‘’Films are really valuable; they give people meaning and make people feel alive and less alone in the world’’
When Alice Russell set out to make her debut film, this mission statement fuelled a restless 5-year journey to tell the story of Mac, Miles and Bike Stormz; a story made in London, about London. Alice’s documentary If the Streets Were on Fire is a stunning debut feature centred around a community of bike riders in London. Led by community elders and bike culture leaders Mac and Miles, the Bike Stormz movement has become a communal sanctuary for London’s youth, giving kids a voice and a safe place to express themselves on their bikes.
We sat down with Alice Russell, director of If the Streets Were on Fire, to hear about her journey from her moment of inspiration, through the hardships of independent filmmaking, culminating in the emotional success of the documentary’s premiere at the 66th BFI London Film Festival. We also heard from Miles, one of the film’s key figures, about his experiences on the film and the power and impact of documentary filmmaking in London.
Lighting the spark
Alice is a self-proclaimed bike fanatic. So, after a chance encounter during a ride out with Critical Mass bike movement, she was propelled forward on a cinematic journey. On that day, a vibrant group of young boys and girls caught her eye. Performing daring wheelies and stunts, this fearless group of riders seemed to shine out of the mass crowd of bikers on London’s reclaimed streets. She wanted to know more. Asking around, Alice was introduced to Mac, the founder of Bike Stormz and the ‘’gatekeeper of the community’’. Alice wanted to explore why the young group exuded such raw energy with a passion for bike culture that she’d never seen before.
Upon meeting with Mac, Alice was drawn in even further by his poetic testimony as to why he founded Bike Stormz:
‘’In life, you have to put kids on a track. If you don’t put them on a track, then they’re walking on the gravel. And you can’t complain when gravel gets kicked up in your face’’
Alice felt that her views perfectly aligned with Mac’s words and motivations. Bike Stormz quickly became a cause that Alice strongly believed in and wanted to document in what would become her debut feature. With this comes the first key piece of advice Alice told us she wishes to relay to emerging filmmakers looking to break into documentary filmmaking:
‘’Choose something that you really believe in, because if you do, that feeling is contagious’’
Alice expanded on this essential piece of guidance by telling us how observational filmmakers should ‘’choose a story that you really care about and be honest with yourself’’. The journey to make If the Streets Were on Fire had now begun as Alice joined up with producer Gannesh Rajah, executive producer Julia Nottingham and Dorothy St Pictures. Read on to hear exclusive insights about the film’s production process and uncover more professional advice from Alice…
Learning from Alice’s filmmaking journey
When Alice began production in 2017, she quickly gained some essential experience that independent filmmakers working toward their own debut films could learn from too…
''When you're first starting out feedback can feel terrifying, but I learnt that it's the biggest gift''
Alice explained how observational filmmakers, who live and breathe with the subjects of their documentary throughout production, can find it extremely tough to separate the editing process from their experiences behind the scenes. Alice therefore decided to share cuts of the film with as many friends and industry partners as possible and to cherish their feedback. Here, Alice passionately insists that debut filmmakers learn that ‘’feedback is not a criticism of you, it’s just helping you get this thing to the best place it can be’’.
Alice also told us how, by seeking feedback at every opportunity, she was able to become more confident with her sense of ‘’what works and what doesn’t’’ when making observational films.
‘’Everybody does have something to say. Becoming a good director is also about becoming confident with your inner voice’’
Alice reassures those in similar positions that ‘’It’s going to take a lot of time and it’s going to be really difficult in terms of having the energy and the belief’’ but as she stated previously, ‘’you have to be obsessed with something, believe in it, care for it and want to do it more than anything else’’ as well as being ready to receive feedback at all stages.
The importance of duty of care in observational filmmaking
Before If the Streets Were on Fire, Alice worked in television, specifically in current affairs TV production, even achieving her dream job on a socio-political affairs programme. However, reality would soon bite when she experienced hugely problematic and unethical issues on one production. When a producer completely abandoned their care of duty, leading to ill-fated consequences for an individual subject of the programme, Alice immediately decided to go her own way and make sure to prioritise and practice care in her own future filmmaking ventures.
On If the Streets Were on Fire, Alice put care of duty first when riding along with Bike Stormz. Miles told us how the bike community were initially curious about Alice’s intentions when she first approached the group with the idea to make a film about the movement. Understandably so, Alice explained, as the community previously felt misrepresented and had been left vulnerable by an earlier short documentary produced by an online news outlet. As such, Alice relayed how:
‘’It was really important to me that I had a good relationship with them and that they felt empowered and that we were making it together’’
Throughout production, Alice tagged along with the group, building trust, therefore making the filming process as organic as possible. Mac and Miles became her collaborators and fellow filmmakers, working on different sequences together to document Bike Stormz’s incredible journey in the most natural way possible. Sharing cuts of the film with the group throughout the process was also crucial as she explained: ‘’this is their life; I want this to be a positive thing for all’’ because ‘’films do have the power to change things’’. Alice advises observational filmmakers to follow suit to avoid any unforeseen consequences in this industry.
Making an impact through documentary filmmaking
As a result of Alice’s close relationship with the Bike Stormz group, Miles told us how the film gave the community a platform to express their own voice. Excited by the opportunity, he expanded on how he wanted to ‘’represent the community and prove to people that we can get things done. We aren’t knuckleheads’’, he said.
A vital motivation behind Alice’s film, as well as Mac and Miles’s Bike Stormz culture, is to change harmful stereotypes about London’s youth. She wanted their film to connect to a community who rarely get any airtime. Sadly, Alice explained, most attention they do get tends to paint an incredibly negative stereotypical image of ‘anti-social’ youth in hoods with knives. She told us how:
‘’No one’s ever taken the time to ask them what they feel and think. Behind these hoods are kids with huge hearts’’
If the Streets Were on Fire recounts Miles’s transition from gang life and crime, toward becoming a family man, staunchly looking out for his community. The film also expertly draws you into Mac’s world as the leader of Bike Stormz, taking you along for a literal ride through the many barriers and challenges the group faces with authorities. Through this, Alice has made a film with London at its core. The story shown ‘’thematically tries to explore this idea of different worlds and living in two different cities; a London that is effectively siloed’’, Alice explained.
In fact, the very title of the film came from a scene where Mac pleads with a police officer halting a Bike Stormz ride out. For Mac, whilst overseeing and taking care of various communities across London, there are fires of youth violence going off all over the city. Mac tells his kids to ride away on their bikes into the safety of central London to escape the metaphorical fires. London is more than a cinematic backdrop for Alice; her film reaches out to tell Mac’s story and show you the city as its diverse communities really experience it.
For Miles, having Alice document and relay this reality on the big screen has never been so important:
‘’I feel like documentary films are a very important way to tell stories about the city’s youth. Some people don’t like to talk about issues, but when they watch it, they connect more with the issue’’
He went on to describe the impact this has had on himself: ‘’The fact that people are interested and want to know more, has made me feel appreciated and that everything I’ve been doing for the last few years hasn’t been forgotten’’. He wants people to remember the life he’s left behind and ‘’the experiences I’ve had so that people see that they can do it themselves. That means much more than bikes’’.
Since wrapping up filming, Mac and Miles have continued to seek opportunities within London’s film and TV industry. They were both recently hired as stunt coordinators and bike riders on Daniel Kaluuya’s upcoming Netlfix film The Kitchen, his writing debut exploring a dystopian reality of urban life in London.
As role models in the bike community, Miles and Mac hope to continue their work and help London’s youth know they can express their feelings and emotions by riding with Bike Stormz.
Premiering at the BFI London Film Festival
‘’It was beyond my wildest dreams’’
For Alice, it was imperative to premiere the film in London. She told us how the film was a ‘’love letter to the community’’ so there was no better place to cap off the wild filmmaking ride than in their hometown during last year’s London Film Festival. With the whole community in attendance, Alice described the premiere as ‘’electric’’, a magical experience for her, Mac, Miles, all the kids involved in Bike Stormz, as well as for Julia, Gannesh and the rest of the team at Dorothy St Pictures.
With the film’s premiere behind them, Alice and the team’s journey to get If the Streets Were on Fire to a wider audience has only just begun.
If the Streets Were on Fire is a powerful piece of filmmaking. An impressive achievement by Alice and her team that seamlessly draws you into London’s bike culture. It tells the story of a London community, led by two inspiring figures, that are fighting to give youth a better hand in life.
Don’t miss the film when it airs on BBC Storyville later this year.