Shank: a stab at the big time

Shank is a new urban gang film with a difference – its message is strictly anti-knives and violence

With knife crime high on the political agenda, a film called Shank featuring scowling teens set against a grime soundtrack could have been a case of repetition as far as British urban dramas are concerned. The past decade has seen film-makers preoccupied to the point of obsession with exposing the harsh realities of today's youth. But where Kidulthood set a controversial precedent with its coarse portrayal of violence, sex and drugs, Shank emerges as as a well-executed, urban action film with the intent of making the Government's crackdown on knife crime that bit more achievable.

Set in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic London (quite worryingly, considering the year is 2015), Shank's kids are simply struggling to survive and hustle for food – or "munchies" – in a city that's been damaged by the poverty gap and postcode wars. They exist in crews, distinguished by their moral codes. There are the Somalis, who live by the motto "chew khat, ride BMX, fight with heavy metal" and the Originals, led by an old-school gangster who runs the local block. The Paperchaserz are the protagonists of the film, a bunch of male misfits who don't do violence and have become the quintessential family for Junior (Kedar Williams-Stirling), the baby-faced narrator who looks upon the New London with the weariness of an elderly man.

You can't fault his pessimism either: the chicken shops now serve only fried pigeon; food heists are planned meticulously by his older brother (played by Grime MC Ashley "Bashy" Thomas) and scrap metal might just get you a sausage. But when Junior gets caught up in a dispute with a rival crew, he faces a decision that defines the film's clear anti-knife crime message.

"Kids killing each other is more of a trend now and it's very sad," says Mo Ali, the film's director. "It's the environment that teaches them that it's OK to do that, or that it's cool to stand up for your rights and kill someone for them. There's no emotional connection to taking a life. We have to a tackle that – we have to show how horrible it is as much as possible, but with these young kids, the last thing they want for us to do is to ram it down their throat."

Shank is Ali's major film debut, after years of shooting music videos for grime artists such Wiley, Tinchy Stryder and Dizzee Rascal. The young director could relate to the film's context, having grown up in a Saudi Arabian shanty town, before moving to the UK aged six. "I was a toddler when I was doing stuff that grown teenagers were doing in the street," he says. "So I relate to Junior. There was no father figure so I had my older brother looking after me." As a teenager living in Beckton, he was accustomed to meeting young people caught up in the cycle of violence. "Some of them didn't choose the right path. Some of them did, but luckily for me, I wanted to be a film-maker, so I couldn't sacrifice my goal in life to do something silly," says the 27-year-old. "Some of my friends didn't have that natural ambition or care what their life meant. They just cared about respect."

Unknown to Ali, the story of Shank was being developed by Revolver Entertainment, the distribution company behind Kidulthood. Writer and producer Paul Carter was recruited to write the screenplay and, along with Ali, spoke to young people in schools to discover what type of film would appeal to them. "We call it 'reverse engineering' which the Hollywood studios do day in and day out," says Carter. "They go directly to their market and ask what kind of film would you like to see. Overall, what came out was that they wanted more fantasy elements, rather than the gritty, depressing, 'this is what it's like living in the ghetto'. They know that – they don't need to be reminded of it as Bullet Boy and Adulthood keep doing. For me, it was about taking something that didn't feel like it had much scope, just another depressing gang film shot on a low-budget in London, and trying to make it epic."

The film was shot in abandoned streets in south London in a month to keep costs down, but despite the limited cashflow, the film's visuals are funky. Fight scenes are presented in video-game episodes, while creative camera angles and low-resolution video images all add style, the result of Ali's experience with music promos. "I didn't want to do the obvious, bread-and-butter film technique," he points out. "So I took all the British filming rules, crumpled them up and chucked them away. I thought, 'I'm going to make this visually exciting and more apocalyptic and dark', and I think it came out quite well. The first thing people said was that it looks completely different from a British film."

"You can see from the film that we did a good job for the money," adds Carter, who revealed they worked with £400,000 compared to Kidulthood's £1.25m budget. "It's raw and it's gritty in the way it's shot, but I still wanted it to have a cult feel. If it could do anything, I'd want it to sit alongside The Warriors, Reservoir Dogs, Lock Stock or Quadrophenia."

In the cast are Skins star Kaya Scodelario as the feisty eye-candy who can kick ass, Adam Deacon (Kidulthood, Adulthood, Dubplate Drama), pin-up Jan Uddin and a hilarious Michael Socha. Fifteen-year-old newcomer Rheanne Murray landed a part after contributing to one of the scriptwriting focus groups. Ali and Carter were keen to avoid the usual soundbites in their script. "That's all been done before in British cinema," says Ali. "There's a template that says British films for urban kids have to have a staple diet – a bunch of hoodies, loads of blood and robbery scenes."

Shank isn't exactly devoid of cliché, though. Skepta's menacing "Sticks and Stones" blares out as the characters lurk on the streets; there's a dog fight at one point, and a drinking scene could have been ripped right out of BBC's one-off West 10 LDN. The Souljahz, the most reckless of gangs, also consists of mainly black boys. Ultimately, Shank seems intent on taking these stories out of a niche market and into a mainstream that is growing comfortable with urban youth culture. It's clearly aimed at a pop market of teenagers whose parents might even appreciate the more novel elements. "Kidulthood, Adulthood and even Bullet Boy, they were the benchmark," says Ali. "Without them, this film wouldn't be here. It's my hope that Shank is an evolution."

Shank is released on 26 March