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Obey director Jamie Jones and Marcus Rutherford talk social tensions, appropriating working-class culture, and how British politics are going in the wrong direction

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The National Student sat down with Director Jamie Jones and star Marcus Rutherford to discuss both of their feature film debuts, Obey.  

The film follows Leon (Rutherford), a nineteen-year-old who lives with his alcoholic mother and her abusive boyfriend. Set against the backdrop of a tense London in the weeks leading up to the 2011 riots, Leon begins to rail against the injustice of his reality, as his life begins to suffocate him.

When he meets Twiggy, a girl living at a local squat, his life seems to change for the better. That is until he realises that Twiggy’s lifestyle is a choice, not a result of circumstance, and that she is ready to return to her affluent reality and leave Leon behind.

Obey deals with a long of complicated social ideas, as Jones explains. “There are a lot of themes in the film that I wanted to explore, and I was trying to find the story where I could explore those themes. And the riots just seemed like the perfect backdrop where I could get these themes of gentrification, working class struggles with education, getting work, all those kinds of things, the riots just seemed like the perfect place for that.”

The director also explains his decision to recast a light on the 2011 events, today. “I was retrospectively looking at how I feel it’s more relevant now, in a way – well maybe not more relevant, but still very relevant. And reading lots of news stories about the social conditions that cause riots, they are the same now as they were back then, and that there’s everything with Brexit and things going on.

“It’s quite likely that it’s going to happen again. And this year with the rise of violent crime in London, especially with stabbings and acid attacks, it just feels like there’s a breakdown of society, sort of coming again. So, it does feel very relevant.”

Obey might be mostly about class tensions, but those attitudes are clearly also informed by racial tensions. So how did Jones, a white director, feel telling the story of a black man, in a predominantly black community?

“I guess it’s probably not what you’re supposed to do with your first feature film. But I think the only reason I never really found it… I found myself having to justify after the film was finished more – during the making of the film, I never worried too much because I would always rely on the actors, really. And we worked with this theatre group and lots of kids who came from the area.

“A lot of Leon’s friends from the film are just playing themselves to a certain degree, so I was always in conversation with those guys and developing the story with them. We’d have debates about the script, analysing it and breaking it down, so I just trusted those guys. I thought that as long as I handed it over to them – that side of it – that the authenticity would be there. So, the casting really was the most important point.”

This aspect of collaboration extended to Rutherford, and his input regarding Leon’s character. “It was amazing,” he explains. “I think I really appreciated the alchemy happening on set, and different jobs coming together. And I realise a bit more now that it was a passion project, and I don’t have much to compare it with in terms of being on set, but everyone just really wanted to make the best of what they got. Which meant it was an ideal situation to be in, in terms that everyone was going the extra mile and making the best film they could. It was amazing,” he says again.

With these discussions of class, race, and discontent still very much pertinent today, Jones hopes to get a conversation going. “Really, it’s just about creating a debate. I always set out wanting to split the audience – I wanted some people to be ruffled by it and I wanted some people to fall in love with it, and I just wanted to split the audience because then, I feel, you can create a debate. So that’s why I pushed it to the extremes with some of the domestic violence scenes, just so it helps us to discuss the ultimate causes – not the triggers, we know what the triggers were for the riots – but what were the causes that made it spread so quickly.

“And there’s some sort of discontent. And it is a class issue, ultimately, and obviously the biggest minority – and it wasn’t just African-Caribbean guys taking part, there was no ethnic majority – but the biggest minority was Afro-Caribbean, so that just happened to be the truth of the situation. But for me the bigger issue is the class issue, because there were lots of whites and working-class guys rioting, and that’s what I was getting into.

“What the film could do is create a debate about that time, and it’s not like I think it’s going to change anything, but at least if we… I think if it can add to the debate then that’s great, but you’d have to have an uprising of a monumental scale to change anything. Especially now, if anything, I think we’re going in the wrong direction with Brexit and Theresa May in power, and the Tory government. I think it’s dark times ahead.”

“And with Grenfell, that’s going to explode,” adds Rutherford.

The relationship between the characters of Leon and Twiggy is almost a microcosm of the class dissociation which exists in British society, then and today. Rutherford agrees, “In a way their relationship kind of reflects society now, that you can get people from two different worlds that might interlink at some sort of social occasion.

“Twiggy doesn’t necessarily realise that she is in a privileged position where she can pick and choose the aspects of Leon’s life that she likes; she can have the edgy squat parties, or she can be on the streets, but ultimately she knows that she’s got that safety net back home. Whereas Leon’s got that grizzly reality of the police situation, or there not being food in the house, or whatever it might be, he’s got that. At the end of the day, their lives are too separate to be reconciled, even for them.”

This sort of working-class culture appropriation, of picking and choosing the aspects of working-class culture to romanticise, is of course not restricted to the film. “I’ve gone to Uni and seen people sort of pretending to be from the streets, and I’ve been really perplexed by it,” says Rutherford. “So I think there’s a thing now where working class culture is almost fashionable in a way, if you’re from that position where you can choose the aspects you like.”

“And having that safety net should never be underestimated,” agrees Jones, “and not having that safety net is so destabilising for people. But she has that, and she’s got the family she can fall back on. And for her it’s just fun, the pressures are taken away. But if you don’t have that suddenly the pressures are so compounding, and you haven’t got the education to help you out of it, because you didn’t get to go to the best schools, et cetera.”

As of yet, Obey has no official release date, but information will be updated here - https://www.obeyfilm.co.uk/

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