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Gas Attack (2001)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of Gas Attack (2001)
Hart Ryan Productions/FilmFour for True Stories, Channel 4, tx. 8/10/2001
75 minutes, colour
DirectorKenneth Glenaan
Executive ProducerDavid Hart
ProducerSamantha Kingsley
ScreenplayRowan Joffe
PhotographyGraham Smith

Cast: Sherko Zen-Aloush (Sherko Hussein); Benae Hassan (Resa Hussein); Robina Qureshi (Robina Dhondy); Morag Calder (Dr Annie Millbrook); Laurie Ventry (Bill Grigson)

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When a young girl falls ill on a Glasgow housing estate inhabited predominantly by refugees, one asylum support officer begins to suspect that a right-wing terrorist might be targeting the area with biological weapons.

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Gas Attack won the prestigious Michael Powell Award at the 2001 Edinburgh Film Festival. It could be seen as the new century's version of Peter Watkins' The War Game (1965), whose evocation of Britain after a nuclear attack had so alarmed the BBC that they refused television transmission. Just as Watkins' film was a speculative drama-documentary spawned by the terrifying logic of Cold War politics, Gas Attack fashions a deadly scenario from contemporary tensions, both local and global. Its inspiration came from a visit to Kosovo in 1999 by the producer Samantha Kingsley, who, at the behest of the BBC, accompanied a forensic team gathering evidence for a War Crimes tribunal. It prompted her to ask: what would war be like in the 21st century? How would it be different from what we have known before?

The film had been planned in 1999, and Channel 4 commissioned it for its True Stories slot (1987-2002), but there was some opposition from local councillors and politicians who would have preferred it to be given a cinema release (as was the fate of The War Game). Kingsley, however, liked the idea of a one-off play for a mass audience (it won an audience of 1.4 million) that would immediately spark discussion. What she could not have foreseen was the way the events of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks in the USA which began a week later (claiming five lives) gave a whole new dimension and resonance to the subject-matter.

The actors were drawn from the community, and their naturalistic performances give the drama a feeling of grass-roots authenticity. As in his screenplay for Pawel Pawlikowski's film, Last Resort (2000), writer Rowan Joffe shows a rare sensitivity to the plight of refugees in the UK and gives a sympathetic hearing to all who are caught up in the crisis. Within a conventional linear narrative structure, director Kenny Glenaan makes imaginative use of a variety of visual codes and styles (newsreel footage, cctv images, handheld camera, video graphics that might represent the terrorist's point of view) to build a compelling atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia. There is a terrible irony in the fact that the refugees encounter again the kind of horror they hoped they had left behind. By the same token, Gas Attack vividly illustrates how racism, intolerance, fear of difference, civic complacency, could bring the same sort of horrors right to our door.

Neil Sinyard

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Video Clips
1. Broomiehill Infirmary meeting (3:00)
2. Ignorance (3:00)
3. Six hours to deadline (5:00)
Last Resort (2000)
Channel 4 Drama
TV Drama in the 2000s