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Review: The Riot Act

Updated: Nov 25, 2022


A BAFTA long-listed short film about a young internet journalist who gets caught up in the middle of a riot after he accidentally films the death of a man shot by the police.


While social realism is a familiar stomping ground for many short films, very few manage to create an experience so all-encompassing in its visceral intensity. Writer/director Oliver Riley-Smith dives headlong into an incendiary and divisive topic, managing to confront social unrest and civil disobedience as well as police brutality while still exploring multiple perspectives.

Additionally, the film finds time to comment on the contemporary phenomenon of video content as currency, showing its use and social value in arenas ranging from riots to cat videos. This search for “viral gold” is what drives our protagonist Jerome (a pre-Doom Patrol Joivan Wade) to accidentally witness police officers shooting an unarmed black man. It is worth noting that race is never directly cited as a catalyst in the civil unrest depicted in the film. Nor does the film explicitly highlight race as an issue. Despite this the casting of a largely white police force and a largely (but not entirely) black cast of young people in violent engagement with the police provides a framing that is not accidental, particularly with Jerome being black himself. This is underscored outside of the riot scenes, with Jerome's interactions with a news producer (Duncan Casey), who it becomes evident is exploiting Jerome's desire to get the content everyone will be watching and using it to manipulate the narrative and perception of the events taking place. When at one point Jerome is asked if he is “with us or them” the question does not have to be explicit in order to be heavily loaded.

Wade does a great job of channelling a character that sets him apart from the rioters, exuding an enthusiasm for journalism and a dogged determination to capture content that will make his name. When the inciting incident occurs in the opening moments of the film, his driving desire is not to unmask police brutality or confront injustice. He believes that he now has the content that will propel his career and is given the opportunity to get more.

Jerome’s journey intersects with two key characters who are our way into the opposing perspectives in this story. We are introduced first to Kyla (Kiké Brimah) a young girl who befriends Jerome and starts him on the path to realising that he may well have skin in this particular game, even if he thinks he is a neutral observer. Following that, we are introduced to officer Milner (Lewis Rainer) a recently transferred traffic cop turned riot officer who is visibly unprepared not only for the task ahead of him but for the unchecked aggression of his peers. For his first minutes in the film it is driven home that in order to prove himself an effective riot officer he will have to disregard any notion of treating the protesters as anything but criminals requiring violent engagement of the most extreme kind. Milner’s visible discomfort with this mindset is key to the story, as is his willingness to embrace it once the situation escalates, leading to fateful decisions made by both himself and by Jerome.

These depictions are far from one-sided. The protesters-cum-rioters are not presented as misunderstood angels. In as much as the film highlights the police being willing to go straight to extreme measures, it also does not shy away from rioters causing property damage, looting stores and even courting the wrath of an already inflamed police force. Where it applies nuance is the manner in which it shows the cause of the rioters animosity as well as the moments when the line is crossed, giving the audience the room to decide where they come down on the issue.

Aside from incredibly powerful thematic and character-driven storytelling, on a production level, this film is a stunning achievement. The set pieces in which police and rioters clash leave nothing to the imagination. Large-scale physical fights, property damage and full-on explosions abound as the conflict reaches fever pitch. Riley-Smith establishes a claustrophobic style, which Director of Photography Sam Care, executes to perfection. The visual cues that maintain the theme of the currency of content are expertly implemented with the perspective of any given scene switching from phone to CCTV to traditional omnipotent eye in a way that does not jar, but instead highlights how different parties will view and share the events of the story.

Additionally, our major players give honest and powerful performances, with Wade carrying the movie with a well-managed mix of light-hearted enthusiasm, curiosity, terror and rage. Brimah gives life to a playful yet rageful character, lacing her high-strung moments with genuine vulnerability. Rainer's Officer Milner delivers some great moments of conflict, fear and some incredibly authentic fight-or-flight moments. The cast have the unenviable task of bringing an energy that matches the non-stop carnage on screen and they deliver and then some.

This is an intelligently crafted and professionally executed large-scale short film. The audience is taken through a high-intensity social conflict while following a very personal internal journey where we are all asked not to turn our eyes away from the horrific consequences of allowing our critical systems and communities to remain broken.

Studio: Flat Cap Films | Year: 2017 | Genre: Drama/Thriller | Duration: 14 Mins | Suitability: Mature


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