With gun violence on the rise in Britain, it is the right time for a documentary that tackles the subject. And while Gun No 6 is mostly covering decades-old crimes, it has a resonance with an issue that still hasn’t been resolved. It features a group of ex-offenders reenacting each time that the titular weapon has been used since the outlawing of handguns post-Dunblaine school massacre in Scotland in 1996. This is interspersed with interviews with families of victims and the police.
This sounds grim, though at a lean 75 minutes we really only get fragments of stories to form a wider picture. With such a premise you would be forgiven for expecting a British version of Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013). There is little such attempt to change or rehabilitate through filmmaking, but rather an opportunity for people who have already come out to help others to learn from their own mistakes.
When the men are allowed to just speak and live their truth it starts to get at something. You wish they were permitted the space to talk more directly about their own experiences than events that they weren’t personally involved in. But in taking a holistic approach to British gun violence it makes the case that these incidents of violence are the same. When confronted with police reports about the crimes in question, the names and specifics change, but the motivating factors are largely the same no matter who is behind the trigger.
This is a film that neither sensationalises nor tries to blame the media/music for violence. Rather, it presents an interesting determinism vs free-will dichotomy every time someone is asked why these events took place. They talk about the lure of easy money, coming from estates. Some say they knew the difference between good and bad and made and active choice. Director James Newton isn’t interested in systemic racism or the particulars of the drug trade. He’s more concerned with the psychology of the men in these moments, the obsession with power, the desperation to become someone else. One of the perpetrators constantly talks about the gun as in a constant conversation, ‘speaking to him’. It’s like the Nas song I Gave You Power, the subject describing how holding his weapon would inform every interaction he would make.
The style is BBC bait, slick and watchable, white rooms for the interviews, dark nighttime reconstructions for contrast. There’s a heavy Alan Clarke’s short film Elephant (1989) influence on the use of tracking shots for the reconstructions. They are simple: we watch men walk to their target and shoot. It doesn’t particularly add to our understanding of these people’s psychology in the way that Clarke’s film, or Gus Van San’s 2003 quasi-remake did, by protracting these shots until they took on other meanings. But Gun No. 6 is going for accessibility, not art house. That damages the film’s form, but means that it will have better potential reach. One wonders the impact that this film has playing in front of the affluent audiences at Sheffield Doc/Fest. This is the kind of film that needs to be shown in schools, to large groups of teens at the same impressionable age. Hopefully it will find the right crowd for its well meaning, if not particularly groundbreaking messages.
Gun No. 6 is showing at the Sheffield Doc/Fest taking place June 7th to 12th.