WHEN Peter Mullan's film Neds was released, I asked former head of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, Graeme Pearson, why Glasgow's gang culture was so entrenched.
He said that here in Scotland, "we like to champion something and unfortunately violence is one of those things". Part of it, he said, probably comes from the notion of "the Scottish soldier and fighter", part of it from "a working-class subculture in which the only way you can survive is fighting and that's your unique selling point". That conversation took place in 2010.
So, now, another year, another film about gang violence. This time it's The Wee Man, a biopic about former organised crime thug Paul Ferris. One wonders if we will ever give up telling tales about the brutal and bloody exploits of Glasgow fighters; if we will ever leave behind the No Mean City branding.
Long before its release, The Wee Man was already causing controversy. When, in 2005, Robert Carlyle met with Paul Ferris to discuss making a film of the gangster's memoir, The Ferris Conspiracy (co-authored with ghost writer Reg McKay), he was accused of "setting a bad example for future generations". At the time, Ferris himself declared: "I am not profiting from a life in crime. I'm profiting from a lifetime's experience."
More recently, The Wee Man's director, Ray Burdis, claimed that the police and council had blocked him from filming in the city – something the police have denied. Meanwhile, many have expressed concern that the film will glorify a criminal lifestyle.
Those fears were grounded. In The Wee Man, Paul Ferris comes across as a man with a heart; a semi-innocent who is sucked, through a need for revenge, into a hideously brutal and savage world of crime. You could be forgiven for liking him a little. You could even be forgiven for considering that he somehow represents something good. And that is one of the problems with Burdis's biopic – it works far too hard to make a sympathetic hero out of someone who was basically a thug. Film critic Hannah McGill has described the film as "arguably irresponsible". It is also rather dull and unmemorable.
It doesn't take long for The Wee Man to reveal its cards. In the opening sequence, a young Paul Ferris stares out of the window at what he calls "the monsters" who are inside a shaking, shuddering van below. Those monsters are police, beating the pulp out of a man.
Ferris's trial for the 1991 killing of Arthur Thompson Jnr (he was acquitted), revealed a Glasgow that was riddled with contract killings, drive-by shootings, drug smuggling, corrupt police officers and protection rackets. But it was also a portrait of a particular time and we do the city a disservice if we concentrate on this aspect of its identity and history.
The Wee Man does not overtly glamorise violence. The violence, though at times particularly nasty, falls rather flat, and seems cliché-ridden and over-familiar. What is more troubling is the degree to which the script attempts to move us and to justify Ferris's drive for vengeance through the bullying he was subjected to as a young boy.
Would it have been better if Ferris had been depicted unsympathetically? The main problem with the film, surely, is simply that it was made at all. Just by existing, it spells out yet again that there remains a dazzling career path for some criminals. You may, if you are lucky and you play it right, live a life of nasty, brutal, violent crime, find redemption, and then live off the story for the rest of your life, whether financially or simply in terms of enjoyed reputation. People seem to want that story – just as they wanted convicted murderer Jimmy Boyle's memoir, A Sense Of Freedom.
As former Strathclyde Police chief inspector Mike Riddell noted last week: "[Ferris's] life is only noteworthy because of his violence and his law-breaking. If he had gone to school and been a plumber or a brickie, nobody would have been interested in him. If the film shows any kind of regret or offers any kind of example to young people that this is not the way to go, then fair enough, but I suspect it's not going to do that."
The problem with films like this, and with books written by former criminals, is not just that the individuals profit financially from them. (Ferris has declared that he was going to give the money from this movie to charity.) It's that they are part of a tale-telling culture, one that seeps into tabloid newspaper reports and pub banter, in which the image of the streetfighter is deified as a warrior.
Almost anyone you talk to who has been in a gang or worked with gangs mentions this storytelling as an element in the passing on of gang culture. Professor Ross Deuchars, of the University of the West of Scotland, noted that when he was researching gang culture, the young people he met would mix, from an early age, "with older guys who pass on old war stories to them". As a result, these youngsters "become caught up in it and become the next generation of fighters".
Abuse, deprivation, joblessness and bullying may be far more crucial factors, but the tales and myth-making play a part. Alex Richardson, a former gang member who now runs the Gladiators youth project in Easterhouse, talks of how "the gangs would give you a sense of belonging". He said: "You were a nobody, but if you got in the paper for doing him in or her in, or were known as a hard man-"
No wonder Ferris caused offence, when, at a recent press conference, he said he would show the film to his daughter when she was older, "much as someone in the armed forces would". The idea of the violent criminal as warrior or hero is one we must resist. Yet it is repeated, like a cliché, throughout the British gangster and "true crime" film genre. The Wee Man is not a figure we should want to champion. His story should remain, like his name, wee.
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