Secret City (UK 2012)


This is a low-budget documentary screened in the Cinema Versa section of the Leeds International Film Festival. It was written by Lee Salter and directed by Michael Chanan, the latter joining the screening to introduce the film and answer questions afterwards.

The ‘secret city’ of the title is the City of London Corporation. As noted in the Catalogue the film “exposes the inner workings of London’s financial heart, how it resists democratisation and has worked to become the predominant forces in global capitalism.” However, I found the film rather disappointing because the exposure operates at a descriptive rather than an analytical level. The City of London, after centuries of undisturbed power, has more recently been subjected to attention by journalists and in other films. I think something with greater depth is now called for.

The film‘s presentation is interesting. There are a number of interviews with a varied selection of people, predominantly experts of some sort. For much of the film these are constructed around a history of the City of London. This in itself is revealing both in terms of the privileges acquired by the City and with regard to the ability of this powerful institution to avoid public scrutiny or accountability. There are also some well-chosen archive films, nearly all of which h are presented with proper respect for their ratios. And there are some rather nice touches with on-screen graphics and manipulated film material.

When we came to the Q&A the first point raised was the poor ratio of women and black people among the ‘experts’. Someone else added trade unionism and working class people. Michael Chanan responded that this was not something on which they had taken a decision; rather it came out of their approach. He amplified this by explaining that they had not worked to an actual script, the credit presumably refers to the final structure and occasional onscreen commentary. Their approach was to conduct the interviews and then start editing these and seeking out appropriate archive material. I did suggest to Michael Chanan that maybe this was something that required a conscious decision.

When you look at the list of interviews they include a member of the house of lords, a member of parliament, two vicars, several activists involved in the Occupy event in the City, and four professors [including two of the three women]. There were a number of other people interviewed including a businessman in the City who was blackballed after winning an election, [presumably one of the ‘good guys’]. The general tone is one of slightly left labour. Capitalism is a term that turns up frequently, but it is never cleanly defined. Socialism is also mentioned frequently, but in the UK ‘socialism’ is used fairly simplistically. Then we also get Finance Capital, but its functions and operations are not defined either. Karl Marx receives only one mention, by one of the Vicars, who seemed to think we had a ‘new form of capitalism’ for which Marx’s analysis did not apply. He obviously had not actually read Capital, the best analysis for understanding the current ongoing crisis.

The word ‘reform’ also cropped up a number of times. At least two people suggested that if the City was made account able or democratic the crisis could be surmounted. As Marx argues crises are endemic to capitalism. And the particular severe crisis of 2008, whilst certain financial actions exaggerated the impact, was closely related to the declining rate of profit in contemporary capitalism.

I also found the form of the documentary disappointing. Michael Chanan has written compellingly of the radical Cuban cinema that followed the revolution. This includes the great documentary and newsreel filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. Alvarez used a particular variant of montage to produce films that managed to both dramatise and analyse the politics of resistance, mainly to US Imperialism. But Secret City is fairly conventional with a blend of talking heads, archive footage and actual location filming. Something more radical would have suited the subject matter.

Even so this is worth seeing as it does offer an informative view on an important and under reported power base of the bourgeoisie. As Chanan noted, it is a ‘zero budget’ film. This, unfortunately, means that it will probably get limited circulation? Even its restrained criticism is likely to be a little too much for the dominant media institutions.



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