Deirdre O'Neill, in the latest in the series of Culture Matters/Morning Star articles on the effects of Covid-19 on culture, sketches out the argument for developing a new, dissident approach to film-making
‘For us, film is the most important of the arts’ - Lenin in 1919
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how the absence of safety nets and the gross negligence of the Tory government has exacerbated the spread of the disease, leading to unnecessary deaths.
At the same time these conditions have called into question the legitimacy of the political and economic boundaries and definitions that are presented to us as fixed and immovable, and which keep the working class firmly in its place. The high death toll amongst working people, the people who do the jobs that keep society afloat, has made visible the class relations that are usually kept hidden.
For a very long time now working-class people have been neglected, their voices censored, and their concerns ignored. Now when they are needed, they are called ‘key workers’ and ‘heroes’ while the middle class, who ignored their increasingly desperate plight for the last forty years, wring their hands in shock at the crisis.
We have a visual media landscape dominated by people who consider the working class – if they consider them at all – as a niche market for the arthouse crowd. So, the question is this – how do we reformulate the struggle over cultural production so that it includes the working class? How do we distinguish it from the symbolic and often tokenistic performance of dissidence that take place in universities and art galleries?
We know that the dominant culture, in all its manifestations, is subservient to the needs of capitalism. As Marx and Engels pointed out, the cultural ideas in circulation at any given time serve the interests of the ruling class. But could it be possible that this crisis offers us an opportunity to develop an approach which subverts neoliberal representations of the working class?
Let’s explore the possibility of this crisis opening up a space for a dissident, oppositional film culture. This is not about seizing the opportunity to move into spaces within the existing film culture, so that we can represent the working class in a more authentic way. That simply means accessing – perhaps from a more critical perspective – the already existing modes of film production. Let’s explore how we might overturn the present mode of film production.
What we have seen over the last forty years is a continuous renewal of capitalism by the very people who claim they want to see its downfall. While they might proclaim their commitment to social justice, at the same time they clamour to be accepted by the neoliberal institutions they profess to criticise. They fail to understand the solutions they offer are themselves a product of the neoliberal order.
The film industry at the present moment is dominated by the middle classes both behind the camera and in front of it. As Christopher Eccleston says in the film The Acting Class (O’Neill and Wayne 2017) ‘it’s white; it’s male, and it’s middle-class.’ Consequently, the majority of representations of working-class life are literally filtered through the lens of a middle class who have no experience of working-class life. They have never lived on a council estate, never gone hungry, never had three jobs to survive, and never had to use a foodbank.
The majority of representations in film exist not to expose the ingrained inequalities and injustices of working-class life, but to sensationalise or obscure them, or offer them up for the voyeuristic pleasure of the middle class. For the working class, there is restricted access to careers in the film industry, because preventing full access to the forces of audio-visual production is one of the essential methods by which those with power reproduce and consolidate that power.
The internet and digital film culture has expanded the potential for a dissident film culture, and has made a limited form of exhibition and distribution easier. Platforms such as Youtube and Vimeo have made it possible for politically committed filmmakers without access to the mainstream avenues of distribution and exhibition to upload and distribute their films. But generally speaking these films are not treated seriously by the mainstream film establishment. They are ignored by those involved in mainstream film production, and are not critically discussed.
So how do we build a dissident film culture, one that makes an intervention into capitalist society, a film culture that disrupts the existing one, not fits nicely into it?
While in principle the notion of a broad base as necessary for a radical transformative politics appears to be a sensible one, I would argue that the present crisis demands a concentration on the working class and a move away from the concerns of the professional middle class. It is their class formation that dominates both the political and the cultural, and it is their interests that frame the way in which we understand society.
The key is participation in a community-based film culture with its own screening space and independent forms of distribution and exhibition. The trade unions should be working to provide training and workshops for working-class people run by working-class people. Training should be linked to a political education – it is of the utmost urgency that we create a film culture that is able to represent the working class in ways that working people can recognise and engage with.
Given the Covid-19 crisis, it will probably be a long time before we are ready to go into big crowded spaces. In the meantime we need to diversify the way we understand all aspects of film – its production, content, and viewing – and we need to make sure we don’t compromise with the dominant model, in order to get funding or good reviews. We need to address the issues important to working-class lives by responding to their immediate concerns, so we can build a vision of how a very different society might begin to emerge.
Deirdre O'Neill is a film educator and writer.