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MWFF: Red Mercury

In Red Mercury, three young members of a terrorist cell – Asif (Navin Chowdhry), Shahid (San Shella) and Mushtaq (Alex Caan) – are warned of an impending police raid and flee their flat with the makings of a bomb. When they discover that their car has been clamped, they take refuge in a nearby restaurant, and the establishment’s well-to-do diners become hostages. Before long, a sophisticated police and security services operation has been assembled outside, taking on added urgency when its leader, Sofia Warburton (Juliet Stevenson), discovers that the three young men are in possession of red mercury, a potential ingredient for what the London security services fear most: a ‘dirty’ bomb, capable of causing far greater death and destruction than an ordinary explosive device.

Like Dog Day Afternoon, Red Mercury explores the shifting dynamics of the relationship between the three young Muslims, as well as those between the restaurant customers – who include Stockard Channing and Ron Silver from hit TV series The West Wing – and between the terrorists and the diners. Dog Day Afternoon meets modern-day terrorism in Red Mercury. Shot in the Old Street area of the City of London, Red Mercury is one of those political thrillers that cry out for a classic Hollywood trailer – the ones in which newspapers spun into focus and a giant banner exclaimed ‘Ripped From Today’s Headlines!’. Except that, at the time of completion of the films, the headlines that would have accompanied the story of Red Mercury had not yet appeared in any newspaper.

Then came the London Bombing …

(L) Director: Roy Battersby, (C) Actor: Ron Silver, (R) Screenwriter: Farrukh Dhondy

Q. What was your reaction when you saw heard about the London bombing in relation to the subject matter of the film?

We were shocked! I didn’t believe it would happen when we made the film. We knew it was a possibility but we were all very surprised when it really happened. This is one of those case where reality has overtaken fiction.

“Writers shouldn’t be seen as forecasters or fortune tellers” added screenwriter Farrukh Dhondy. “I didn’t know it would happen, but the energy on which the film is based was very real in the UK at the time. So there’s no claim to prophecy to be made here; the dramatic forces were in place for something to happen, but it was impossible to really know it would happen in such big proportions.

Q. Are the problems real, or is it just a big misunderstanding?

Well, I think there is both. For example, a few years ago I was working on a four part series for the BBC. One episode was about a section of London when most people from Bangladesh live. In the film, there is a man who supposedly help a Bangladesh woman to immigrate to London so that she could get married with one of his friends, however he helps he come because he secretly loves her himself. The film involved a seduction scene in which the man shows to the woman how to make tea. There was a protest by young Muslim against the series at the BBC building. Without announcing I was the director of the series I asked to the protesters what they had against the series. They said it was about that particular scene I just described. I was surprised so I asked them if it was because the scene was too sexually explicit or if it was because the seduction scene was against their principles. They surprisingly said that they were protesting because the man in the film showed a woman from Bangladesh how to make tea. “We grow tea there; we ‘are’ tea” they said.

This is something I wanted to point out in the film. In Red Mercury, 12 people—terrorists and hostages—are stuck in a situation together. Every single person, even the terrorists themselves, would prefer to leave and go home rather than staying there. However, the characters in the film can’t leave even though they would all like to do it. They are forced to stay together. In that situation they will have to understand each other. In real life this is often what is done; in general we can often find an easy way out if we face something too complex and we tend to avoid any discussion. By doing so we prevent any form of understanding which can lead to a resolution of the conflict.

Q. When a film of such a scale is made, or any films for that matter, there must be a precise goal and aim. What were you trying to achieve with this film?

As a famous writer once said, “the things that need the most to be said are the things that people don’t say. We all felt the subject of the film was an important territory to explore. The film was a great opportunity to do a drama without taking any sides. I didn’t want to be didactic either in my approach. I preferred to take the human side. I find it very effective. After the bombing many people said that the Muslim youth in the UK should be contacted in order to control it and prevent any other terrorist action. I think we need to find better ways, and drama is one way to open discussions.

Although I didn’t want to take sides, there is nothing neutral about the film. It is very engaged. However I didn’t force any meanings in the film. The last thing I want to do is to give lessons. For great films and great novels, the success of the work lies in the fact that the work never mention what’s it is primarily about. I find this method very productive and this is what I tried to do with this film.

Q. Was the script written in advance, or was it partly improvised by the actors?

Luckily, we were able to shot the whole film in sequence. This was very valuable as we leaned new things about the characters everyday. We discovered things we didn’t expect between them so elements of the scripts regularly changed as we were progressing in the shooting. We didn’t have a lot of time to do rehearsals before the film; however we still had a week. We were able to explore the script before the shooting started. It was very valuable and we made many developments during those few days.

Pictures courtesy of Pierre-Alexandre Despatis. (c) 2005.

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