without needing to say a word.

While the personal testimonials give a similar impact, they’re deeply intimate and full of emotion and endless frustration at the severe lack of justice, the format that the film takes and the progression that the direction and editing build, undercut its impact. There are a number of issues with how the film is put together, firstly the filmmaker’s narration feels unnecessary, as background to the film and how he became involved it’s interesting but it doesn’t need to actually be in the film. The repeated commentary on his perspective and the lesson he’s imparting to his children doesn’t have anything to add, it’s time that should be spent on those who are actually involved in these cases and can come across as somewhat self-serving at times. It also splits the story as it means there’s then two narrators rather than one. Another aspect that takes away from the story is the references to war, admittedly in the larger picture they are relevant but with the minimal time at hand, it doesn’t feel closely enough connected to be a worthy addition. Instead it takes away from the story its telling and pushes your attention in a different direction, as well as hindering the progression of the film.

There are also a few technical problems with the film but most prominently is the use of title cards, they cheapen the film and inexplicably use a font which really has no place in a film such as this, their constant additions are distracting and devalue its meaningful tone. Similarly with the use of chapters as ‘memories’ they’re too infrequent to really serve the purpose that’s intended, as there’s a disproportionate amount of time spent on each case and it still moves back and forth between them. In that sense there’s also more information provided on some cases than others, while some are detailed, others lack more basic information on timeline of events from arrest to death.

Ultraviolence creates a harrowing, infuriating and meaningful experience in exploring the needless deaths that have occurred at the hands of the police but its sincerity is being undermined by the fairly poor choices in formatting, direction and editing. There’s so much impactful and important footage within the film that it’s genuinely disappointing that it’s simply not well put together, it struggles to focus and isn’t putting the entirety of its energy into the right places.

Verdict: ✯✯½

Reviewed as part of London Film Festival –
Awaiting UK release date

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