Henry Blake, County Lines: You’re going to have two safe words

“I said one thing to [the cast]. For 21 days, you’re going to have two safe words. And those safe words are ‘action’ and ‘cut’. I’m going to push you. You’re going to be uncomfortable. It’s not going to feel wonderful all the time. But you are going to have safe words that are going to let you know that whatever you are doing can come to an end.

“Children who have been really exploited in this don’t have safe words. They don’t have ‘action’ and ‘cut’. So, for them, it doesn’t come to an end.”

In December, New Zealand born writer and director Henry Blake releases his debut feature film, County Lines, based on his 11-year experience as a youth worker. The idea for the film came to fruition in 2015, after a 15-year-old boy he was working with went missing. He was trafficked to Aberdeen from East London and came back three weeks later having had his throat slashed. Fortunately, he survived.

CREDIT: BFI

Inspired by true events, County Lines is about a young mother called Toni (Ashley Madekwe) and her 14-year-old son Tyler (Conrad Khan) who is groomed into county lines, the nationwide networks that exploit vulnerable children into trafficking drugs from urban to rural areas.

Despite Tyler’s horrific journey in the film from a quiet, bullied boy who gets in a few fights to a beaten-up drug runner with two stab wounds in his buttocks, Blake knows that this film won’t solve anything. He wants to pose to us the same uncomfortable questions that have consumed his mind in the five years since meeting that boy from East London.

“I want [the audience] to feel like the world that they’ve just seen is one turn of a corner away in theirs. I want them to feel like they’ve had a couple of layers of their eyes peeled off. I want them to feel raw and I want them to feel a sentiment of ‘welcome to my world… [a world that is] right under your nose.’”

CREDIT: BFI

And that he indeed does. 90 minutes of harsh lighting, with just as harsh realities thrown in your face, will leave you sitting there for a few minutes to absorb what you’ve just seen.

Blake is a man with a big smile and a friendly talk-to-me-about-anything attitude. Just from looking at him, you would be shocked to find out County Lines came from his mind. But perhaps that’s why he could be a youth worker for so long – his open atmosphere makes you want to spill your guts five minutes after meeting him.

County Lines is very personal to Blake, almost like a diary – although we shouldn’t read anyone’s diary, he tells me, laughing.

“Should you ever read someone’s diary – which you shouldn’t – but should you, you often get the good, the bad and the ugly. You get a perspective of that person which maybe you didn’t know before. And I feel like this film for me is a diary entry where I’m letting you in on something that I’ve dealt with and seen,” he says.

Blake’s eyes seem to sparkle while talking about the dark and dangerous films that inspired him (Come and see by Elem Klimov and Loveless by Andrey Zvyagintsev), films that mesh with real-life experiences to bring dark topics to life and challenged him to do the same.

“You need to get the black and the white and muddy them together,” Blake says, which is true in not only his film-making, but his youth work too. Children are not good or bad, and neither are their parents.

“Parents are in a very tough position. What do you do if you don’t know where your child is or they suddenly become physically and emotionally and psychologically abusive? And what happens in a household when that occurs?

CREDIT: BFI

In his next project, Blake says there will be less of a direct influence from his life – but he’s keeping a tight lid on it.

“It’s a ghost story,” he says smiling giddily. “It’s a modern, contemporary, indie ghost story… that’s all I’m gonna say.”

But there is one thing Blake does want to say.

“Go and watch County Lines. Fucking get out there and go and watch it. Be safe and be responsible but watch it, watch the damn thing.”

County Lines is released in cinemas and digitally on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema on 4 December.