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Documentary as a genre is sometimes regarded as being made by and for do-gooders enjoying, as the Sex Pistols put it, a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. That isn’t always inaccurate. There have, of course, been exemplary films about people living in hardship, from the original poverty documentary Housing Problems (Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey, 1935) to the Why Poverty? series, an ambitious international co-production shown on the BBC in 2012. But more often than not the people making films and programmes on this subject neglect to involve anyone behind the camera who has direct experience of being poor and vulnerable.
That’s how we ended up with a show such as Channel 4’s Benefits Street, the 2014 series about Birmingham’s James Turner Street, which was accused of being “poverty porn” for focusing too heavily on the welfare dependency and criminal activities of its residents. Whatever the intentions of the programme-makers, its reception was bound to be hostile – at the time the tabloids and the coalition government were ready to pounce on any evidence of benefit cheats to justify the new welfare reform bill.
Now, belatedly, it seems the documentary industry may have had enough of the top-down view of poverty and there are moves to make films that reflect more accurately the lived experience of poverty. This is an important change for the continued credibility of documentary film-making.
At the Sheffield Doc/Fest last week, a panel organised by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a research organisation seeking to solve UK poverty, and chaired by the Guardian’s Poppy Noor, discussed a new approach to portraying penury on screen. It was a stirring experience. Leading the charge was the young film-maker Daisy-May Hudson, whose 2015 debut, Half Way, is a powerful self-made work that was nominated for best documentary at the Bifas and best cinema documentary at the Grierson awards. Hudson’s film captures her personal experience of being made homeless, along with her sister and her mother, in Epping, on the edge of London, and of navigating an uncaring bureaucratic system that could only offer them unsuitable housing. They fought back and won. Half Way is raw, intelligent, funny and superbly constructed. Best of all, it’s an authentic story of being poor made by, and about, someone working-class.
Poverty is on the rise in the UK (1.5m people were destitute last year, according to a recent Rowntree report). But too often when evidence makes it to the screen, a sense of moral judgment appears to be built into its very fabric. As Hudson observes, documentaries about working-class people are often shot and edited to look grey and lifeless. Or they will focus on a sad story of personal suffering, perhaps with a sudden happy ending after an external saviour enters the scene. There tends to be little exploration of the wider social context or coverage of individuals and communities trying to help themselves. Another panellist, the British food writer and activist Jack Monroe, who has written about her own experience of poverty, notes that it’s not surprising those on the lower rungs of society feel demoralised when they see themselves reflected on screen as either wasters or exceptional, with nothing in between.
There are signs of improvement. Paul Sng’s Dispossession, released last year, is a detailed and absorbing essay on the decline of social housing, as well as being a critique of the way other factual programmes portray poverty. Elsewhere, a new documentary by Sean McAllister, who’s been at the forefront of films about the dispossessed for 30 years, tries a different strategy. In A Northern Soul those in poverty get to speak for themselves; McAllister neither pities participants nor romanticises their achievements. Chosen as the opening film for the Sheffield Doc/Fest, A Northern Soul follows Steve, a warehouse worker with a love of hip-hop and a dream to take a musical bus around Hull’s council estates and schools. McAllister doesn’t approach the subject with an agenda – he lets his characters dictate the direction of the film. Steve is an admirable character, but the film doesn’t pretend that his drive to do good will make his or anyone else’s poverty go away.
Born and brought up in Hull and with family and friends still there, McAllister understands both how difficult it is to escape deprivation and how the city has changed. He also understands the dynamics of family solidarity and division in poor households, and much of the film is devoted to scenes of interaction across the generations, both positive and negative.
Experience and understanding are the key to authentic documentary-making of this sort. It felt like a landmark TV moment when Professor Green presented Living in Poverty, his portrayal of what life is like for young people living on the breadline today, for BBC Three last year. These shouldn’t be one-offs, however, and nor should they rely on working-class talent only being presenters rather than the programme-makers.
At a time when online platforms and streaming services have given everyone the chance to get their films seen without needing permission from broadcasters or festivals, the gatekeepers of mass audiences need to rethink what stories they choose to support and who they choose to make them. Eight years of austerity policies, rising poverty and a backlash against gentrification have created a political climate perhaps more ready to listen to less privileged voices. Otherwise, after all, we’re not getting the complete picture.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Let’s hear about poverty from the poor for a change | Documentary films