Jerome is an amateur journalist on the hunt for viral clips to build his YouTube channel. He eventually captures an incendiary moment of a cop shooting a man lying on the ground after an altercation. The clip goes viral, sparking a riot in London.
Jerome is caught up in the resulting chaos, especially in the undertow of a rioter named Kyla, and their paths cross with a rookie cop named Stu. When Stu is separated from his unit, he confronts Kyla and Jerome and sets off a chain of events that changes the course of their lives.
The London riots of 2011 started in the district of Tottenham, following the death of local man Mark Duggan, who was shot dead on August 4. Over the following days, protests clashed with a massive police force that led to violent beatings and the destruction of property. Rioting spread to other districts and cities in England. More than 3,000 arrests were made and five people eventually died.
Writer-director Oliver Riley-Smith powerful, visceral drama uses every tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal to bring these events to life again, dropping viewers into the chaotic melee of a socioeconomic powder keg and offering a palpable, gripping sense of what it feels like to be inside such a seemingly “senseless” event. The film — which was long-listed for the BAFTA award for Best Short Film — is a work of fiction, using a well-constructed thriller plot to pull viewers into a visual and emotional firestorm.
Once inside the story, the barrage of images have the feel of a documentary, with anxious, tense handheld camerawork and restless editing that ratchets up tension and fear with every beat. Coupled with excellent sound design, viewers are thrown into the maelstrom, with an anxious, dangerous sense of never knowing what’s around the corner.
The effect of these techniques is disorienting, but the overall visual approach is sophisticated in intent and execution. Toggling between phone footage, helmet cams, security cameras and traditional filmmaking, the mixed-media approach reflects the way we consume media: as fragments ranging from raw clips, status updates, incidental footage and surveillance cams.
But deployed in a storytelling setting, this fragmentation also means we aren’t quite clear what we’re seeing or hearing. The film expertly exploits that uncertainty to dramatic ends, and viewers, like Jerome himself, are left to question what happened, not just logistically but morally.
As Jerome’s camera captures the breakdown of order, he comes against his own disbelief, shifting moral sympathies and fear. Through his eyes — and sometimes through the eyes of Stu’s helmet cam — we see the anger and wanton destructiveness of the rioters as they loot and taunt cops. But we also witness the police exerting their power with brute force. When that force is applied tragically against Kyla, Jerome is drawn into a dangerous encounter with the cop who beat her — one that brings the film to a heart-pounding climax.
The filmmakers of “The Riot Act” portrays issues like racism and police brutality with both compelling storytelling and moral complexity — and indeed have made that complexity part of Jerome’s own arc. Simply put, there are no good or bad guys in the film, and the line between right and wrong is often blurred. But there are those who have power and those who have little — and the gulf between them can fill with violence when there’s no system of accountability in place that anyone trusts.
There is some hope, as Jerome channels his anger and outrage into constructive action with his final actions. “Keep filming,” he says — emphasizing the importance of transparency and communication in a world where “senseless” violence is often sensationalized without a more compassionate, in-depth look into why it arises in the first place.