Dir: Kenny Glenaan. Scotland. 2001. 70 mins
A troubling blend of stark facts and alarming fiction, Gas Attack belongs to a long tradition of controversial British documentary-dramas that includes the nuclear attack landmarks The War Game (1965) and Threads (1984). Told with all the urgency of a breaking news story, it addresses the plight of Scotland's Turkish asylum seekers through the conventions of a stark conspiracy thriller. Topicality alone made it a must-see production at the Edinburgh International Film Festival where it received the Michael Powell Award as the year's Best British Feature. Scheduled for UK television transmission on Channel 4 this autumn, its low-budget status and brief running time make it an unlikely candidate for theatrical release but it certainly merits wider festival exposure.
There are drawbacks to director Kenny Glenaan's approach, of course. The inexperience of the non-actors shows and their stilted performances will work against the grain of dramatic conviction for some audiences. Also, the running time means that some of the storytelling feels rushed and the resolution is something of an anti-climax. Nevertheless, this remains an urgent and compelling piece of work from a thought-provoking new name in Scottish cinema.
An experienced actor and theatre director, Glenaan directed the 1998 Tartan Short Duck and has also directed for such gritty television dramas as long-running soap opera Eastenders and Cops. Developed under the working title of The Silent Killer, his first feature is torn from the headlines of modern British life, taking its inspirations from such diverse stories as the London nail bomber and the ongoing foot-and-mouth crisis. There is almost a sense of relief at encountering a British production that doesn't take refuge in the past or merely seeks to imitate what is considered commercial and fashionable.
Drawing heavily on factual research, the film incorporates many of the real life experiences of the Turkish Kurds struggling to make a new life in the high-rise estates of Glasgow. The lead roles are taken by non-professionals discovered during an intensive, five-month casting process. The whole approach creates a ragged, unpolished feel to the piece that seems appropriate to the immediacy of the issues it confronts. Professional actors and slick production values would have distracted from the raw truth of its endeavours.
Set in an Orwellian Glasgow where CCTV cameras hover on every street corner, it begins with unflinching footage of culled animals and angry protesters demanding that asylum seekers and refugees go home. It then focuses in on a more personal level, lending a human face to events that have shocked the nation over the past few months.
A young refugee girl is taken ill. She has a fever and a dry, hacking cough that refuses to go away. Although wary of the authorities, her father takes her to hospital. A bad dose of flu is diagnosed and the case is attributed to the poor housing conditions that the refugees have been forced to accept. As the daughter is kept under observation, the father frets. Only one sympathetic Asylum Support Worker sees the bigger picture of many similar cases and a complacent conspiracy of silence. Gradually, it becomes apparent that there is something much more sinister at work here than simply a mere flu epidemic. Glasgow and its refugee population have become the target of a right-wing terrorist attack.
Operating within the constraints of its modest running time, Gas Attack takes a nightmare scenario and makes it seem highly plausible. It works as a thriller of escalating excitement but also has a validity as a reflection of asylum seekers faced with a world defined by a systematic failure to communicate, comprehend or display compassion. Politicians and bureaucrats alike are shown to be incompetent, indifferent and insensitive. The film gained considerable publicity in Scotland from the possibility that Glasgow City Council would ban screenings of the film in the city because it might inflame already deeply strained relations with the asylum-seeker community. Screenings were eventually allowed to go ahead.
Prod Co: Hart Ryan Scotland
Int'l sales: Hart Ryan Scotland
Prod: Samantha Kingsley
Scr: Rowan Joffe
Cinematography: Graham Smith
Ed: Kristina Hetherington
Prod des: Zoe McLeod
Mus: Max De Wardener
Main cast: Sherko Zen-Aloush, Benae Hassan, Robina Qureshi, Laurie Ventry, Morag Caulder