We spoke to SAE Glasgow Digital Film Production graduate Ibrahim Clayton, whose Major Project film Black Female Cops premiered at the Baltimore International Black Film Festival and will be screened at the Derby Film Festival from 14 - 17 November.
What attracted you to making a documentary for your Major Project?
I’m attracted to big subjects: race, religion, politics, class etc. I’m also attracted to documentary as an art form, and the (impossible) challenge of presenting truth on film. I greatly admire the work of Errol Morris. I’m fascinated by the idea that all we can ever achieve as filmmakers is a version of the truth. With my producer’s hat on, in terms of practicalities - the time and resources we had available - I had to think about what was the best genre to go for. Documentary seemed the best avenue to produce the highest quality of work, with the best chance of distribution.
What inspired you to focus on black female cops as the subject matter? Is anyone close to you a member of the police force?
Pamela, my wife and co-producer of the film is a former police officer. She’s also a participant in the documentary. This is a story that’s close to home, and an important and up to now undocumented story from a critical point in Black-British history. No one has told this story, at least, not in this way. Despite being married to a police officer, I didn’t really socialise or move in police circles so felt there was appropriate distance between me and the subject matter. What was interesting was how challenging it was to get people to participate in the film. Many former police women did not want to share their stories. Some just said no. Some dropped out along the way. When you watch the film, and see the appalling treatment that these women suffered, you can see why they might not have wanted to open up old wounds.
It was also important not to make the film a hatchet-job on West Midlands Police, which would have been quite easy to do in the edit. The women in the documentary were proud members of the police force, but they also suffered terrible racism, sexism and, for one of the women, Marcia, homophobia during their time in the police. Both of these things are true: they were proud police women who believed in the badge, and they were savagely treated at times during their police careers. Presenting both of these truths was a challenge, but one I hope we’ve achieved. It was also important not to present Marcia, Pamela, Sandra or Yvonne as victims, broken by the system. You only have to spend five minutes with them to know they are not victims. They are powerful, strong, black women. They are survivors.
Who did you work with at SAE Glasgow to make this film?
Other film degree courses produce film graduates. SAE doesn’t just produce film graduates, it produces filmmakers. It’s as simple as that. The crew was packed with fellow SAE alumni such as Miles Trotter, Alison Mackenzie and Alyn Smith. Miles is doing fantastically well with his company MT films, and has worked on a film that’s at Raindance this year. Alyn’s working as crew on a Netflix Original series. Alison is working on a documentary film with a BAFTA award winning filmmaker. My colleague and collaborator Jacob Topen is an award winning filmmaker who is doing regular work for Samsung, and working with me on developing content for a major broadcaster. Another former classmate Ross Eaglesham has been working in the US as an assistant producer on a project recently. People from SAE do well in the industry. Black Female Cops just doesn’t get made without the support and help of Dan Ashman and the fantastic SAE Glasgow team.
What work have you done on the film since graduation?
Promotion, promotion, promotion. Contacted numerous broadcast channels, distributors, submitted to several festivals. Worked hard on promotional content to give the film the best possible chance of success. We also did some additional photography and tinkered with the edit.
"IT WAS ALSO IMPORTANT NOT TO PRESENT MARCIA, PAMELA, SANDRA OR YVONNE AS VICTIMS, BROKEN BY THE SYSTEM. YOU ONLY HAVE TO SPEND FIVE MINUTES WITH THEM TO KNOW THEY ARE NOT VICTIMS. THEY ARE POWERFUL, STRONG, BLACK WOMEN. THEY ARE SURVIVORS."
- IBRAHIM CLAYTON, SAE GLASGOW GRADUATE AND FILMMAKER
How does it feel to have been selected as part of the Baltimore International Black Film Festival?
To be selected for any festival is humbling. To be selected for the Baltimore International Black Film Festival was incredible because it came at such a critical time. We’d been rejected from a few festivals we had high hopes for, so confidence was a little fragile. This was a boost to us and a boost for the film. The film received its North American premiere at the oldest theatre in Baltimore, which was pretty cool. It also received its North American premiere before the UK premiere, which is unusual. Baltimore started the ball rolling. We’re so grateful to Kenneth and the team there. We’re now starting to receive invites to festivals, which is fantastic.
The difference in policing in the UK vs in the US has been a hot topic with the media in recent years, with ongoing concerns about institutional racism in the police force. How do you hope your work will be received in the US?
Pamela and I were in LA in late 2018. We rented a car while we were there. Early on, we had a conversation about what we would do if we were stopped by the police. That was a real threat. There have been so many high-profile shootings of black people by the US police. The police in LA feel militarised. They drive around in huge Dodge chargers. They carry guns. They’re a reflection of the racial tension across America. I love the US, we travel to NYC regularly, but, when we’re there we are acutely aware of the fact that America is not dealing with race relations well. I’m a working class boy from Birmingham. Birmingham is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Growing up I was exposed to many different cultures. That experience shaped my worldview, and it continues to. That’s how we learn, by being around different people, from different backgrounds.
Having said that, I don’t want to sanitise the UK. We certainly have our fair share of bigots here. Our police force also has its work cut out in reflecting the communities they serve in terms of their workforce, and eliminating racism. But like in the US, our police force is just an indication of the state of race relations across the country as a whole. I was talking to a group of young people the other day who had not heard of Stephen Lawrence. Man, the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the botched investigation should be taught as part of the national curriculum. In terms of the films reception in the US: it was screened in Baltimore, and we’ve been invited to submit to a festival in Massachusetts, which suggests a positive reaction. There is a really good thriller in cinemas right now called Black and Blue, which tackles what it means to be a black woman in the New Orleans Police.
How has the documentary been received, especially by the black community?
The reaction from everyone has been really supportive. In terms of the black community, I can only relate the feedback we have from family and friends which has been incredible. There is a lot of love for the film.
How does it feel that you work will be screened next week as part of Derby Film Festival?
It’s an honour to be premiering the film in Derby at such a great and well respected event. To be at the same festival as Ken Loach is amazing. He’s screening his new film, Sorry We Missed You, and doing a Q&A on opening night. Jason Mewes is also there, with his directorial debut Madness in the Method. Peter Munford and the team at The Derby Film Festival are amazing. They’re a real class act. You can see why the festival is such a success and attracts such big names. Black Female Cops is screening twice at the festival. It’s part of a double bill with another mid-length documentary called Delta 7even, about a post-punk band made up of adults with learning disabilities. Looks really cool, I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Do you have any advice for current SAE students who are drawn to making documentaries?
Find interesting people with interesting stories and let them tell those stories. Don’t be afraid of peoples’ pain. Don’t be afraid of emotion. Don’t ask too many questions. Just listen. Don’t be afraid of silence. Don’t fill gaps. Allow space. If you allow space then it will happen.
What’s next for the film - where do you hope to take it?
The film is its own thing now. It’s where it takes us. It was a privilege to be allowed to tell the stories of Marcia, Pamela, Sandra and Yvonne. The film is so important as a historical document, and allows us to ask the question as to how much things have really changed, or haven’t changed, in society today.
Visit Ibrahim’s film company’s website here.