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Henry Blake's new film, County Lines has been on our radar for a long time, as a project that promises to honestly tackle some extremely topical issues for young people. Now, with it being released today (4 December) in cinemas and digitally, we are very excited to present Henry's account of his inspiration for the film and how his own personal experiences informed it.
Inspired by true events, County Lines is the highly acclaimed new feature from writer and director Henry Blake who based the film on his own experience as a youth worker operating in an East London PRU (a Pupil Referral Unit for children excluded from attending mainstream school). The film is a vivid and moving coming-of-age story about a struggling mum and her 14-year-old son Tyler who is groomed and recruited into a lethal drug-selling network, a ‘county line', which exploits vulnerable children and puts them to work nationwide.
Henry Blake's first-hand knowledge from working with young people already taking part or at real risk of county lines exploitation has enabled him to create an authentic film that beautifully captures the harsh reality so many vulnerable young people are going through all over the UK. It is a sometimes difficult watch, and has some violent scenes that some people may find disturbing, but it is a powerful and sensitively told story that needs to be seen. County lines criminal networks have increasingly been in the news, particularly during lockdown, as the recruitment of children is growing at a worryingly fast rate. Check out Henry's brilliant testimony below.
For the past eleven years, alongside my development as a filmmaker, I have a been a youth worker supporting vulnerable children aged 10-18-years-old. This frontline experience within the social care and educational sectors has taken me into many PRUs (Pupil Referral Units).
PRUs are challenging environments but this is largely down to the alarmingly wide spectrum of behavioural needs the young people can have within a setting, sometimes even within one class. No one PRU is the same, and over the last eleven years I have been in dozens of them, working with some extraordinary young people and staff members.
In 2015, I was contacted by a friend who asked me to help her with two groups of young people in a PRU in East London. What she was dealing with was unique, traumatic and very intense. I reluctantly agreed, having become known as a guy who would take the jobs most support workers don't want, and joined her for what would be a pivotal year sending my parallel lives - youth work and filmmaking - on a direct collision course towards my debut feature film County Lines.
During this year, myself and the other PRU professionals were faced with the near-impossible task of safeguarding young people from dangerous and highly organised criminal networks who were recruiting, grooming and trafficking them across the UK, all with the promise of new trainers, jewellery, luxury branded clothing and cold hard cash. "MisPers" (Missing Persons episodes) were a weekly occurrence. Emotional, psychological and physical violence was a daily occurrence and threats on these children's lives got so real and severe that we had to arrange private hire cars to shuttle them between their homes and the educational setting. And yet, despite all this, the PRU staff's commitment to the young people never wavered, especially one staff member, who I pay tribute to in County Lines through Anthony Adjekum's character, Lawrence.
PRUs are unique environments and have come under fire the last few years for enabling criminal exploitation and enhancing children's vulnerability. This criticism is very broad in its attack and fails to recognise the countless professionals who protect and inspire the young people they support. Even with the best will in the world, steering your ship from jagged rocks becomes increasingly difficult if you receive annual budget cuts of up to £5000 and are running 70% over capacity, having become a dumping ground for mainstream schools to abandon their more "complex" children.
Frontline staff are so crucial because they can urge other professionals to recognise and acknowledge a child's vulnerability; something that if it goes unchecked can send a young person on a whistle-stop tour of the UK's criminal justice system.County Lines Director Henry Blake
Coming out of that year in the PRU, I understood something fundamental that would be the trigger for County Lines. Once those young people walked out of the PRU gates at the end of each day, their vulnerability increased ten fold, but the more distressing revelation was that few adults outside those gates even perceived these children to be vulnerable at all. In fact, they were labelled "criminal", "drug dealer" and a threat to the general public. My experience of them stood in direct contrast to these damaging judgements and so I put my filmmaker hat on in an attempt to bring a crucial context to what has become known as the "hooded thug". County Lines is a tough watch not least because it pulls no punches in its depiction of child criminal exploitation in contemporary Britain but also because it dares to ask the viewer "Do you care?". No child, no matter where they are from or what colour their skin is, deserves to be treated like Tyler, the lead character in the film. I am often faced with "They knew what they were doing, the rewards were there, DO THE CRIME, DO THE TIME!". This is the same apathetic response that believes if women stay in an abusive relationship they must somehow want, or even like, the abuse. "I would just leave!", they proudly proclaim. Over the years I have seen this pervasive attitude sneak up and sink its claws into the highest levels of senior leadership within the UK, which is why frontline staff are so crucial because they can urge other professionals to recognise and acknowledge a child's vulnerability; something that if it goes unchecked can send a young person on a whistle-stop tour of the UK's criminal justice system.
I was asked the other day in an interview if I consider myself an activist. The answer is no, I do not. I consider myself a member of my community and this is my letter to my local MP raising concerns about what I am seeing happen to children and parents within it. PRU staff, youth workers, social workers, health professionals, police officers and teachers have been writing the same letter to their MPs for years.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates that up to 10,000 children in the UK are now exploited by or forced to work for drug gangs and that there are now more than 2,000 individual deal line numbers in operation. Police forces, the government, charities and academia are working to combat and disrupt the threat, which can have traumatic and long-lasting consequences for those exploited.
This film is a real eye-opener and an important film to share with teachers and their age-appropriate pupils as well as for parents to make them question how they're raising their children.Into Film Ambassador, Cornelius Walker
Into Film Ambassador, Cornelius Walker, who has presented his Oscar-nominated film Black Sheep at PRU schools as part of his work with Into Film commented on the film:
"Watching County Lines deeply touched me. It's a stark reminder of how vulnerable young people can be, particularly when a parent or role model in their community is missing. Love can be confused when given by the wrong person, and to accept love or good gestures from the wrong person can change the whole course of their lives in a moment. Young teens having to act like adults strips them of their youth and could lead them to take on more responsibility than they can cope with, like selling drugs to support their household. This film is a real eye-opener and an important film to share with teachers and their age-appropriate pupils as well as for parents to make them question how they're raising their children. I hope the film puts a spotlight on this dire situation and forces councils to offer more help to the vulnerable children in our communities and supports the much-needed funding of PRU schools and youth clubs."
County Lines is released in cinemas and digitally on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema on 4 December and you can watch the trailer here. Certificate: 15
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