Throughout Bristol’s Kill The Bill campaign last year, one constant barrier between protesters and the public was communicating what “Kill The Bill” actually meant. The “right to protest” is a foreign concept to the majority who have never participated in one, and connections between protest and tackling the climate emergency or systemic racism were ignored by those more comfortable with the status quo.
The heartfelt pleas of the mother of Mariella Gedge-Rogers, recently imprisoned for five and a half years for taking part in the riot on March 21 last year, only attracted the predictable slew of online comments that Mariella “deserves what she got”. Any hope for a nuanced conversation about police violence in response to peaceful protest seems a pipe dream.
Simon White, a filmmaker and masters student in screen production for documentary at UWE, hopes to make the dream a reality with his new documentary We Need Space. He spoke to The Bristol Activist from his home in Easton about the film, the right to protest and the need for communication.
Simon, 34, began the film as his final year project whilst an undergraduate at UWE. He has since expanded it into the 37-minute long documentary with which he is now touring Bristol venues, with a screening at The Lion in St George coming up in May.
We Need Space weaves thousands of hours of footage shot by Simon into a narrative about the importance of protest, the importance of protecting our natural environment, and the legislation aimed at stopping protest, in particular the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill.
Although connected to the activist world himself, Simon wants We Need Space to speak to a broader audience. Protest, placards and chanting can be ‘alienating’ for members of the public, said Simon and, whilst useful, are ‘not the only approach that people should take.’
Simon, who is softly spoken and earnest, explains that We Need Space is not targeted solely at activists. ‘I can see why it might come across like that, but it is trying to just explain to, more to the layperson, why it’s important and what really happened,’ he said.
The film shows ‘not just the protest side of it but the whole context of why people are protesting and goes into the details of why it’s important, it makes it easier to digest and for people to understand who aren’t necessarily involved in it already,’ he said.
The film opens with footage of the M32 Maples campaign to save four mature trees scheduled for felling on Ashley Road. A popular campaign amongst the local community worried about air pollution, the M32 Maples are cut with scenes from Jones Hill Wood, an anti-HS2 protest camp which, when it makes the news, is often portrayed as home to hippies standing in the way of progress.
The pairing of the two campaigns helps to cut through the fog of questions around HS2 and instead frame the campaign to stop it in terms of the local struggle to save four trees and safeguard clean air in Bristol.
The plight of Travellers persecuted by the PCSC Bill (the subject of another recent documentary) leads We Need Space into a discussion of the Bill, which also seeks to crack down on protest. Here the film changes pace as we are dropped into the frontline of Bristol’s explosive Kill The Bill protests of March 2021.
Footage of the March 21 Bridewell riot is filtered to blur out details, but we clearly see the swing of a police officer’s arm clutching his baton and hear the shrieks of protesters as they are beaten and pushed back.
Simon’s footage includes interviews with people on the street during the protests which oppose the narrative that protesters were violent and came prepared to cause violence. The overriding reactions of people captured by Simon’s camera are confusion and fear.
One man shows the bite mark he received from a police dog. The wound, on his bottom, was received whilst walking away from police and the incredulity in his voice is plain to hear. ‘I was walking away,’ he explains repeatedly. adding: ‘I had my hands above my head and obviously the dogs are faster than I was and they come bit me in the arse.’
We also hear from Martin Booth, editor of Bristol 24/7 who was briefly detained by officers on March 23 following a protest on College Green which was brutally dispersed by police. Booth’s experience, and the evidence of other journalists caught up in police brutality, show the limitation of those online comments that protesters “got what they deserved.”
In its final act, We Need Space tackles the thorny issue of prisoner solidarity, a notoriously difficult subject to broach with members of the general public who would perhaps prefer to see prisoners as a danger to society.
The film manages to make a nuanced case for supporting the Kill The Bill protesters now imprisoned through an interview with Jock Palfreyman, founder of the Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association who spent 12 years locked up for killing a neo-Nazi in what he alleges was sefl-defence.
Palfreyman argues that the Kill The Bill prisoners should remember that: ‘They weren’t protesting for themselves, because they could have been in bed or they could have been in front of the TV drinking beer that day. They went there for the greater good. They went there for a social reason for all of our rights to protest and free assembly and free movement.’
Despite dealing with emotive topics like the Kill The Bill protests, We Need Space manages to maintain a calm impartiality. It avoids declaring who is right and who is wrong and instead focuses on the context and the questions of why people are taking action in the ways that they are.
Having funded We Need Space entirely himself, Simon has his fingers crossed for a grant from the BFI to help distribute and promote the film more widely. With its sensitive take on complex issues and its ability to communicate in an unassuming yet uncompromising way, it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
We Need Space can be viewed in full here.