Michael Prescott — who was a passenger on the King’s Cross train on 7/7 — applauds a movie inspired by the terrorist attacks. But why is nobody keen to distribute it?
The world has an estimated 798 billionaires. Thousands more people are each worth hundreds of million. Any one of them is in a position to blow £8 million on a whim. Only one of them has decided to gamble that amount on a film about how Britain views its Muslims in the age of Islamist terror. Aron Govil is an Indian-born Hindu who has lived in New York since 1970, gradually accruing wealth through his activities in industry and the energy business. Eighteen months ago a friend showed him a movie script set in London, inspired by the 7 July Tube bombings and the shooting of the terror-suspect-who-wasn’t, Jean Charles de Menezes.
Mr Govil decided to make the movie. ‘I felt this was a film with important things to say, while Hollywood is busy making Hellboy II,’ he explains, adding with unembarrassed candour: ‘I have the money to make the film, I didn’t need support from anyone else, I decided to do it.’
Speaking to Mr Govil is what speaking to a BBC executive ought to be like. In the coming months, this high-minded businessman will discover whether he can add ‘movie producer’ to his list of commercial triumphs. We should all care whether he wins through, but frankly, the signs are less than good.
No one wants to distribute Shoot on Sight, though it boasts a clever script, an experienced director, high production values, a singularly topical theme and a well-known cast which includes Greta Scacchi and Brian Cox. Mr Govil is trying to break into the weird scene that is British and international movie distribution, drawing strength only from his director, his cast and (here we should all be grateful) his rather large bank balance.
‘I have spoken to all the big distributors and at least they are upfront about why they won’t handle the film,’ says Mr Govil. ‘They say it’s too serious, it deals with issues that are too sensitive. So my attitude is, I made the film — if I have to distribute it myself then so be it. Obviously, after the cinema release it will have a future life on television and on DVD.’
There is more at stake here, though, than a rich man’s vanity. Something odd is going on which surely begs profound questions about the cultural and political life of this nation.
In the years since 7/7 we have had documentaries aplenty to probe the facts about what happened, but a paucity of drama to examine the impact on how we live and think in the new age of terror. Perhaps those in charge of our more powerful cultural citadels — the BBC, Channel 4, the British film industry which they help to finance — are frightened to venture into the thicket of sensitivity grown in the dust of the Tube bombings.
Mr Govil and his friends have not feared to tread, yet scarcely a soul seems interested. True, the production team generated a few headlines by revealing that Tarique Ghaffur, the senior Muslim officer at odds with his police employers, acted as an informal adviser for the film. Against that, press screenings in London have been thinly attended.
Happily, Mr Govil reports greater interest and even enthusiasm when the film has been shown in Stuttgart, Dubai and Delhi. Current plans are to force the movie into a few dozen British cinemas later this month, try for a small American and Continental release and issue 270 prints to the seemingly more vigorous Indian cinema market.
The film has been directed by Jag Mundhra. Like the film’s producer, he is an Indian-born Hindu who found success in America, first as a college professor, then as a film-maker.
Staying in London in July 2005, he found a marked difference in people’s attitudes toward him after the terror attacks. Despite his conventional Western garb and friendly demeanour, cab drivers were less likely to stop, passers-by eyed him warily. It says a lot about the spunky attitude he brings to film-making that his response to this sorry experience is to say simply, ‘People viewed me differently because of the colour of my skin and I can understand why.’
The director’s experience was the seed from which Shoot on Sight was to grow, nourished by other events which were to follow 7/7, notably the killing of an innocent Brazilian by police officers who seemed to think they were tailing a terrorist.
Mr Mundhra asked a friend with whom he had collaborated in the past to prepare a script taking at its heart the aftermath of July 2005. Carl Austin, an African-American based in Los Angeles, did him proud with the work which so impressed Mr Govil when shown to him almost two years ago.
It is easy to see why Mr Govil took Mr Austin’s work seriously. What impresses most about this drama is its tough-mindedness. An innocent is gunned down on the Underground. A senior Muslim police officer is chosen to be the face of the Met. Like the real-life police adviser to the film, the fictional assistant commissioner is called Tarique. His experience mirrors certain aspects of the Ghaffur affair: yet another reason why limited interest in the movie to date seems worthy of comment.
Perhaps one of the most curious things about Shoot on Sight is that it feels so damned British. In terms of plotting, shooting and intellectual appeal, it feels as if the folk who made Inspector Morse had reassembled for one last hurrah. There is something curiously nostalgic about watching work of this type and calibre. Whatever its cinema fate, the Sunday night schedulers from the main TV stations would be well advised to start their bidding now.
Mr Austin’s script lets no one off easily. Police, preachers, Saudis, Brits, bus drivers: everyone is affected by the shock waves from 9/11 and 7/7, and everyone is found wanting.
Outside of the cinema, those in charge of our cultural and artistic life are surely found wanting too. It has taken an LA script-writer and two Indians resident in America to confront questions of what it means to be a Londoner in the age of Islamism and the suicide bomber.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 9, 2008