DocFest 2021: RIP SENI
Mark Perkins reviews RIP SENI, a film by Daisy Ifama and Lizzie Reid
The plight of people with mental health issues has become a huge topic recently, and this story of the death of a mentally ill patient, in hospital, will shock and horrify anyone who sees it. Perhaps the most upsetting aspect of it, is that the tragic events it describes, even though they occured over 10 years ago, could just as easily happen today.
In 2017, at the long delayed inquest into the death of Seni Lewis, the jury found, after 29 days of evidence, that he had been killed using ‘excessive, unreasonable and unnecessary force’. Held face down by 11 police officers, in prolonged restraint, using handcuffs and leg braces, he died. No one involved has ever been prosecuted or disciplined.
Seni knew he wasn’t well, and had voluntarily admitted himself to hospital, as he did not know where else to turn. His family fought for years to find out what had happened. How a bright masters graduate, who was planning to study for a PHd in the USA, had been so badly let down. The system that should have helped him, killed him. Perhaps the most moving part of the film is when his mother says, “We brought Seni to a place of safety. We thought he’d be looked after, but he was killed”
The film itself would not exist, without an act of vandalism. In 2020, a piece of public art, at Bethlem Royal Psychiatric Hospital, in South London, the very hospital where Seni died, was sprayed with the words RIP SENI. Clearly, someone didn’t want his death to be forgotten.
The artist behind the original installation had intended the work to lead people to question our treatment of mental health patients and illness, but at that time, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter concerns, it drew attention to the number of people who die in ‘state custody’, how around half of them have mental health issues, and that a disproportionate number of them, like Seni, are black.
At a discussion forum, in the latter part of the film, we meet other mothers and sisters of people who have died in similar circumstances, which is as moving as it is shocking, because of the worrying similarities of their stories. Young men of colour, with mental health issues, come into contact with the police, and end up dead. Families traumatised by such events, often become campaigners to stop these incidents happening to others. In 2018, the Mental Health Use Of Force Act, was passed after campaigning and lobbying by Seni’s family and others. Some have dubbed it Seni’s Law, but it doesn’t cover police action, so the struggle to educate and prevent similar tragedies continues.
I had a quick chat with the director and the creative behind the film, Daisy Ifama and Lizzie Reid, just before it’s world premiere at Docfest,
“It all really came together in about September 2020. It had been a really intense summer, with the Black Lives Matter protests. The graffiti had appeared in June, and it seemed the time was right for a discussion about the context of the incident, mental health and racism in the UK”
“Marcia Rigg, whose brother Sean Rigg died in 2008, is a key figure in the campaign. When she hears that somebody else has died at the hands of the police, she finds them, and puts them in touch with support groups, and with each other. It’s so scary when you meet these families, who havent had any justice. Some go back just a few years, but some are still grieving from the 70s.”
“We hope the film will spark a discussion, and perhaps inspire people to do some research on the boys that have passed, and on the women in the film. Passing the law was one thing, but implementing it is something else entirely. It’s impact hasn’t really been felt yet, and this has been made harder by the pandemic. This film will be used as part of the ongoing training about Seni’s Law. It needs to be fully implemented across England and Wales, and beyond that, to even train people abroad.”