DSLRs capture powerful video of London riots

By Dan Chung

We’ve seen a torrent of images from the riots in London and elsewhere over the last few days, but these are four of the most striking and powerful videos I’ve seen, all shot on DSLRs by journalists or people making other kind of films.

Three of the film makers – Leon Neal of AFP, Ben Lankester of Progress Film and Sam Hunt – have been kind enough to spare the time to talk about these videos. I am still very keen to speak to Kris Thompson and have been trying to reach him. If he is reading this – or if you know how I can get hold of him – please get in touch.

Kris Thompson – Ealing Broadway riots 08/08/11

This video shows police and rioters on the worst day of violence in the capital. Please be aware before watching that it has some very upsetting images, including footage of the 60-year-old man who is critically ill after rioters attacked him when he tried to stop them setting fire to a bin.

It uses slow motion and music to create a very moody piece that feels very different to almost all the other news footage from the day. It is clearly an editorialised version of events and I would love to speak to Kris about why he made it this way. I assume he is seeking to recreate how it felt to be there as an observer and if that’s the case I think it’s a laudable attempt though I know some people will disagree. Ealing-based film maker and author Chris Jones wrote on his blog “The use of slow motion, music and sound effects serves to enhance that ‘movie’ feel. Whether that is appropriate or not, I don’t know, but it certainly captures the feel of what it was like on the streets in a way that does not feel like news footage.”

Sam Hunt & Murat Gökmen – Riots in Mare Street, Hackney, 08/08/11.

This is what Sam Hunt had to say about their film:

“I produced this and Murat shot it. I work mainly for AlJazeera English as an interview producer and Murat works as a freelance video producer and as a documentary researcher for Channel 4.

This was shot on Monday – it’s of the key flashpoints – but we’re thinking of editing it with some interviews with youths we did earlier in the afternoon. We live about a mile down the road. I heard on Twitter something was happening down the road and got a call from a colleague at ITV asking if anything had happened, so we cycled down, locked up our bikes and started speaking to police and some of the young guys milling around.

The police said they expected something to happen at 4 at the town hall in Hackney. The police presence built up over next two hours and as we were walking around we saw really young groups of people. Things began to escalate. Two young men were stopped and searched, which is at the beginning of the film – the two young men up against the wall – and which the BBC say is the incident that started everything off on Mare Street.

We decided Murat would film what he saw and I’d follow him and keepalerting him to things he might have missed or that I thought he should film. But as things got more violent I was keeping an eye out for missiles or young rioters – who were very hostile to us filming and smacked the camera a couple of times. I’d often see people giving us looks or shouting and we’d move away – I didn’t want the camera to get broken. We were very conspicuous because Murat had a shoulder brace and viewfinder on with his Canon 550D – which made it look like more than just a stills camera – and wasn’t one of the snappers running in and out. He was trying to be steady to get good footage. I also had an big handheld external broadcast mic.

The police would form up in a line and move forward clearing the line of rioters. There were police cars in front of the police lines with no police in them and that’s when you got the police car being kicked in and smashed with large blocks of concrete, bins, whatever people could get their hands on. That was particularly dangerous because concrete blocks were coming over heads and was worried about Murat, who was concentrating on filming – quite often I would pull him back, which probably affected how clear the shots are.

We didn’t see anyone get hurt but we saw a lot of people – including us – running away from rioters who were after our cameras. I worked in Ghana in 2008 and there were disturbances during the election, but I’d never seen that level of violence before. There was footage we thought we had but was too jerky because things were too violent. At one point rioters opened the back of a lorry, took out wooden pallets and started smashing up a bus with the bus driver in it. We tried to film it but a rioter shouted and moved towards us aggressively – that was really hairy: a particularly nasty moment.

Murat and I met on a broadcast journalism MA and a lot of friends on the course all bought and used DSLRs because the quality for money is fantastic. Murat has done a lot of second camera work and I’ve shot for Reuters on a 550D. The benefit was that we were more mobile than someone shooting on one of the big news Betacams. The problem was obviously keeping focus – you lose it quite easily – but I quite like the feel that gives: more immediate than news but not as unpolished as, say, mobile footage. You have the immediacy of being there and it looks quite rugged, moving around a lot, but still clear; the image quality is really good.

The Guardian used the footage on its liveblog.”

Leon Neal – Tottenham riots 08/08/11

Leon is a photojournalist with Agence France Presse, shot the first 35 seconds or so of this report, which is much more conventional. Here is his account:

“Shooting video or stills in the riot-affected areas of London has proved to be an incredibly tough challenge.  From the very first night, photographers and camera crews were actively targeted with their equipment being smashed and, more often than not, physical injury inflicted.  I filmed the footage featured here on a Nikon D3s; the need to be covert resulted in me having to ditch the shotgun mic and Zacuto Z-finder that I would usually use.  Shooting video was also trickier than stills due to the need to remain in a static position for longer – unlike photography where you can shoot and run. The incoming rocks and bottles from the rioters became more of a hazard if you remained stationary for too long.  By the second night, many photographers had ditched their DSLRs and were using pocket cameras for their HD video and stills.  While the sensitivity was of a much lower quality, situations like this are more about the footage than the quality so they were good enough to record the events witnessed.  My other big problem with shooting video was battery power.  I found myself in a police cordon in a very volatile area, and capturing video drained one of my batteries in 20 minutes. Thankfully, I had some juice left in a spare so could swap over, but ditched video for the rest of the night to rely on stills.”

Ben Lankester – Reactions and debate in Clapham 09/08/11

Ben is a filmmaker with Progress film based down in Brighton – predominantly shootimg DSLR, for commercial, music video and corporate work. He made this film of people reacting to the events.

This is what Ben had to say:

“As we watched the news online we decided we needed to get up to London to start documenting the reactions of those involved in the rioting. We wanted to listen to the discussions on the street, rather than present a story or show the chaos that the news was broadcasting. A 5D mkII allowed us to get close to those involved without intimidating them and once we’d started shooting, a crowd gathered to join in the debate.

This is certainly the start of a greater project as we have more DSLR shooters on the ground now. We also have editors piecing through the footage we’ve captured over the last few days. On Monday night we were confronted by a lot of hooded and masked men who threatened us when they saw our cameras. We absolutely could not have done this with a regular camcorder, no way. We considered taking our Sony EX-1 but knew we wouldn’t get close to what was happening, let alone be able to talk to anyone.

We made the video first thing Tuesday morning. It was amazing how emotional people were. We saw the first woman shouting at the side of the road and asked her for an interview. Once we started shooting, everyone started cutting in with their opinions. The crowd were equal parts in agreement and angry with what this woman – and then the man – were saying. The atmosphere was incredibly tense and emotional. Everyone is coming from a different place with a different story to tell. This situation is far from clear cut, racially, politically or otherwise. The discussion went on for around twenty minutes before police came in to break up the crowds, which had got so big that they were blocking the entrance to Clapham Junction station. It was spontaneous. There are evidently a lot of angry people in London with a lot to say.”

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