Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Juvenile Liaison (1976) - Nick Broomfield & Joan Churchill


Another day, another Nick Broomfield documentary. It feels like I'm going through a little Broomfield phase at the moment. Little phase that is, not little Broomfield. Anyway this particular documentary follows a juvenile liaison unit in Blackburn, Lancashire, which is way up there in the wilds of northern England for those that don't know. Filmed during a five week period in 1975, this took Broomfield & Churchill (their first film together incidentally) the best part of a year to piece together. We mainly follow two officers, Sergeant George Ray and PC Lillian Brooks as they go about their daily business. Which, in a nut shell is preventing kids from straying down the path that eventually leads to young offenders homes.

We follow nine cases in all, which range from petty theft right the way up to violent outbursts towards their parents. The juvenile liaison unit is a decent enough idea in theory, in practise however it's a different kettle of fish. Parents and schools call in the officers when they are unable to cope with the children themselves. One case is that of seven year old Glen, who has half inched a cowboy outfit from somewhere. He comes out with all sorts of nonsense about his mother buying it for him, or was it that he got it from 'one of the big boys'? You know the little sod has had it away from the local Woolies, but how do you get him to own up to it? Well George Ray does it by charging in wagging his fingers in the kids face and asking leading questions. Now any fool can see that little Glen is scared and obviously wants to climb out of the hole he's dug for himself. I think a calm approach would have worked with the wee guy, since away from George Ray he confesses to nicking apples to a sympathetic teacher. Ray however is unconvinced and trundles Glen down to the local nick and shows him a cell. Short sharp shocks are the order of the day it would seem.

The sad thing is I can see what Ray and Brooks are trying to do, and think it's worthy, I just don't think they have the correct training for the job. Brooks in particular asks either leading questions (pretty useless to do with small children), or just brow beats the kids with the sort of unanswerable questions that lead to them feeling ashamed. After all asking a child of ten why they stole something from a shop is never going to lead to an honest answer. Nine times out of ten you're going to get the reply - 'I dunno', which is what happens here. Ray also has a habit of dragging kids around by their hair, which is really uncomfortable to watch. It's almost like hitting them to explain how you should never use violence. Hmph.

Having been born in '72 myself and having a rough childhood where punishments came in the form of savage beatings and humiliations, I'm able to sympathise immensely with the kids in this film. All the children that lashed out at their parents come from homes where said parents believe that beating and screaming at them is the best way to show them the error of their ways. Now to me it seems obvious that if you treat kids this way, especially at such an impressionable age then you get what you deserve. Sadly it's easier to become a parent than it is to drive a car, since at least with driving you have to past a series of tests first. Anyway rant over, back to the documentary…

Juvenile Liaison was Broomfield's first film after graduating and was funded by the BFI. After completion it was banned after pressure from the police by the BFI themselves. So it's a joy to be able to see it finally, the fact that it captures a period in time so well and is one of Broomfield & Churchill's best works just makes it all the better. As was Broomfield's way in the early days there is very little of him present, very occasionally you'll hear him off screen asking a question to one of the officers. It's not just about the kids though, it's equally fascinating to see the attitudes of the day. After watching this you'll wonder just what happened to the poor sods who got caught nicking pens or bunking off school. The best thing is that 15 years after making this, Broomfield & Churchill returned to Blackburn to find out just that, but that's another documentary.

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