This documentary was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House and followed by a Q&A with the director, Katherine Round. The film is ‘inspired’ by the best-selling The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009). There was an audience of around 200 for the event. This is probably partly due to the topicality of the central issue in the film: inequality. But also Katherine Round studied at Leeds University.
This is a powerful documentary with telling effects and arguments. But I felt that it also had severe limitations. To start with the virtues. The core of the film is the presentation of the part-stories and situations of seven people living in either the USA or UK.
Alden, a New York psychologist whose clients include Wall Street Bankers. He is affluent but works long hours and so has a diminished family life.
Leah is an Afro-American single mother in Virginia and she works in a Kentucky Fried Chicken diner.
Jen and her husband live in a gated’ community. They seem less affluent than their neighbours and appear isolated. Their income is unclear.
Janet and her husband ran a video store which failed. She now works for Al-Mart in Louisiana.
Rochelle is a care worker in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Her pay is low and her hours demanding. She has difficulty feeding and clothing her children.
Darren lives on an estate in Glasgow where poverty and unemployment are endemic. He has problems with addictions.
Keith is in a California Penitentiary. he fell foul of the ‘three strikes’ rule.
We meet and hear the seven several times and learn something of their situation and their lives. We also occasionally hear the interviewer Katherine Round. Alden and Jen seem somewhat dissatisfied with their lives. Leah is more buoyant about life and Janet is active in the union. Rochelle is hard-pressed to cope. Darren’s life is very problematic but he has some hopes. Whilst Keith, after seventeen years in jail, is extremely oppressed.
The interviews and film of these subjects is intercut with comments by professionals and academics. Among these we see and hear well-known names such as the author Richard Wilkinson, Noam Chomsky and Ha-Joon Chang. There are clips of political leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and [briefly] Tony Blair at his most fatuous.
These are accompanied by archive films and television footage. They come from key years between 1979 (UK) and 1981 (USA) and the present. This is part of an argument regarding changes in the way these modern capitalist societies are organised, in particular the growing disparity between the bulk of the population and an extremely rich élite. The now familiar argument is made about how the élite, through their influence on political power, are able to not only defend but to aggrandise their share of the national cake.
The film is well shot by cinematographer Woody James. there are some excellent framing of subjects, especially Keith in the penitentiary. The editing by John Mister is extremely effective as it crosses time, the USA and the Atlantic. And the team of sound recordists have blended a variety of voices, noises and effects to good purpose, with much of the accompanying music offering a blues tone.
There were however for me serious limitation in this film. Katherine Round has worked on many documentaries for Television and I found the films’ form somewhat conventional. The film of and interviews with the subjects work very well, though the subjects do not get an equal amount of time. And the commentative voices do seem a little like ‘talking heads’. Noam Chomsky, for example, appears a couple of times with only one or two sentences: and he is not known for his brevity. Some of the illustrative material, like the adverts, feel like the visual spots in the news, filling space rather than informing. And the identification of voices or footage is not consistent. I thought that some film of the subjects could have been older footage, but this was not clear.
In terms of the inspiration by The Spirit Level, the film does not follow the book, which was very much a presentation of research. This is a more poetic vision. However, I think this approach does not present all of the book’s view. In the Q&A one audience member remarked on the absence from the film of the ‘top one percent’. Round suggested that all of the subjects were in some sense disadvantaged and therefore dissatisfied. I thought that was in the film but the sense of the oppressiveness of lives for the most exploited was much clearer. And the idea behind this ignores the way that economic impacts are more fundamental than psychological ones.
Part of the problem is that the film does not have a clear sense of class. There is a lack of economic data on the subjects. We learn that Alden gets 1500 dollars for treating clients, but we do not learn about the income of the others. In Jen’s case it is not clear where her family income comes from. Rochelle confesses to having to buy food and clothes on her credit card as she waits for payday. Leah and Janet have their own houses apparently, whilst Rochelle and Darren appear to live in council hosing. But otherwise we are left in the dark.
In fact the film spends more time on housing than income or wealth. There is more material on ‘gated communities’ than other aspects. This seems to relate to the role of ‘sub-prime mortgages’ in the 2008 crash. The analysis in the film is limited in other ways. The main argument concerns changes in the advanced capitalist economies since the 1980s. An argument that has moved centre stage since the 2008 crash. But there appears to be an unexpressed acceptance of the capitalist mode of production. A venture capitalist defends his ‘wealth making’ without challenge. Several speakers talk of how things have ‘got out of hand’. And a couple, including Chomsky, refer to the ‘unregulated market’ and that we no longer all ‘play by the same set of rules’. The anarchy of the market is at the centre of capitalism but the fundamental aspect of this mode of production is the commodity and the way that the value created in it by labour power is expropriated by the capitalist class. On the platform with Katherine Round was an equality campaigner [whose name I did not catch]. He referred to the minimum wage: a valid defensive tactic but not one that changes the fundamentals. There was no sense of the arguments by Marx and Engels that the basic mechanism of this society leads to expropriation and so inequality.
Moreover the historical view in the film is extremely limited. So it fails to draw any parallels with the 1929 crash and The Great Depression. One could tell seven stories from the 1930s that parallel those in The Divide and here we are again. [CBS documentary Meltdown: The Global Financial Collapse series draws the comparison]. And the realisation that it is a fundamental issue predates Marx and Engels. A hundred years earlier Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract, or Of the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique; 1762) that what was required was that
“no citizen is rich enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.”
Even so the film is worth seeing, because there is not that much critical material around. It screens again at the Hyde Park on April 27th and it will screen at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum on May 31st.