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The Rise and Rise of Political Activism in Cinema

On the day that will see many in Britain head to the polls for our General Election, Exit 6 contributor Kaylie Finn takes a look at political activism in filmmaking and the power it has to affect real-world change.


The battle of Brexit. Trump's ascension to presidency. Europe going to the polls.

The world's political earthquake has been translated into different languages, transcribed for front page news, and broadcast as audiovisual pantomime. Hero or villain, leaders have assumed their roles as celebrities, eroding the line between popular culture and political representation.

Screenland has responded with disruptive films that herald a new epoch in political cinema. The genre shrewdly portrays real events and social conditions, but more poignantly, taps into the sensibilities, objections and struggles of its audience.


At this year's BAFTA awards, veteran director Ken Loach stated: 'Films can do many things, they can entertain, terrify, they can make us laugh and tell us something about the real world we live in.'

Since its UK release in October 2016, Loach's politically-tempered I, Daniel Blake [2016] scored 12.45 million USD at the box office, and landed countless accolades including the prestigious Palme d'Or prize at Cannes Film Festival, and a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film of the Year. The art house drama chronicles the life of a 59-year-old widowed carpenter as he navigates the bureaucracy of Britain's benefit system following a heart attack.

In November 2016, the film was deployed as political ammunition during Prime Minister's Questions when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn recommended that Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May saw I, Daniel Blake, whilst he aligned the government's sanctions regime as “institutionalised barbarity against, often, very vulnerable people.”

In a turbulent period of change, the cause and effect of social realist and political cinema extends beyond the realms of entertainment. It also has many guises, which makes it difficult to concretely define. Political parallels have been drawn between J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, which is the polar opposite of documentary biography Citizenfour [2014]. What constitutes a political film, and how is it distinguishable from a film about politics? Does the former have a more valuable role to play in today's world?

Dan Pringle is a British writer and director from London. In 2009, Pringle launched multi-award winning production company White Lantern Film with producer Adam Merrifield, specialising in provocative independent feature films that say something about the world. Its repertoire includes environmental documentary Drying for Freedom [2011], and darkly comic horror K-Shop [2016] which delivers a punchy social commentary about the sordid underbelly of British nightlife.

“I think that in order to answer this question we must first define what constitutes a “political” film or at least define some common variables. For me a film isn’t overtly political if it’s messaging is hidden away in the background or rooted in peripheral themes. Some would argue recent Avengers outings provide comment on American politics and whilst they may hint or nod to topical matters, I think it’s fair to say that they are not richly thematic films with a point to make. On the other hand, a film like I, Daniel Blake is ultimately intended to highlight what the filmmaker (in this case Ken Loach) believes to be a significant social and political injustice in the British welfare system. Films such as these form an integral part of our cinema mix and provide important touch points for sparking debate and conversation.

They do however lack a degree of escapism and I think it’s important to acknowledge (however frustrating it is to us self-proclaimed auteur film makers) that this is a staple requirement for the majority of film audiences. Film is ultimately a form of entertainment and serves an equally crucial role in allowing audiences to leave the humdrum of their everyday lives and immerse themselves in worlds utterly unfamiliar. Striking a balanced position between social comment and escapist entertainment was a key objective for our Sweeney Todd adaptation K-Shop which pitches a vigilante kebab shop owner against herds of out of control binge drinkers. I feel the equally positive response from critics and audiences goes some way to suggesting that we fulfilled this aim and proves that it is possible to marry the two purposes.”

The relationship between filmmaker, film and audience is complex. It's something of an artistic paradox where the pursuit of escapism incites a closer look at reality. Yet when developing a film with real-world observations, do film-makers have a prescribed social responsibility to tackle prevalent issues and use their platform to speak on behalf of the unheard masses?

“This is an interesting question and I think the answer is ultimately 'no'. As citizens of society we all have a responsibility to each other to highlight and stand up for the injustices we perceive in the world. I think any conscious film maker has this human obligation at the very core of their process and this subsequently justifies the work regardless of its message or themes. Out of the Furnace for example is a brilliant little movie that speaks volumes about the decimation of middle American industrial communities brought on by globalization, without ever actually ‘pushing’ anything on the audience. It is built into the very aesthetic of the world of the film and it’s characters, yet the story is not constructed as to provide an explicit comment or deconstruction of this. It is a tense and captivating thriller first and foremost but it’s setting of time and place have provided a touch point in the viewers minds that may become political based on interpretation.”

Freedom of interpretation is a salient aspect of activist film. It can inspire and shape opinion without a propagandist agenda. Given global events of the past year, is there a growing appetite for experimental and authentic films?

“This is exactly what my production company White Lantern Film is developing at the moment. We believe mainstream commercial cinema for the most part has drifted to become an increasingly safe and sterile space as the world around us (our western world that is) appears to grow more volatile and polarized. As with K-Shop, I believe strongly that a balance can be struck between providing sincere comment for reflection with exhilarating escapist cinema. Our next film, set in a post-Brexit British state fifty years in the future, pits a female border cop against her own authorities after she discovers a conspiracy to experiment on captured migrants and enemies of the state. The industry response to the script has been one of shock and awe but initial audience engagement testing has confirmed that there is significant appetite for the project.”

For now, in a mid-Brexit climate, a sobering political show is unfolding as British voters cast their ballots in the UK General Election. Politics is everywhere, and we can't press pause.


If you enjoyed Kaylie's contribution to the Exit 6 blog this week - follow her on Twitter: @Kaylie_Finn

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