Category: Politics on film

The Divide (UK 2015)

Keith

Keith

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.

GFF16 #7: Paulina (La patota, Argentina-Brazil-France 2015)

Paulina (Dolores Fonzi) as the new teacher

Paulina (Dolores Fonzi) as the new teacher

This Cannes prizewinner (FIPRESCI and Critics Week Prizes) from 2015 has attracted critical attention across the festival circuit. I would hope it would get a UK release but I’m not sure it will. It would be a shame if it didn’t get widely seen outside the festival circuit (it is being distributed in the producing countries and Spain). GFF16 featured an Argentinian cinema strand, neatly spotting the growing importance of Argentina’s output (120 features in 2015), and Paulina was one of 10 films, old and new in the strand. Paulina is also the third of the films I saw to feature a teacher/care worker facing up to difficult students/clients.

Based on a significant 1960 film, La patota (‘mob’ or ‘gang’), director Santiago Mitre and his co-writer Mariano Llinás moved the action of the story from Buenos Aires to the border region of North-Eastern Argentina where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil converge. This is an area where the forest has been cleared and re-planted with pine for lumber (see also the film Las acacias (Argentina 2011)). There is an indigenous population some of whom work in the sawmill and this community becomes the focus of the narrative.

Paulina is a highly-promising PhD law student and the film begins with a long argument she has with her father, a judge. He expects her to follow him into the judicial system but she wants to take direct action – giving up her studies and becoming a teacher of politics and civil rights in a school in the indigenous community. Dolores Fonzi as Paulina is an attractive and forceful young woman determined to do what she thinks is right. Her father and her boyfriend can’t dissuade her and she goes ahead. Paulina’s home region isn’t clear but she seems to come from somewhere not that far away from where she goes to teach.

Paulina makes all the mistakes of the untrained teacher, failing to get to know her students before she starts on quite complex classroom discussions/activities. Disaster is signalled very early on and after a night of drinking with another teacher who is trying to help her, Paulina is attacked on her way home by four young men and raped by one of them. The director uses flashbacks to give a different perspective on some of these events. The important outcome of the rape is that Paulina decides not to seek to prosecute the men and also to return to her teaching job when she leaves hospital. She didn’t see her attackers but knows that they are connected to her students in some way. Later she finds she is pregnant. The narrative’s main concern is to locate Paulina’s political views which compel her to do what she feels is best for the indigenous people of the community, including her students. In doing this she will have to fight her father, who claims himself to be progressive and leftist but believes she is making the wrong decisions.

Reviewing the film after its Cannes screening, Variety‘s Ben Kenigsberg suggests that Paulina’s decision turns the film into a “pointed intellectual exercise” and a flawed filmic narrative. He suggests that most audiences will side with the father. This is indeed a pointed political rather than intellectual exercise, made stronger by the flaws in Paulina’s original approach (she is both naïve and arrogant in her liberal ‘mission’) and her father’s seemingly logical argument. However, he oversteps the mark and some audiences will recognise that Paulina is correct in that the authorities will mistreat any suspects that she identifies. But what about Paulina’s emotional state? For the narrative to have any credibility (and therefore to carry through a political discourse) requires that Dolores Fonzi performs to a very high standard – and I think she does. And the film deserves its chance to convince us.

Trumbo and a critic!

Trumbo-poster-2015

If there is one thing that depresses me as much as some of the programming by exhibitors it is some of the published criticisms of the films themselves. Trumbo (USA 2015) is essentially a biopic of one of the Hollywood Ten, the victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress, the heads of the major Hollywood Studios, cranky right-wingers who presumably would now be members of the Tea Party, and quite a few members of the film industry who owed their careers and their profits to this group, predominately writers of scripts.

The Guardian review (05-02-16), by Peter Bradshaw, opens on this

“heartfelt, stolid picture about an important period in American history”

and adds this peculiar comment,

“the petty Maoism of 1950s Hollywood…”

In fact, the target of this hysteria was the Communist Party USA who, by the late 1940s, were not even Leninist, let alone Maoist. Presumably Bradshaw or his editor thought the epithet would make a change from their regular target, Uncle Joe.

At least there is a greater sense of history and politics in the interview of the star Bryan Cranston by John Patterson. They do add the point made in the end titles of the film, that the victims of this witch-hunt came from all professions and all walks of life. I was a little surprised to find out recently that our own Richard Attenborough was honoured by inclusion in what was known as ‘the blacklist’. The latter term is slightly unfortunate given this is the period of a rising Civil Rights movement.

To be honest the production team, and certainly quite a few of the critics, should read the excellent

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the Film Community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press 1979.

I also recommend it to our readers interested in the topic or indeed who just see the film.

Whatever its limitations Trumbo is a worthy addition to the films dealing with what became popularly known as ‘McCarthyism’. Intriguingly it offers a rather different slant on Woody Allen’s The Front (1976). And for a parallel story watch, [if you can], BBC Screen 2’s Fellow Traveller (1991).

Jim Allen at HOME

The police arrive in a Durham pit village to arbitrarily arrest striking miners under Emergency Powers legislation in 1921. A shot from DAYS of HOPE Part 2.

The police arrive in a Durham pit village to arbitrarily arrest striking miners under Emergency Powers legislation in 1921. A shot from DAYS of HOPE Part 2.

HOME in Manchester has more events, seasons, special screenings and guests than most other cinemas in the UK. Last night a major retrospective of the work of Jim Allen (1926-1999), Manchester’s own brilliant screenwriter, began with one of his most important TV works Spongers (1978), produced by Tony Garnett (who I think attended the screening). Jim Allen was a committed socialist and he is probably best known for his work with Ken Loach and Tony Garnett. Tonight there is a double bill of two of the most hard-hitting TV plays he wrote: The Lump (1967) set in the building industry was produced by Garnett and directed by Jack Gold and The Big Flame (1969) again produced by Garnett was directed by Loach. The season, curated by Andy Willis, runs until the end of January and the remaining titles are listed on the HOME website.

The season has been structured so that the TV plays tend to come first and the films later. Jim Allen wrote seven film scripts for Loach, three for the cinema and four for television. All are showing in the HOME season. Raining Stones (1993) is on Wednesday 20th January, Hidden Agenda (1990) on Saturday 23rd and Land and Freedom (1995) on Sunday 24th. Most screenings start around 17.00 or 18.00 but the Sunday screening of Land and Freedom is at 13.00 so people outside Manchester can get over for the weekend for a double bill. For me, the most exciting part of the season is the final weekend when all four films making up Days of Hope (1975) are shown over Saturday 30th (parts 1 and 2) and Sunday 31st (parts 3 and 4) starting at 12.50 on both days. Days of Hope caused a furore when first broadcast on BBC1 and abroad the films were screened in cinemas. Although shot on 16mm these films look best on a big screen and they tell the tale of a working-class farming family from North Yorkshire and how the younger members fare over the period from 1916 to 1926 when, as Allen and Loach see it, the miners are betrayed by Trade Union leaders and the right-wingers in the Labour Party. A commentary on the politics of the 1970s as well as the 1980s and 1990s, Days of Hope seems just as relevant today (and that is indeed the sub-title of the retrospective). If you agree, a weekend in Manchester beckons!