Thursday, 18 July 2013

A Face in the Crowd

Anna Chen (aka Madame Miaow) has criticised Ken Loach for the absence of non-white faces in his film on the foundation of the welfare state, The Spirit of '45. I've no dispute with Anna's central claim, that "people of colour like me have been painted out of working-class history", but I was struck by her characterisation of Loach's defence of his choice of material ("That's the record of the time") as an "airy dismissal".

It should hardly need saying that an edited film is necessarily selective, but there are two levels of selection at work when you employ archive footage. There is the selection bias of the film-maker, such as Loach, who chooses images that best support and convey his argument; but there is also the bias of the original film-maker, which, in this context, might involve ignoring non-whites or focusing on them only as exotica. There is also a third level, the structural bias of film-making itself. A good example of this can be found in the Mitchell and Kenyon archive of urban scenes from the early 1900s. These films were shot to capture as many people as possible, often exiting factory gates, in order to drum up business for a showing at a subsequent fair. This approach, and the unselfconscious nature of the crowds, produced images closer to real life than would be the case with later newsreels, which is why the archive is now of such value to historians.

One striking example of this is a 45 second reel of miners leaving Pendlebury Colliery, on the outskirts of Manchester, around 1900. At 35 seconds in, a young black man can be seen joshing with a young white colleague. Neither they, nor another young white man who appears slightly ahead of them and seems to be part of the same group, look like miners knocking off from a shift (their faces are clean and they wear white shirts). They look like factory workers who've strolled into shot as part of a dare. What's noticeable is that no one seems to consider the black guy as unusual. He was presumably a familiar face in the area. This reinforces Anna's point that non-white workers were far more prevalent than most films (and many histories) imply, though it thereby also indicates the degree of selectivity at work in most films and thus the problems faced by later users of the material like Loach. Mitchell and Kenyon weren't trying to record a slice of Mancunian life, and therefore tempted to film only what matched their prejudices. They were simply letting the camera run to capture as many faces as possible.

To what degree should a film-maker adjust for prior selection bias, "to suit our present sensitivities" as Loach put it, when using archive material? In his selection of footage, Loach may well be guilty of subconscious bias, seeking out images from the 1940s when we were "at our best", and this may result in too many happy, shiny, white Labour voters. His use of rare colour stock to make the 1940s feel closer to the present, along with his use of montage (the abrupt jump from 1945 to 1979), indicate that this is a polemic, not an accurate record of the times. The Spirit of '45 is not a forensic depiction of the working class, but an attempt to poetically recapture the collectivist and generous spirit of the age, which though popular was not shared by all (David Kynaston's Austerity Britain 1945-51 is excellent on this truth). Bonnie Greer praised the film on Late Review back in March precisely for trying to recapture the feeling of the times. It might be more accurate to say that Loach's purpose is to make us identify with those who were true believers then. In that sense, the film is exemplary as well as didactic.

In recalling the spirit of 1945, Loach is attempting to provide a historical basis for the modern defence of the welfare state. The target is not merely the stealth-privatisation of the NHS, but the ideological war of attrition against collective action since the 1970s. But the slow decline of collective action is also the product of other socio-economic forces, part of which has been the increase in cultural diversity and the growth of single-issue (or commodity) politics. Anna's critique is thus of its time in the same way as Loach's film seeks to be of an earlier time.

1 comment:

  1. How much did Thatcher's "Right to Buy" policy divide the working class?

    Not just in that a worker wouldn't dare go on strike if he had a mortgage to pay, but also in that those workers who did buy their council houses looked down on those who continued to rent...