Watching last night's Zebra Crossing on Film4 was an uncomfortable experience. The film is full of violence, swearing, drug-taking and sex, and as such I would not recommend it to any who are adverse to the portrayals of such behaviors on film or stage.
The film chronicles the lives of a gang of friends on a south London housing estate for whom physical aggression is a normal part of everyday life. Violence is not only between other gangs and drug dealers, but also family members and the local police, who are portrayed as cruel and corrupt. One member of the group, Justin, becomes increasingly aware of his need to escape the hectic lifestyle of hatred and fighting that he has grown up with. But he lacks the knowledge of how to achieve a way out.
Justin's only hope lies in his contact with a black man Marcus who he meets in a church that Justin wanders into. Marcus (Michael Maris) appears to be some kind of community outreach worker. The fact is that he does not say a lot to Justin during the film. Not a gang member, not a drug-taker, Marcus is an alternative role model and a human contact who may be a steadying influence as Justin tries the difficult path of trying to break free from his lifestyle.
Although Zebra Crossing - filmed in black and white and winner of the Audience Award at the Raindance Film Festival in 2008 - is as sickening in parts as A Clockwork Orange or American History X, its fast-paced and foul-mouthed violence is not gratuitous but essential. The story is about that way of life and the near-impossibility for the 18-year-old protagonist to break away from it.
Marcus symbolises for me one aspect of the church's role in such a broken-down society. Although I half-expected Marcus to preach to Justin, his actual role as listener, example and human contact enables a safe relationship to be formed, which may offer Justin the possibility of starting to change. Marcus was analogous to the role that salt plays in traditional societies - a preservative, a restrainer of decay, a savouring presence and a medicine. I was also struck by the role that the physical church building played in the story. It was literally the only environment in the film in which acts of violence would not break out at any moment.
There is nothing sentimental about the film. And the apparent Christological element in the film's final scene in no way jars with the gritty realism of the portrayal of the lives of the young men caught up in the nihilism that they have become conditioned to. Instead, it made me think that the director Sam Holland in his debut film may have something to say to the church about its role in the world and to the world about the peaceable kingdom that exists, often out of sight, on its fringes.
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