Will Buckley meets the director of a film about hooliganism - and discovers it is based on her own experiences as a member of the Mannheim Firm
Sunday September 18, 2005 The Observer
Not so long ago, films would be allowed to speak for themselves. Now, increasingly, they are accompanied by a director's statement. Lexi Alexander's, written to accompany the release of Green Street - which might have been titled 'A Yank at West Ham' - is perhaps typical of the genre.
Alexander's 'statement of claim' starts by detailing how, growing up in Germany, she became the only girl in the Mannheim City Boys Firm, thanks to her brother and her knowledge of martial arts. She and her friends came from middle-class backgrounds, but their parents 'were workaholics, alcoholics, abusive or just simply absent'. Hooliganism filled a gap.
According to Alexander, it allowed young men to express their love for each other without having to put it into words. 'Standing strong next to your friend when you're facing 30 guys who want to punch your face in, that's love,' she writes, coining a 'Love Is...' for the upcoming hoolie generation.
At the conclusion of the statement, Alexander details what 'people can take away from the movie'. First, she hopes it might make people better parents. Which is something of a stretch. Second, she hopes the film will warn against the dangers of addiction. 'And third, why I made this movie: [her use of capitals] YOU NEVER RUN, YOU NEVER LEAVE YOUR FRIENDS BEHIND!'
A gloom descends as I read this statement while waiting for the director. Alexander, however, speaks better than she states. She is charming, funny, curious and extremely successful. Next year she will direct a £40 million 'actioner' for Disney and she is only 30. 'It's a hardcore, non-stop action movie with a really good storyline and a really good love triangle, like The Great Gatsby.'
Alexander's big break came when her short film Johnny Flynton was nominated for an Oscar. That allowed her to make Green Street and once it won a few prizes, 'all of a sudden instead of receiving one script a month I was receiving 20 a month. When you are a struggling director no one gives a shit.'
Hollywood is more imitative than creative. People like to go with projects other people have supported so that if the project bombs someone else can be blamed.
At the moment Alexander is flavour of the month, a fact more remarkable for her sex than her age. When she asks me to name three female directors I lamely say: 'Jodie Foster,' and stall. 'I think it's three per cent of all directors,' she says. 'It's definitely a boys club that I have totally decided to interrupt.'
Not for the first time, because she was the only girl in the Mannheim Firm.
Alexander was brought up by a single mother and started going to football at a young age. 'When I was five I might have liked the hotdogs more. But it becomes an addiction quite quickly. It's an amazing distraction from everyday life.' Mannheim are 'now in the fourth division playing on farmers' fields', but when Alexander followed them they were 'much like West Ham, yo-yoing between the Bundesliga and the second division'.
Her hooligan times started in her teens, when karate was 'the only sport I was good at. I got to know a couple of guys I recognised as being firm members. And as I was their sensei [master] they couldn't justify not taking me.'
She hung around with the gang, not fighting but taking pictures. 'I found consistency and stability that I didn't have at home,' she says. 'Each Saturday I would be in the same pub at the same time. At home, our parents broke promises constantly.
'Much like the arc of the film, I thought they were the greatest guys. But after a while I saw some very ugly sides, with people breaking their own rules and going overboard and not being able to differentiate between right and wrong. We always said we didn't touch anyone who was just a fan.'
One fan of an opposing team happened to walk into the wrong street at the wrong time and 10 of them jumped him. Alexander didn't question their behaviour - 'I was not ready to say, "You guys are arseholes." I didn't have the guts' - but she did drift away.
Her experiences found their way on to film. 'What I want to do is put a looking glass on to an unknown world.' Hooliganism is less known in the United States than in Britain and I had assumed it was on the wane, but the film-maker disagrees. 'There's this urban legend that it was heavier in the 1970s and 80s, but I don't think that is the case,' she says.
But surely the presence of CCTV and the demise of terraces have led to a decline? 'If you do the research it's as big as it used to be,' she counters, using the 'r' word to cap the argument. She has done her research and employed Dougie Brimson to co-write the script. Dougie and his brother were members of the generally unregarded Watford firm and heavy contributors to the hoolie-lit movement. Whenever their names crop up it brings to mind Monty Python's Dinsdale brothers, who were forever nailing people's heads to coffee tables. The film is littered with Dinsdale moments. It is well choreographed and moves at pace, but some of the dialogue is no more illuminating on the screen than when overheard in the pub.
Of more import is the issue of whether it glamorises hooliganism. The World Cup is in Germany next year and should violence disfigure the tournament, as it did the 1988 European championship, then Alexander will be called upon to defend her film.
'If you walk out [of the cinema] and think you should be involved in hooliganism you are so retarded no one can help you,' she says combatively. Perhaps, but aren't some fascist hooligans retarded?
'The whole right-wing thing is way overrated,' she says. 'Football fans should be given credit that this has died out. It is one of the only outlets to be patriotic. There has to be some kind of outlet to be proud of your country.'
In this Alexander might be accused of having it both ways. She needs to argue that hooliganism is prevalent to make her film relevant. But if it is prevalent it seems naive to think that some of those using football as an outlet to be proud of their country will not adopt fascistic postures.
Yet this does not mean we should shoot the messenger, even if you disagree with her statement. Alexander's film shows hooliganism is an addiction and demonstrates the consequences of becoming hooked on that addiction.
'The reason we cannot allow it is that someone always oversteps the line,' she says. 'Sadly, the human race can't be trusted and you have to protect people from themselves.'
Anyway, if trouble does break out in Germany, Alexander will be in Hollywood, a place she considers more dangerous than hanging out with the Inter City Firm. 'In Hollywood these guys stab you in the back like no tomorrow.' How does she cope with that? 'I usually have a pint when it gets too much.'
Green Street is on nationwide release
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