The ex-prison therapist’s screenwriting debut, Starred Up, garnered critical praise – Elliot Watson finds that it was an exercise borne from experience and frustration for the writer…
There is something so authoritative about Jonathan Asser that I quickly forget that he is dressed like a man on holiday. As our interview begins, the Starred Up screenwriter and ex-prison therapist barks: “Basil, put the phone down, the interview is starting. I want you here for this.” There’s a moment of silence, before the imposing figure of Basil Abdul-Latif, an ex-offender, beneficiary and staunch advocate of Asser’s once revolutionary (and now decommissioned) SVI (Shame/Violence: Intervention) therapy takes his seat. Then we begin.
Over the course of our conversation, Asser informs and educates but with neither the tired rhetoric of a schoolmaster nor the patient diction of a therapist. Rather, he has the conviction and urgency of a man who is still passionate about his cause and who understandably remains angry that his years of legitimate and pioneering research were suddenly lost in a labyrinth of bureaucracy and control. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so preposterous that this ex-boarding school pupil from Oxfordshire found not only a profession, but also a profound personal catharsis, in the grim and volatile depths of Wandsworth prison.
“Once I got inside those prison gates I remember very clearly that I felt a sense of safety” Asser says of entering Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute, where he taught a poetry workshop more than 20 years ago. That instantaneous “sense of being at home and a sense of belonging” was, in Asser’s mind, the consequence of his own childhood, spent ostracised from society-at-large in a boarding school rife with bullying and rules that fuelled a brooding sense of alienation and detachment.
“The people at the top and the people at the bottom [of society] have often been brought up in institutions, whether it’s the care system or a boarding school and the vast majority of the people in the middle can’t understand either of them”
That comfort in the prison environment also allowed him to show solidarity and understanding with those he sought to help. “I later realised it was because I had been institutionalised through the boarding school. Prison was that brick Mother that I’d lost and had now found again. I almost found it to be a relief to be in that zone of intense emotion because I had intense feelings of anger and aggression that I needed to work on as well and actually those discussions were helping me as much as the participants. It was very much a symbiotic relationship.
“The people at the top and the people at the bottom [of society] have often been brought up in institutions,” Jonathan adds, “whether it’s the care system or a boarding school and the vast majority of the people in the middle can’t understand either of them. I found I had an instinctive and connected understanding with those who had been in care.”
Starred Up follows the story of Eric Love who is upgraded from a young offenders’ institute to adult prison for violent behaviour. There, Love is re-united with his father, a fellow convict who until that moment had been almost entirely absent from his son’s life. The film then becomes a merciless description of prison life as Eric’s presence disrupts and redefines the finely balanced loyalties and the blurred lines of control that keep the prison just below boiling point.
Starred Up is unapologetically violent, a quality Asser recognises as significantly contributing to its success, though he asserts that, like his therapy, the film explores the causes of that brutality rather than revelling in it. “I wanted to explore a father-son relationship and prison was a great backdrop for that. It was a way of bringing characters together and my experiences did inform that backdrop. But I also wanted to discuss the hierarchical pressure that the prisoners are under and that’s something people experience in the outside world as well. People need a way to maintain the respect they have from others but to do so without becoming violent, that’s what the therapy was about, that’s what the film is about.” The very nature of a prison dictates that those in the outside world have very little knowledge of it; of its menacing atmosphere, of the power held by those capable of psychologically or physically manipulating the inmates or the staff, both key factors in the film’s incredible sense of suspense. Starred Up, though it’s author insists it is a work of fiction, illuminates this unfamiliar environment with an almost blinding light. The secrecy of prisons makes them apt for over-dramatisation by writers, but Basil corroborates the veracity of Asser’s writing: “Looking at the film, it’s realistic. Everything about it is real; in my eyes it’s real.” It’s a quality that Asser is certain gives the film added legitimacy: ‘That whole experience gives the project something. If you don’t have that prison experience you are in danger of writing a film based on other prison films that you have seen. That wasn’t a factor here.”
“They say a happy home is one with warm hugs. But what if you’re in the care system? Or a boarding school? What if you don’t have that fucking home?”
All other images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
One of the strongest driving factors in Starred Up’s negative portrayal of the prison system though was that Jonathan’s SVI program was halted without notice and without, (as far as he is concerned) a legitimate explanation. After meeting with counter terrorism officials to discuss using his therapy to prevent the radicalisation of prisoners during their time in jail, the following day, Jonathan found his security pass had been revoked. “…And that was their response to that meeting . And they continued to give different reasons for why it was stopped but they didn’t add up. My protest went all the way to the top of the National Offender Management Service. I demolished all the arguments given for stopping that work, but nothing came of it. My own frustration and disappointment about that definitely came through. I found an outlet in writing Starred Up as a piece of fiction. The film may have still been made, but that prison backdrop may also have been different” he says.
The discussion of Jonathan’s work coming to such an abrupt end has given rise to a residual anger and frustration that he can no longer help others, (and he notes, himself) through SVI. The anger remains fiercely directed at the institutions that have abjectly failed so many of the men he has spent his entire adult life trying to help. “They say a happy home is one with warm hugs. But what if you’re in the care system? Or a boarding school? What if you don’t have that fucking home? Where are you going to fucking go then?” he asks. It seems Starred Up is posing those questions.
Starred Up is out now via Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment on Blu-Ray, Digital HD and DVD