At a time when British film-makers generally are accepting the “multiculturalism rules, ok” status quo, former documentarian Penny Woolcock lights a match in a fume-filled room with an examination of life among the working classes in Leeds. Shane Meadows meets Shameless is the result, to a degree. Does that sound dull? Because the film isn’t at all. Instead Woolcock infuses her drama with a wild pantomime spirit, an unruly bawdiness that’s reflected in the set-ups, characters and dialogue. Set across a park, on one side of which live the whites, on the other the “Pakis”, the focus falls on Tina (Kelli Hollis), a local white goodtime girl with three kids by different dads, and her family’s interactions with a nearby Asian clan, the action building towards “mischief night” – a local variant on Halloween – when good natured pranks teeter on the edge of something much more serious. All our current faves are here – single mums, “grim up north” stereotypes, the niqab, smack, shooters, Osama Bin Laden, everything shot through with a dour, bleak humour. One schoolkid to another: “My mum’s a smackhead.” The other schoolkid back: “My mum’s a dinner lady.”
Meanwhile, on the Asian side of the park where he lives with his extended family, Immie (Ramon Tikaram) only realises how culturally Asian he isn’t when his hot-from-Pakistan wife turns up, jabbering away in a language that isn’t his, and demanding sex he’s reluctant to give. Meanwhile, a self-appointed local Imam is laughed at by the local white girls, all of whom he slept with before he became born-again devout, while Asian kids shout “go home Paki” to passing strangers. It hadn’t always been like this, as Tina tells her daughter Kimberley (Holly Kelly), the two communities had once lived together, but somehow they drifted apart. Complicated, this multi-culture business.
Life and its dark ironies is what the film is about, but beneath the comedy, Woolcock suggests that cultural differences have hardened, the two-way traffic between whites and Asians isn’t as fluid as it once was. Even so, this is a less hysterical view of multiculturalism than you get in the newspapers – though the cultures living side by side can rub each other up the wrong way, they generally rub along. And the conflicts are often an externalisation of tensions within communities and families, not between them. There’s no banging the drum for immigration control here.
Perhaps there are too many plots, and perhaps Woolcock isn’t always sure how comedic she wants the film to be, an uneasiness reflected in its soundtrack – a sort of municipal city council ragga. But it’s a tough and unusual film that’s willing to turn over the stone to reveal a fecund chaos beneath.
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© Steve Morrissey 2006