Rubika Shah on Exploring the Power of Grassroots Activism in the Punk Scene in “White Riot”

Rubika Shah is a writer-director and Screen International Star of Tomorrow. Her films have screened at Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, and Hot Docs. Her mini-doc about David Bowie, “Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under,” screened in U.K. cinemas through Picturehouse. She’s working on an expanded version of the project.

“White Riot” is now screening in virtual cinemas. The doc marks Shah’s debut feature.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

RS: “White Riot” is a film about punk, politics, and youth. It’s about young people standing up for what they believe in and the power of grassroots activism.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

RS: I am obsessed with music and archive, so when we found the footage of The Clash playing a huge carnival in Victoria Park and then I found out it was for a movement called Rock Against Racism, I was intrigued, to say the least. I wondered how this major cultural event happened in the U.K., and stranger still, how no one knew about it.

I love stories that you think are about pop culture, music, or the arts, but they’re actually a lens to explore other issues.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

RS: I hope they feel inspired — and make the connection with what’s happening today, politically and all around the world. The late-1970s was over 40 years ago, but much of the politics feels very close to home, especially the anti-immigration stance and racist sloganeering.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

RS: I ended up editing it which was a big challenge. I have a lot of respect for editors. If they saw my workflow they’d be horrified!

With a film like this — which took my producer and writing partner Ed Gibbs and I five years to make — it’s hard to keep up momentum at times.

As an independent feature doc, we wore many hats and I ended up helping with archive producing and various other bits and pieces along the way. It was proper indie filmmaking.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

RS: We self-funded it for a long time and then had some agency support. Even when we finished the film and it started winning awards we still had big costs to pay. A year later and we’ve only just paid them off.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

RS: It was a desire to tell stories, especially the sorts you don’t see on screen very often. I was working at Universal Music and reading and writing screenplays in my spare time. Eventually it got to the point where it outweighed by job, so I took the leap and sent myself off to New York to learn filmmaking. My first film job was in drama and I’m currently going back to fiction and developing a screenplay about my experience growing up in Saudi Arabia.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

RS: A piece of advice that put the funding side of filmmaking into perspective for me was that you have to do 100 applications to succeed once! Not sure if that’s good or bad.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

RS: A career in filmmaking takes a long time to carve out. It’s also full of ups and a lot of downs, so don’t be disheartened if you fail. Pick yourself up and start again. And find someone who can help you. Be proactive. I’ve found that lots of more experienced filmmakers are happy to help — you just have to ask.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

RS: This is such a hard question to answer! I choose Melina Matsoukas’ “Queen & Slim.” I watched it last week and was blown away. It’s smart, brilliantly directed, and funny in places, which I love as it adds another layer of depth when exploring this hard subject.

I thought the two leads were very well cast and it was so refreshing to see Matsoukas take a chance with a relatively unknown actress. The cinematography was beautiful. Each scene looked like it was carefully planned with lots of texture and color. I especially liked the road trip and the uncle’s house.

Although we see the south in films and TV, this felt fresh, like a new lens into it. A few other films that I love are Sally Potter’s “The Party,” Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy,” and Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart.”

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

RS: Releasing “White Riot” has been tough. It’s a film we made for the cinema. We spent a lot of time on the grade and mix to maximize how it would look and sound in the theater. It’s been hard coming to terms with that. I’m glad it’s getting such a great response.

I wrote a drama treatment in the first few months of lockdown, which we developed at the Torino Lab. That was fun and I hope to direct more drama. I’m also developing a couple of documentary ideas, including one that I’m very excited about, but can’t say anything about it just yet. I’m very superstitious and don’t want to jinx it.

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

RS: This is a tough question, but one that needs to be addressed now more than ever. The first thing is to collaborate with people of color so we are at the heart of discussions about how best to tackle it. Here in the U.K., far too often people of color aren’t included in discussions about how to build a fairer society. It’s the arrogance of the big media institutions that they don’t want to change. I do hope things change. Britain is lagging far behind the U.S., so there’s a lot of catching up to do.

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