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Last Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Review: Edge of the City
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Edge of the City
Social worker Omar (r) tries to keep teenager Matthew on the straight and narrow
Edge of the City, a documentary on Bradford's social services, has been screened by Channel 4 after being dropped in May after police warned it could inflame racial tensions at local election time.

There's been a lot said about Edge of the City - almost all of it by people who had not actually seen the controversial documentary on Bradford's social services.

More than a year in the making, Edge of the City follows social workers with difficult cases in one inner city.

The most controversial of these witnesses authorities and parents trying to stop groups of young men who are grooming girls as young as 11 for sex.

Although none of the officials in the film raise race as the issue in these predatory relationships, the filmmakers make it perfectly clear that the abusers are predominantly Asian, and all of the abused girls are white.

This is the controversy at the heart of the film which cries out for explanation. But instead, the story is shoe-horned into 90 minutes, along with those of an elderly man fighting for independence, a troubled couple dealing with disability and alcoholism and a trainee social worker's determination to help a serial teenager offender.

So given the unprecedented access to Bradford social services, did the filmmakers use it responsibly?

Or did they produce a film that, as its critics would have it, provided ammunition to racists?

Sensitively observed

The story of the trainee social worker and his young criminal charge is compelling human drama.

Omar Sheikh, the trainee who happens to be Muslim, looks after ("tracks") Matthew, a 96-times teenager offender on early release and a tagging order, who happens to be white.

Omar mentions their ethnic backgrounds to the camera, but it's unclear whether he thinks it overly important or was asked to talk about it. Matthew doesn't seem to mind - at one stage he has a girlfriend from a mixed race family.

Omar's attempts to keep his charge on the straight and narrow, and Matthew's slow realisation that he is running out of chances, is sensitively observed and impartially reported.

And despite the unremittingly grim nature of Edge of the City, Omar's bloody-minded determination to slap some sense into Matthew makes him a vivid advert for any social services recruitment campaign.

Unanswered questions

But, how the programme deals with the story of sexual abuse in Keighley and Bradford is more problematic.

Edge of the City
Caroline and Keith face disability, harassment and alcoholism
Without a doubt, the programme makers, with their remarkable access to social workers, came across a tragic story which needed telling.

A Barnardos expert says "scores" of young men are involved; her local social services colleague says there is a massive hole in what the authorities can do. The filmmakers talk to one girl who has had 100 sexual partners.

But time and time again, the programme leaves questions unanswered.

Abuse of girls

Very early on in the film, the narrator says Bradford's ethnic mix "traditionally" leaves a city divided. Difference is, of course, noticeable - but does it inevitably create division? Other cities would consider this a glib conclusion.

When the narrator explains that some abused girls are as young as 11, why does the camera stop on a shot of Bradford's main mosque?

And when the narrator says that young Pakistani drugs gangs are beyond the control of "community elders", are we being told this entire community should be considered guilty of neglect?

Disability and alcoholism

And as you wait for answers, the film changes tack onto another tale: Caroline and Keith, a sad and complex story of disability, harassment and alcoholism.

Critics of Edge of the City will accuse the filmmakers of being, at best, naive in how they have incorporated race into the story.

Two senior social workers and one police officer detail the complex methods of sexual grooming. None of these professionals suggests that race, faith or ethnicity is a factor. They say it's down to power, misogyny and the self-esteem of the girls who believe the lies of men who shower them with gifts.

So if race has been a factor in Bradford and Keighley - and the interviewed mothers clearly believe it is - the film neither offers a theory nor explanation as to why this should be the case.

Unclear ending

Edge of the City clearly did not set out to be a far-right or racist polemic. It is quite often an experimental and complex documentary, mixing genres and cinematic approaches.

But after 90 minutes, you come away unsure what to think about what you saw.

Perhaps had the producers made four separate programmes, following each of the four stories, a lot of these questions would have been answered.

Back to top

What did you think of the documentary - did it enlighten you or were you left wanting to know more?

The aspect of race didn't come into my mind at all. Just the sad stories of forgotten people. I don't think it was the responsibility of this program to come up with the answers. It was analysing the social services who are the last line of defence for most of these people. If they can't come up with the answers, who can?
Danny Austin, Notts, UK

I thought the documentary only scratched the surface of the problem because of a fear of being branded racist. We never seem to have a real debate if it involves race or religion. Too many people jump on the racist bandwagon just because a dark side of a community is shown.
J, England

I find that the I am still trying to come to terms with some of the very sad issues that were highlighted in this documentary. To me the weight of the issues outweighed any comment that I could have on the documentary itself. Omar was quite simply dedicated and inspirational. The one thing that didn't seem to be addressed regarding the grooming of the young girls in Bradford was the fact that their self esteem was so low that any man that paid them any attention to them was taken as being genuine and trusted. What is happening in our society that this is the sort of attention that young women crave? What does it give them that they are lacking in there own lives. Why are they not taught that there are people in the world who are not to be trusted. If it seems to good to be true it probably is!! To me that is the true debate that needs to be had.
Kate, Warrington, UK

The programme was certainly realistic, which made it stand out from other documentaries. I thought Omar and Matthew's story was quite touching, but I felt that some of the stories - especially those of the disabled woman and her alcoholic partner, and the old man resisting help from social services - were rather intrusive and painful to watch. It made poor old Bradford look pretty grim though!
Helen, Bradford, UK

The real question is why hasn't anyone been charged with child abuse. Whatever the racial background of those involved this is a serious crime and should be treated as such.
Ian, Bristol

Brilliant, if thoroughly depressing, portrayal of life in West Yorkshire's forgotten areas. Much more needs to be done to tackle all of the problems highlighted, by both the authorities, and the communities within which these problems arise. And anyone criticising the programme using the race card does themselves and the issues a gross disservice. A special note of praise for Omar Sheikh. Perhaps if TV concentrated on positive Asian role models like this amazing young man, much stronger steps towards good race relations could be taken.
Bob, somewhere in England

To me this was documentary-making at its worst. The film-makers appeared more interested in the process of documentary production than in the subject matters being targeted. This told us absolutely nothing new about the working life of social services and therefore I can see no reason why the stories needed to be lumped together.

Bradford needs an honest and open debate that acknowledges the relevance of race and culture to social problems and involves all communities in this debate. To ignore the problems leaves racists and the far right to provide people with simplistic conclusions. Edge of the City did nothing to steal the debate away from them, and did nothing for race relations in Bradford.
Huw Illingworth, Bradford

I think the review got it absolutely right by saying 'perhaps had the producers made four separate programmes, following each of the four stories, a lot of these questions would have been answered'. The programme lacked a dynamic view on the sexual allegations, no one from the Asian community was approached to defend or admit that the problem exists. All in all, the programme touched the surface of the poor social issues that are haunting not just Bradford but other parts of the country. Programme had potential, but lacked concentrated details to give the viewer a better understanding. However one can clearly see why the programme might have been used as racial vehicle by the BNP.
Kofil Ali, London

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