Six years ago, the publication of ‘The Spirit Level’ kick-started a debate about income inequality and its dire consequences across all areas and strata of Western societies, especially those of the United Kingdom and the United States. As I write, I’m reflecting on David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference, in which the Prime Minister talked about improving social mobility and tackling inequality and poverty. Whether or not Cameron is being as genuine in his ambition as Lord Ashcroft is about that pig story remains to be seen, but it shows that inequality has become a significant part of British political discourse. It was only a matter of time before the sometimes dry academic writing on the topic was transformed into something far more visual.
In 2012, Katherine Round was approached to make a film based on ‘The Spirit Level’ and, after receiving huge public support via a crowd-funder, revealed previews at last year’s Inequality Today event. The documentary- now called ‘The Divide’- has since then been premiered and played by local groups. Luckily for Birmingham, the Co-Operative Film Society- Just Film- were given the opportunity to show it in the Second City, the second most unequal city in the UK.
The bulk of ‘The Divide’ focuses on studies of a range of people living in the UK and USA, interspersed with commentary from academics and other relevant talking heads. Most of the people studied are in difficult situations: Darren, the young Scot living in Possilpark, the poorest part of Glasgow, struggling with mental health issues and trying to kick an alcohol addiction; the small business owner who forced to shut it down and work for Walmart, and now faced losing her house [more on this later]; Alden Cass, a psychiatrist to Wall Street who is as much involved in the rat race as his clients…
All the ordinary people interviewed are empathetic: some stories, though, were more affecting than others. Take Keith, the American prisoner who fell afoul of Bill Clinton’s ‘Three Strikes’ rule- he is serving a 25 year sentence for being in possession of one gram of an illegal substance. Because of his crime, he is searched from top to bottom- literally- every day. The whole experience has made him hate humanity: even behind a glass screen, his seething rage is terrifying.
Another important figure in the documentary is Leah Johnson: she is a black lady from Richmond, Virginia who seems to be always laughing, who sees the humour in her struggles to properly serve people at KFC. Underneath the laughter, though, is a sad story involving a serious health condition, fears for her community and her son’s friends, and ultimately, her struggles to get on.
In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Rochelle is a care worker on a zero-hours contract- she has to visit elderly and disabled people in their homes, and look after their needs for 30 minutes; the work is unpredictable and poorly paid; her family’s life is severely impacted as she’s unable to spend time with her two children.
We also see how a couple at the richer end of the income scale in the USA cope with life in a gated community: trite observations of such communities being situated by a golf course give way to the sad revelation that as their old friends fell out with them, their new neighbours’ children feared their peers and refused to play with them!
In between the portraits, talking heads such as Richard Wilkinson, Michael Marmot, Paul Piff and Noam Chomsky discuss the developments of the last thirty-five years. There is also insightful commentary on the rise of gated communities, the mentality of the 1% and even Max Hastings pops up to condemn his friends who believe they deserve their obscene salaries. Sir Alan Budd, an economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher, expresses his regret that his free market ideals have got so far out of control. The only commentator to come out of the documentary with their reputation taking a hit is the venture capitalist Richard Berman who at 70 has three children under 13 and is building up an African art collection: he seems to feel his boundless energy and drive entitles him to collect ever more money- but surely everyone with that enthusiasm for life should be successful? The documentary demonstrates that’s not the case. Tony Blair helps to explain why in an old clip when he laughingly dismisses imposing a maximum wage.
The documentary focuses on one particular area of contemporary public concern: housing. Although the theme concentrates on the US experience, it’s particularly relevant as couples plan ahead for the future- Alden wants a second home in Florida; a real estate agent tries to sell a $450,000 home in a gated community by showcasing the sliding drawer in the kitchen. However, we see the dark side: whereas George W. Bush rushed to bail out the banks, home owners who defaulted on their mortgage were told it was their own fault and they wouldn’t be getting any help. As people have to move out of their homes, the bankers are under the impression that they’re in the clear once again.
Whilst not a film critic by any means, I found the interviews really absorbing, and sometimes the monotony of life is depicted really well. I also really liked the blues soundtrack that dominated throughout. All-in-all, it really makes you think, and link the dots: however, the film could be far more explicit in helping you to do this- and, more crucially, inspiring you to take action to tackle the problem. As the documentary is barely 80 minutes, there surely was a lot more that could have gone into it: perhaps it was a quality over quantity decision, but there nevertheless does seem to be some filler in even such a short film.
This was Just Film’s biggest ever event, and I’d certainly say that the audience were absolutely, entirely aware and in tune with the messages of ‘The Spirit Level’. Whether a newer audience would receive ‘The Divide’ as well as those inside the Birmingham and Midlands Institute, however, is a big question which won’t be properly answered until the film receives a proper release next year: this in itself is a real shame as the documentary was originally supposed to be released before the general election. Nevertheless, this film is another asset to be deployed in the struggle to ensure that income inequality remains on the political agenda for the next five years.