For much of the past century, class consciousness has been at the centre of Britain’s film output. Developing the style dubbed by commentators and critics as ‘British Realism’, our filmmakers seem continually preoccupied with class division and its inherent anxieties. But more than ever, realism seems to have very little to do with it, as what began with such kitchen-sink masterpieces as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has now been reduced to one-dimensional and clichéd depictions of life on ‘the other side of the tracks’  Tom Slater

This essay has stemmed from a frustration at the seemingly relentless on-screen portrayal (within independent British cinema) of Britain as the impoverished grey shithole it isn’t.

My aversion is not to films set in gritty environments or to eye-opening, thought provoking works which deal with and comment on brutal and culturally relevant themes, in other words- social realist cinema (e.g. La Haine)- it is to the trend for British film-makers to tell progressively more pornographically explicit stories of poverty and deprivation for the sole purpose of arousing an audience often fiscally and geographically detached from the circumstances and locations they depict.

Tyrannosaur tells the story of Joseph, an enraged unemployed alcoholic who, when not decapitating pitbulls, throwing bricks through windows or taking his baseball bat on excursions to the local pub finds the time to form a relationship with charity shop volunteer Hannah – herself a victim of domestic violence and marital rape. Sure, other stuff happens, and I did actually quite enjoy the film, but it left a bitter taste which has only soured with time.

It is not that I deny the potential authenticity of such circumstances – (our planet is after all more than capable of creating them) it’s just that I begin to question their credibility when they are portrayed so monopolistically as the only stories capable of emerging from working class communities (See Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, Shane Meadows’ back catalogue [as engaging and insightful as his work is, it is still overwhelmingly bleak in its portrayal of the working class] and Danny Dyer’s CV for just a few further examples). The implication that an entire section of society exists in an impoverished realm of violence and addiction is neither creatively stimulating nor socially constructive; in a post-modern, culturally diverse country is it really acceptable to confine people to such painfully stereotypical caricatures?

On the one hand – one could argue stereotypes, despite being creatively vapid outlets of generalised prejudice, are never completely unfounded. It would be wholly innaccurate to paint a utopian picture of an integrated, fully functional working class Britain where the rise of gang culture and the absence of father figures and male role models are not inextricably linked, where housing estates are bastions of social cohesion and safety, and where unemployment and welfare dependency are not the issues they are. But, conversely – is zooming in obsessively on this one section of the picture really that helpful? Does doing so actually achieve anything more than the objectification and subsequent dehumanising of the people within its frame?

Horror stories have always centered around humanity’s anxieties and fears. The object of that fear would traditionally take on the form of a monster, a physical projection of a particular societal or human insecurity (Dracula, Frankenstien etc) that would usually afford the people it was terrorising an opportunity to group together around a shared fear. At times, the monster evolves and relocates, shedding its alien skin and coming far closer to home – often resembling one of “us” (Psycho, Silence of the Lambs etc). Post war western cinema has slowly come to reflect this transition, bringing the monster nearer and nearer to every day life, effectively turning the camera on itself.

However, in portraying working class Britain in such an unswervingly bleak light, the film-makers who are doing so are inadvertently adhering to archaic and archetypal horror conventions; portraying a depersonalised, homogenised working class- its people and its locations as an exclusively dangerous, alien culture.

Films potentially intended to provide social commentary or domestic insight instead mutate into patronising, middle class tourist postcards of (not-so) foreign lands. From the perspective of entertainment and commerce this fits- it is entertaining to experience something different to our own surroundings. Entertainment equates to money, so I understand completely why this tradition is perpetuated. (Presumably this is why The Jeremy Kyle Show exists too)

But on a social level – if an audience is repeatedly told its neighbours are different, dangerous and to be feared then it follows logically that, even if initially only on a subconscious level, it will begin to distance itself from them. Conversely, if a subject (perhaps “object” would be more fitting) is only ever told it is one thing and is incapable of being anything else then those prophecies spoken over it will eventually begin to fulfil themselves (see the objectification of girls within rap culture over the last three decades). I appreciate this is an extreme extrapolation of current circumstances but what we potentially can end up with is a progressively more fragmented society consisting of individuals who think their neighbours are unapproachable, and isolated communities who think the rest of society wants nothing to do with them. Not a great prospect.

The same could be said of the application of the “chav” label to anyone seen wearing a tracksuit coming out of a tower block. A person’s fashion choices begin to define them and soon every act of anti-social behaviour ever committed by anyone similarly attired or spoken is attributed to them too. Imagine if everyone who adorned a suit and lived in Hampstead was branded an immoral banker and held responsible for the state of the global economy, people would see through the lunacy of such a generalisation straight away. Funny how it not only persists but is actually perpetuated by mainstream media in this context.

Joe Cornish’s film Attack The Block is an insightful social commentary masquerading as a sci-fi horror. In the film a group of teenagers must work together with the woman they recently mugged (alongside other community members) to protect themselves and their Brixton estate from a localised invasion of extra terrestrials.

Cornish initially presents the boys, stereotypically accurate, as an anonymous gang of hooded youths with no apparent identity of their own – yet as the film progresses and the hoods come down we begin to see credible and unique characters develop, gaining profound and subtle insights into the underlying factors that have contributed to their present states; the absence of fathers, the influence of older male gang members and the subsequent lure of drugs and easy money. At no point are these contributing factors either glamorised or didactically spoon-fed to the viewer – they are just presented- without commentary or embellishment. The aliens, themselves brilliant visual metaphors for the plethora of socio-economic/race/class issues that drive communities apart, are eventually defeated by the group coming together and working as a unit. Their sixteen year old leader- the aptly named Moses, in a final act of selflessness, brings about not just the emancipation of his people from their brief subjugation but also the freedom from the oppressors in his own life. Attack The Block points towards a colllective social exodus from the prejudiced mentalities and divisive stereotypes that enslave and in doing so paves the way for other film-makers to tackle culturally relevant issues in ways that illuminate but do not exacerbate the very things they seek to expose. 

My intention was never to write an essay on class –  but the honest truth is that film-making is still a predominantly middle class industry. Subsequently I find it of no coincidence that our films swing violently between upper class fairytales (Notting Hill, Four Weddings) and working class nightmares .. in reality – there is grime and gold in both worlds and I firmly believe that is where the stories lie.

In the significantly more eloquent words of the original Will.I.Am:

.. The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together .. 

Here’s to well told, imaginative stories, regardless of their setting.

 

 

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