As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why film matters, by Deirdre O'Neill.
Why Film Matters
by Deirdre O'Neill
Action films, horror films, romantic comedies, science fiction, documentaries – film plays a big part of our lives. Film matters, not only because it was the most popular cultural art form of the 20th century, but because film connects to so many areas of our lives in so many different ways. Not only in the way we visualise our lives, but the ways in which we understand and communicate them.
One of the wonderful things about film is that it’s a universal language, one that we can all understand. Our relationship with film is one that engages with our sense of who we are and who we might become. Film speaks to us of our dreams and our desires, making us think about who we are, who we don’t want to be and crucially who we might become.
It does this by communicating images and ideas that represent the ‘real world’. We learn about places we have never been to and people we have never met so it’s really important that we understand and engage with what kind of world it is that the films we watch are representing.
Even though Marx and Engels never watched films, they did point out something that is as relevant today as it was when they were writing: the leading or dominant ideas in circulation in society tend to reinforce the power of the ruling class. It follows that the ideas embedded within most of the films we watch serve the interest of the rich and powerful.
They might not do this overtly – rather they do it in subtle ways which, unless we know what to watch for we just take for granted. So….
- women are often represented as dependent on men;
- thirty five year old women are considered too old to play the partners of men in their 50s or even their 60s;
- white men have the most heroic positions
- middle-class people are smart, intelligent funny and interesting
- working-class people are lazy and not very bright
- the major institutions of law and order and the police will punish the bad guys in the end
- the military are doing a tough but necessary job abroad
- the terrorists tend to be from outside the West
…..and so on. We need to develop an independent and class-specific critical engagement with film in order to develop the tools necessary to identify, through a process of discussion, debate, and critical engagement how cultural artifacts such as film reproduce and legitimise these existing structures of oppression and exploitation. It is crucially important that we are able to critically interrogate dominant images and the ideological concepts embedded in them that often go unchallenged.
Most films at the moment are made by the middle classes. They have most of the jobs behind the camera as directors, producers, editors and technicians, and in front of it as actors. So working-class people very rarely get a look in. This means when working-class life is represented on film it is filtered, literally, 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 viewpoints of the middle class and the way in which they think about the working class are therefore embedded in the films they make.
It is difficult for working-class people to get a job in the film industry and it’s not just because we can’t afford to do unpaid internships or that we are not part of the privately educated Oxbridge network that employ each other. It’s also because making sure we don’t tell our own stories is one of the ways that those with both cultural and economic power reproduce, consolidate and hang onto that power.
So, the question is, how do we change this? How do we make sure that we get to tell our own stories? Stories that connect to our experience of work and relationships around our work. Stories which are about our own culture, explore our memories, analyse and develop our politics – where we can collect all the experiences that come together and make us working-class. Just think of the stories we could tell, if given the chance.
Neoliberal capitalism and austerity has led to ever increasing hardship and deprivation for working-class people and the pandemic will be used to increase these levels of deprivation and to curb our freedoms. We need to organise, to fight and to resist – and film can document these struggles and visualise our alternatives.
The other question then is how do we achieve this, and how do we go about making our own films? The answer is participation in a democratic community-based film culture with its own screening spaces and independent forms of distribution and exhibition.
Trade unions and the labour movement generally should be working to provide training and workshops for working-class people, run by working-class people in filmmaking, scriptwriting, acting, and film criticism, so that we can create a working-class film culture that is able to represent us in ways that we can recognise and engage with.
We need to self-organise and we need to make sure we don’t compromise with the dominant model in order to get funding or good reviews.
Filmmaking, like the struggle for a different world, is a collective endeavour. It’s a way of working together to explore and analyse our struggles, our beliefs, our ideas. As a cultural practice film is able to address the issues important to working-class lives by responding to their immediate concerns, building a vision of how a very different society might begin to emerge.
Working-class values, attitudes and experiences are different from those of other classes. Working-class people think differently, have different priorities and share experiences that separate them from the middle and upper classes. It is working-class people who have the unique ability and the undeniable right to create their own narratives, tell their own stories and to represent themselves.
That’s why film matters – because it will allow us to do that.