‘I wanted to find the humanity in kids seen as scumbags’: George Amponsah on his Scorsese-style thriller

<span>In too deep … Stephen Odubola as Ash (front) in Gassed Up.</span><span>Photograph: Vertigo Releasing</span>
In too deep … Stephen Odubola as Ash (front) in Gassed Up.Photograph: Vertigo Releasing

George Amponsah once had his mobile phone stolen by a thief on a moped. The British director was on his bike at a stop sign in London, looking up directions, when the device was swiped from his hand. “I just saw this youngster accelerating away,” he recalls with an exasperated smile. “I tried to give chase but I didn’t get very far. He swerved into an estate and I never saw that phone again.”

So when Amponsah was later approached by a producer to make a film about a moped gang, he wasn’t too enthused. At the time, newspapers were filled with stories about a huge wave of moped robberies. Headlines, politicians and police took turns to castigate the faceless thugs terrorising the streets. “I thought, ‘I’m not sure I want to do something about these criminals who are causing a lot of upset.’ But I realised it was an opportunity to take a story about ‘feral young scumbags’ and try to find the humanity in one such character.”

The result is Gassed Up, Amponsah’s first feature film, which is about to hit screens. It tells the story of Ash, a young man in a moped gang who uses his earnings from petty thefts to support his younger sister and addict mother. But when his crew become embroiled with an Albanian crime family, Ash struggles with the moral complexities of his actions. The film stars Stephen Odubola, Taz Skylar and British Eurovision entrant Mae Muller in her debut acting role, and won the audience award for best feature at the BFI London film festival last autumn.

“I wanted to tell the story of a young person’s descent into crime,” Amponsah says over Zoom from a hotel room in San Diego, where he is holidaying, “and how that eventually ends in some form of redemption.” I tell him it’s rare for victims of crime to empathise with their wrongdoers. He pauses, as if pondering this for the first time. He says, if anything, he learned an important lesson from his mugging, which was to be more aware of the dangers around him. His initial, angry reaction was superseded by his artistic curiosity about what drives people to behave the way they do.

“Ash is suffering from a lot of things, including youthful innocence. That’s why he is ‘gassed up’, which is slang for someone who has delusions of grandeur. I was keen that the film wouldn’t be just a thrill ride – it’s also a journey into this young man’s mind. What are his daydreams, his nightmares?”

Amponsah, 59, was born and raised in London. His father was an officer in the military in Ghana, his mother worked in banking in Britain. It was during his time at art college that he developed a love for film-making, particularly after discovering the work of Martin Scorsese. “I first watched Mean Streets when I was about 19. I’d watch it nightly, it was like a pacifier for me. That’s when I started playing around with Super 8 cameras – because Mean Streets starts off with Super 8 footage, shot around an Italian neighbourhood that Scorsese grew up in. I thought, ‘Maybe I could do something like that.’” Amponsah had talent, and a postgraduate film he made won him a scholarship to the prestigious National Film and Television School in Buckinghamshire.

He says it’s also partly down to Scorsese that he is drawn to his subjects. Like the American director, he wants to peel away people’s layers – no matter how seemingly nefarious – to find a common thread. He wants to break down perceptions about people, to identify the causes of their trauma and pain. That was the thinking behind The Hard Stop, his 2017 Bafta-nominated documentary about the riots that followed the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man, in 2011. “I don’t want to sound airy-fairy,” he says, “but I didn’t choose to make The Hard Stop, The Hard Stop chose me.”

The director was at a dinner party and got talking to a community leader from Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, London, the estate where Duggan had lived. Having witnessed parts of his city in flames, Amponsah expressed an interest in making a documentary. The woman, it transpired, knew two of Duggan’s childhood friends, Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kurtis Henville, who were keen to “show the world who Mark Duggan really was”.

The documentary, shot over three years, had intimate access to them, and railed against mainstream representations of Duggan. It also opened with a Martin Luther King quote: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Why? “We wanted to give the people who allegedly started the riot in Tottenham a voice, because these were people who – arguably – had a genuine reason for it. The history of these incidents in Broadwater Farm goes back to the riot of 1985, which resulted from the death of Cynthia Jarrett while her house was being searched by police. That riot was absolutely tragic in its effects and led to a police officer losing his life. It felt like that situation reverberated in 2011 somewhat.”

Behind every expression of anger, Amponsah says, there is always an element of fear. “That’s what I’m interested in. What’s behind the anger of the people committing those crimes? What are they afraid of? Are they afraid they are the forgotten people of society, the have-nots, or the will-never-haves? And what are the fears of the victims of these criminals?” The questions, which give an insight into Amponsah’s tirelessly enquiring approach, keep coming. “How many generations back do we have to go to find the original hurt? How much is the fault of our parents? And what kind of parenting did they themselves have to make them disappear, or become alcoholics or drug addicts?”

The pain the family is going through is palpable

Those weeks after the death of Duggan marked the worst civil unrest in recent British history. Three years later, when an inquest concluded that police acted lawfully when they shot him, Amponsah – who had attended the inquest – was shocked. “It was quite affecting. I’m just glad it didn’t result in another riot. Nobody wanted to see even more damage. But of course, it’s heartbreaking.”

He cites the case of Chris Kaba, the unarmed 24-year-old who died from a gunshot in a police operation in London in 2022 (the officer has since been charged with murder). “I’ve met his family about potentially making a documentary and it just feels like deja vu,” Amponsah says. “Once again, I’m close to a family who had this happen to them. The pain they’re going through is palpable.”

Since The Hard Stop was released, the world has witnessed the global rise of Black Lives Matter, after the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the US. In the intervening years, states, museums, companies and even football teams have attempted to reckon with their histories of racism and discrimination. Does Amponsah believe that relations between police and the black community have improved?

“I think that BLM did create awareness and spark discussion,” he says. “The widespread coverage and shocking brutality of Floyd’s murder created a moment where it seemed as if most people were at least willing to talk about why these things happen, and why they seem to disproportionately happen to people of colour. At the same time, I think that the unconsciousness in a lot of us that leads to the type of behaviour we saw from police officer Derek Chauvin still exists.”

So in essence, things have changed yet remain the same? Yes, he responds emphatically, explaining that life is one paradox after another. For example, as a black man who grew up in 1970s Britain, he recognises that the experiences of people of colour in the UK today are “significantly better” than before. “But they’re also somehow the same. I’m proud to be British, but parts of Britain’s history was the conquest and colonisation of my ancestors in west Africa.”

These days, while Amponsah remains tuned in to what’s happening, politically and in wider society, he no longer “consciously” watches the news or reads the papers. “It stresses me out,” he says. On his mind are issues that he believes everyone is probably thinking about: “Britain’s political and economic problems, the war in Gaza, the possible re-election of Donald Trump.” But while he’s been on holiday in California, he has tried to be more introspective. He’s naturally an anxious person, he tells me, and it’s not improving as he gets older.

“Personally, at this stage in my life, it behoves me to take an inward journey. Not to look outward and think, ‘This is happening here or there. What can I, George Amponsah, do to change that?’ Because actually, I’m trying to accept that there is really nothing, or very little, I can do about any of it. The only thing I can really change is what’s going on inside me, to try to find some sort of peace within myself.”

This is why he was so keen that Gassed Up should include scenes focusing on Ash’s dreams and the messages his subconscious is trying to impart. I ask him what the moral of the story is, if it even has one. “In some ways it does,” he says. “They say everyone deserves a second chance, but life is not like that. Sometimes, that youngster ends up wrapped around a lamp-post, or they go into the criminal justice system and their life is ruined. But sometimes, we are afforded a second chance. I think we can all look back at things we’ve done, especially when we’re much younger, and think, ‘I’m kind of lucky I got away with that.’ Or you look at what happened to some of your peer group and think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”

• Gassed Up is released on 9 February.