First published on Left Futures, 17th March 2013
Seeing two films dealing with exploitation in the developing world made me think of the trajectory of British documentary maker Nick Broomfield. His first film –Who Cares? – focused on the slum clearances. We never see Broomfield’s face in the feature – back then he used cinéma vérité – interspersing the comments and narratives of his subjects.
Yet since 1988, his films have taken on a contrasting form, with director as the centrepiece. As the Guardian put it, “His search for answers provides the narrative backbone to issues which may remain unresolved, usually laced with his gently sly comedy.”
Broomfield is not the only one to zoom to the ego in film. Along with Michael Moore and Louis Theroux, he has been described as part of a new school: Les Nouvels Egotistes. (It seems translating the word “egotists” into French makes it sound sophisticated rather than embarrassing.) This perhaps stems from the difficulty of investigative journalism – sooner or later, documentary makers had to ensure there time was not wasted even if they didn’t reach the bottom of the case. And if the film’s all about you, frustration can be as multi-faceted as success – if more frustrated.
All this came home to me when I spoke in a panel discussion at the London Socialist Film Co-op.
The first film under consideration was Before Dark, from India’s T.G. Ajay. It covered the plight of farmers and villagers in Chhattisgarh, who since the development of the Jindal Thermal Plant have faced intimidation and the seizure of their land. The film’s focused on the people’s self-organised resistance to this influx of big business, and its strength was in its empowerment of its working-class subjects.
The film skilfully cut between comments from different victims of the Jindal empire – men and women – who initially despaired at their helplessness. A policeman whose land had been seized resigned in disgust after his superiors refused to assist him in upholding the law – they appeared to have been bought off. A particularly powerful scene saw an array of grassroots activists, way beyond campaign leaders, take to the platform and denounce a pre-determined tribunal on the conduct of proprietor Jindal.
The community’s spirit of collective and interactive leadership was reminiscent of the best moments of the early Occupy movement. And in his early Broomfield-esque style, Ajay seemed a part of this democratisation too.
The second film, Danish director Frank Poulson’s Blood in the Mobile, revealed how minerals used by western mobile phone giants fund the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That such a film was made is a great and daring thing in itself, in exposing to a European audience their complicity in the region’s deadly and exploitative conflict.
Yet the film featured a number of aspects reminiscent of Broomfield’s early style that jarred somewhat. The style is not one I write off at all – I’ve been hugely impressed by Michael Moore’s recent work.
Yet Poulson’s Louis Theroux-style naivety that seemed tired and unconvincing. As he toured the Nokia offices – his requests to speak to top managers met with Kafkaesque refusals – he acted let-down by the company’s “corporate responsibility” agenda. But we only got so much as a ponder on whether this term is oxymoronic at the end.
We certainly felt Poulson’s struggle to find the answers. At times we were encouraged to sympathise as he was accused of white interference in African affairs – too complex an issue to dismiss in this way. This was hard to stomach when combined with such egotism.
The only struggle we saw that wasn’t Poulson’s marginalised the Congo in equal measure. The ray of hope at the film’s end lay in a nauseating US pressure group complete with white middle-class interns, and a leader who undertakes triumphant book signings. I hope that the inclusion of these scenes was a conscious effort to demonstrate how misguided international solidarity can become.
As one audience member commented after the show, “where were the Congolese?”
Mass exploitation and the silencing of those who speak out is not confined to the developing world. Just look at the recent black-listing scandal. Documentary films will continue to be a powerful tool in agitating for justice, and we must support them whenever the initiative springs up. Not all films will offer the hope of a rising insurrection. Yet I can’t help thinking that although an individual’s investigative effort can make interesting viewing, this style of film-making disempowers the collective.
Our fight against exploitation must be based on international solidarity, and not the duty of the superior. I doubt that this was Poulson’s intention, but unfortunately adopting the style of Les Nouvels Egotistes does him no favours.
The London Socialist Film Co-op hosts monthly screenings – usually followed by panel discussions – at the Renoir cinema, Brunswick Centre, London WC1. Find out more here.