Mario and Nini [2009]

Directed by Chloe Ruthven

From the Guardian, 25th August 2009:

“In 2003, Chloe Ruthven got a job at a London primary school, giving extra help to kids who were falling behind and becoming disruptive as a consequence. Two of them, nine-year-olds Mario and Nini, were so consistently disruptive that Ruthven began teaching them in a separate room for short periods. Eventually she brought in a video camera as a teaching aid, to encourage the boys to express themselves. She interviewed them, and they interviewed her.

This footage formed the basis for the excellent documentary Mario and Nini: A Childhood (Sky1), which followed the pair out of primary school and into adolescence, into a world dominated by gangs, drugs and crime. Ruthven filmed them with their friends and in their homes. It soon became clear that the time the boys spent with her was the only mitigating factor in their otherwise stunted expectations; it was also pretty obvious that this might not be enough.

“Can’t read, can’t write, that’s it,” is the nine-year-old Mario’s blunt self-assessment.

“Are we the dumbest of the class?” asks Nini.

This would have been deeply depressing if it weren’t for Mario and Nini themselves, who are both charming and open: mostly honest when talking about their feelings and fairly transparent when they’re lying. Everything they are thinking is etched on their faces.

Later on, of course, they develop gangsterish mannerisms and start swearing a lot. But even at 13 they retain much of their vulnerability, at least in the company of Ruthven. When inter-viewing each other about their lives, they show themselves to be worldly and naive at once. “I’m not gonna be a proper gangster, killing people and stuff,” says Nini. “But I’ll be having my own car, all customised and stuff.” Occasionally you get a glimpse of just how close these boys are to sliding into criminality. At one point Nini mentions that his friends have gone off on a robbing spree. “I was gonna go with them,” he says, “but then I went to get my hair cut.” The bit where they go camping, and instantly revert to being boys again, is particularly heartbreaking.

Through all the filming, Ruthven hoped to get the boys to make more considered choices in life, but the viewer is left with the feeling that without her they wouldn’t have had any choices at all. From their point of view, the idea of joining a gang, carrying a knife and committing increasingly serious crimes seems like a logical progression. That the future facing two fairly average British nine-year-olds could be so unpromising is scandalous. That someone paying them a bit of attention between the ages of nine and 13 might make all the difference is correspondingly heartening. According to a postscript, Mario hopes to join the Paras, and Nini wants to be a commando.” – Tim Dowling