Sam Holland’s directorial debut, Zebra Crossing, is a fast-paced, hard-hitting movie that grabs the audience from the beginning. It gives an unflinching portrait of the stark choices, that are many shades of grey, faced by a group of lads as they make the journey from youth to adulthood. The Film Review caught up with the director last week to ask him about the black and the white of Zebra Crossing.
Sam Holland, 31, is a Londoner: born, bred, and now, directing. His film is set in the concrete high rises south of the river, but used various locations across London “I didn’t want it to be about South London, I wanted it to be about young people living in the world.”
Justin, the central character, lives with his violent alcoholic dad and disabled sister, while spending his days hanging out with his three best mates. Tommy is the violent, ballsy leader of the gang, who pulls younger, less self-assured members Billy and Sean into his crazy schemes. Justin, understandably is looking for a way out.
Tower blocks, concrete runways and treeless parks enclose and restrict the characters’ lives. For Holland, this landscape offered no escape. “Even if you wanted to get out, every skyline was way off in the distance … there was no future on the horizon.” The film makes a clear, but not heavy handed, connection between the absence of horizons for his characters, both figuratively and physically. “They’re held in by their own home, and where they live,” Holland says. “[For] the main character in the film there’s no one there to help, no one there to mentor him at the time of life when he probably needs it most.”
Holland cites cinematic influences including French movie La Haine, Brazilian City of God, the works of Ken Loach and Hackney-based film, Bullet Boy, starring Ashley Walters of So Solid Crew. But inspiration for the characters and events in the film came from closer to home. The pressures of growing up and a street-wise environment were familiar. “I grew up around a few council estates …and a lot of the characters in the film were based on people I had met or known throughout my life, and obviously I put some artistic licence in there.”
He came up with the idea about seven years ago, but he doesn’t feel that the world has changed much for young people since then. Not only have there been no massive social improvements in inner city London, but the film tells familiar tale, “it’s an age old story, young people trying to find a voice for themselves.”
If we’re to believe the newspapers, knife and gun crime is ripping apart the lives of young people in our inner cities and reflects this with Zebra Crossing some shockingly violent scenes. Again, Holland used many incidents he had heard about from friends or seen in the media. But he didn’t want the violence to be gratuitous, preferring to examine “the reasons why they went down that route with their lives. And with a lots of the shots of violence, I tended to move away and not film the victim. I wanted to focus on the guys who are actually doing it and to try to look into their soul, and to see how they are actually afraid, how this whole pack mentality and the need to fit in means they’re willing to do whatever it takes.”
Tommy, the gang leader is homophobic, racist and not very pleasant, but you somehow end up, if not actually liking him, at least sympathising with his lot. Holland was aware that he didn’t want to alienate the audience from the characters in the film, but eventually decided it was truthfulness that mattered. “These characters don’t worry about violence, so we should play it how they would play it, and we ended up with some very intense and brutal scenes.” He goes on to remind us that there is a strong moral thread to the story.
“I didn’t want to shove the moral down people’s throats,” Holland says, but “people aren’t born evil or angry, this is what life does to them.” It is here that the visits made to a church by Justin, the central character, come in. “It seems we’re all running about like headless chickens sometimes and maybe we should just stop and calm down,” Holland feels, and he reckons it’s in the church “where Justin tries to sit back and work things out.”
Despite this possibility for change, or at least for hope, the film doesn’t end on a particularly happy note. Holland, however, doesn’t see it like that, “because in some ways Justin gets closure and finds the calm feeling that he was looking for,” besides “there was nowhere else for the character to go, and if he’d gone off into the sunset, it wouldn’t have worked.”
The film is centred around a poignant, expressive performance from experienced TV actor Lee Turnbull as Justin, but contains other memorable performances too. Greg Wakeham plays Tommy, the leader of the gang, as a wildly uninhibited thug who would give Trainspotting‘s Begbie a run for his money. The role was quite addictive for novice actor Wakeham, who found it difficult to get out of character between shots or when shooting finished. Slightly understating it, Holland say “people didn’t quite know how to take him.”
Initially Wakeham was worried about the role, fearing the audience would hate him. He finally got into it only after Holland reassured the actor that as “Tommy doesn’t think about the repercussions, he just goes for it,” and so should he.
Zebra Crossing has come a long way in the seven years since Holland first wrote the script. He got the movie bug while working in a Soho post-production studio, and started pitching scripts – including Zebra Crossing – to the guys there. They laughed off the enthusiastic young runner, who then decided to pack in his job to study at Newport Film School in Wales.
His next issue was one faced by all aspiring film makers: money. “As a first time film maker it’s very difficult. Unless you’ve done lots of commercial work or advertising, no one’s going to give you any money.” Not one to sit around, Holland started a building company, “I saved for the next four or five years and just worked every job I could, and saved money to make the film.”
Finally they got the film made, but needed to get it seen. With no help from the film industry, they hauled it round the festival circuit in their spare time. The response was positive and they won six awards around the world. It has been especially well received in France, another country hit by gang violence in cities. Finally, the film was picked up by Exile Media who agreed to distribute it after having seen it at a festival.
Although the critical plaudits were welcome, Sam and his team are now waiting to see what wider audiences will think. “The film festival audience come to watch a film because they enjoy film… a niche scene … the average cinema goer wants to be entertained.” At The Film Review we look forward to seeing what will happen.
Read our review of Zebra Crossing here.
Zebra Crossing’s awards… so far:
- Winner: Raindance Award – British Independent Film Awards
- Winner: The Audience Award – Raindance Film Festival
- Winner: Best in Festival – Socal California
- Winner: Best of The Fest – Radar Hamburg Film Festival
- Winner: Best European Independent Film – ECU Film Awards
- Winner: Best Director – London Independent Film Festival