Team Players: Sarah Gavron & Anu Henriques on Rocks

Rocks, the East London-set drama from director Sarah Gavron, is bursting with energy thanks to its cast of teenage newcomers. Gavron, and associate director Anu Henriques, speak to us about the film's uniquely collaborative production

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 11 Sep 2020
  • Rocks

Joyful chaos bursts from the screen in Rocks, the new film from Suffragette director Sarah Gavron. It’s a social-realist film with real energy and wit, following the East London British Nigerian teenager of the title (played by newcomer Bukky Bakray) who finds herself in increasingly desperate straits after her mother disappears one day.  

Rocks' homelife is precarious, but she has a tight friendship group, and the film is at its most electric when Rocks is surrounded by her pack of pals, with Gavron’s documentary background surely helping her capture the teen cast with such realism. As we found out in our discussion with Gavron and associate director Anu Henriques back in March at Glasgow Film Festival, Rocks' unique collaborative process also contributes to the vibrance of the performances and the film’s authenticity.

Can you tell us a bit about Rocks' production process?

Sarah Gavron: It was very much the decision of, 'Let's make a film with these young people; let's really collaborate as a team; let's do it a different way.' Right from the beginning we were all acting as a team: let’s not say I'm the director, let's all collaborate, let's all as a group brainstorm what this could be.

We went and found young women who wanted to be part of that journey with us, and did workshops with them. And during that process, the thing that really came across was their energy and their friendship. And then the writer Theresa Ikoko, who's British-Nigerian, born in Hackney, and sort of had a life quite similar to the girls, came up with this idea for this love-letter to her sister that she'd been developing for a while. And then the young cast fed back into that and it evolved out of those workshops, which were a year-long process.

There’s a real intimacy to the way the teen actors interact. Did the cast help in keeping the dialogue fresh and authentic?

Anu Henriques: They were extremely generous with their input in terms of the dialogue and in terms of the story. The writers were able to have conversations with the young cast and their thoughts and experiences and feelings were all kind of then woven into what became the script.

But we had done so many improvisation workshops and so much work with them to feel trust and feel comfortable performing, so when it came to shooting, it felt like the spine of the story was part of them anyway; they were completely free to improvise all the dialogue during the shoot. We knew the emotional beats we needed to hit, but we were able to let them lead in terms of dialogue.

Rocks feels genuinely radical – but also very realistic – in how diverse the main friendship group is in terms of cultures, races and socio-economic backgrounds. It really seems to celebrate London as a melting pot.

SG: That was very much just what we found in the schools. We were in East London and we went into lots of schools and we found friendship groups that look like the friendship group you see on the screen.

AH: And also Theresa, the writer, she is born and bred in Hackney. And I think there's always been a sense from her that she wanted to write a love-letter to her area and to show the city, and particularly that part of London, in a way that is joyful and magical and shows this is people's homes, rather than like how it is often depicted on screen, which can be quite different from that.

The energy of the cast seems to extend to the filmmaking, in terms of the handheld camera and intercutting of the characters’ iPhone videos.

SG: Yeah, and the girls shot all that.

AH: We were having conversations about what it means to tell your own stories, and I think for a lot of young people now, recording everything on your phone is a way for you to have control of your own story and tell your own narrative. And so the girls were able to shoot everything themselves on set with their phones. And then we were able to look at that, along with the 150 hours of footage that we had from the main cameras and kind of have them joined together. So it should feel like it's coming from them because it did come from them, and their iPhone footage was a great way to tap into and convey that feeling.

Rocks is released 18 Sep by Altitude