Two teenage actresses who are making their international debut in the British film Rocks have described the lack of diversity in the UK film industry as “embarrassing”.
Bukky Bakray, who is 17, and Kosar Ali, 16, had never acted professionally until they were cast in director Sarah Gavron’s film about a group of school friends in East London.
The movie was critically acclaimed at its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival a year ago, but its cinema release was delayed until now due to the pandemic.
“The disparity of representation in the industry is revolting,” says Bakray, who is British Nigerian and lives in Hackney, where the film is set.
Pointing to the recent reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement, Bakray adds “our current climate has highlighted that disparity”.
“But I feel that more creatives are not asking, they’re taking, and that energy should be at the forefront. Hopefully now more brown people are taking their rightful positions in the industry and pitching their stories.
“For a lot of us brown women, the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t just a trend. Black Lives Matter is something that we’ve been talking about since we were able to articulate ourselves.
“It’s taken so long for something to happen about the lack of representation in film… It’s quite embarrassing to be honest.”
“It’s embarrassing how many beautiful stories that the industry has been missing out on,” agrees Ali. “I hope their minds and their eyes have been opened now.”
The film was made by a mostly female crew and cast and Bakray plays the title role of schoolgirl Rocks.
She fears she and her little brother Emmanuel will be forced apart if anyone finds out they are living alone. Her friends help her evade the authorities while she goes on her own emotional journey.
Although the film is directed by Gavron, who also made Suffragette in 2015, starring Carey Mulligan, Rocks is described as a “team effort” – a collaboration between Gavron, the writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, and the production team and actresses.
The film came into being after Gavron and her team noticed while promoting Suffragette that there were few films for, and about, young women – and they wondered how older women in the industry might help.
“We decided to set up Rocks in a way that enabled the young people themselves to be central to the filmmaking process,” explains Gavron.
“We had no story ideas at that point as we wanted to discover them during the process and build the film with a team and crucially, with the young cast.”
Bakray and Ali were cast following the auditions of around 1,300 students in London – many of whom had no professional acting experience. They and the rest of the cast then improvised with the writers’ story ideas until a plot emerged.
“During the workshops we tried to respond to what was naturally happening between the girls,” Gavron adds.
“Our story has friendship running through it and we noticed a natural bond forming between Bukky and Kosar, even though they didn’t go to the same school and came from different backgrounds. So, their relationship ended up became the central friendship of the film.”
Both actresses describe the experience of making Rocks as “life-changing”.
“I just didn’t see acting as a tangible career before this, as it’s not normal, especially in the household I come from,” explains Ali, who is British Somali.
“My sisters are doctors and my brother is a support therapist, so the creative industries were not something I was going to go into. I was going to go to university, get a job, do the nine to five thing. I was going to stick with what I know.
“But my family has been so supportive throughout the whole process, and it’s been so interesting to see what goes into making a film; what happens behind the camera, in front of the camera – just how many people are needed to make this one film.
“Not only did I learn so much but I learned so much about myself – to dream big and go for it.”
“I’ve told Kosar she has no choice but to be an actor now,” says Bakray, “And I would love to continue too. It’s been such a joyous experience.”
Bakray describes how as a young child, she watched Denzel Washington in 2001’s Training Day, for which he won an Oscar, and had been inspired by him to act.
“I remember thinking, ‘this guy is a genius’ and I wanted to be an actor. But it seemed so impossible, it just didn’t seem like a feasible career. I eradicated any sort of creative quest in my head, and started to think logically about life. I tried to be smart. There was no way I could be an actor, there were just no opportunities.”
“Characters in films aren’t generally as diverse as they are in Rocks,” Ali points out. “Plus it’s set in East London – we don’t always see positive stories set in this area.”
Bakray says making the film has changed her mind about her future and that both she and her co-star are now pursuing auditions for more roles.
“Now that I am in the industry, it seems so silly to think a career in the arts is taking a risk when everything in life is. I definitely think that it’s tough. But to think it’s out of reach and out of my league – that kind of thinking keeps so many creative people out of the industry who have so much to give.”
Rocks is released in cinemas on Friday 18 September.