When it comes to bringing about change, I think we see things working best when multiple elements are at play. Public policy, consumer choice, collective action… they all matter, and can work together in conjunction to move us towards progress. One thing I don’t think we consider as much, is storytelling.
As an artist long before I was a blogger, I’m always thinking about storytelling. There are so many varied stories to share, and myriad ways to do so. For this reason, alongside the art world, in recent years I have loved engaging with and thinking about contemporary media. I love talking about it in relation to culture, representation and connection. I’m fascinated with really good stories from diverse sources, told really well, and the power they hold to encourage empathy and understanding between people. I regularly scream ‘we’re in the golden age of television!’ when shows like the OA, Stranger Things, and Maniac (which I’m anticipating to be good, here’s hoping I’m right!) come through Netflix. Or diverse casts grace the best comedies like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, Jane The Virgin and The Good Place. Or Brooklyn 99 gets saved from the brink of sitcom death through a combination of fan devotion and networks realising the important work that show does beyond its humour. I believe good media is an incredible form of art that can both shape society and give us some respite from it too, allowing us to think there may be some hope out there (looking at you, Queer Eye).
That being said, I also think there aren’t many pieces of media out there that accurately and humanely show the harsher reality of some facets of our current world, such as poverty. When we see non-western poverty depicted on screen we often see stories of the white heroes, who just happen to be there, instead. I have no doubt that stories like these hold great potential to further perpetuate white saviour narratives, misrepresentation of people of colour and further encouragement of voluntourism, which definitely isn’t great. But even domestic poverty, which is rife in the west, is rarely well portrayed on the screen, or if it is it misrepresents the real people experiencing it. So often media can portray the poor as lazy, entitled or criminal individuals who exploit the system or choose to be poor, or as people who aren’t categorically poor, but are simply struggling at the moment.
We have demonised poverty so much in our media, then even those who are poor have a distaste for it. Obviously no one should like poverty, we should all want to dismantle the toxic systems that keep it in place, but the issue with seeing poverty as a temporary situation anyone can get out of through hard work and the right state of mind means that we don’t place the blame where it actually should be. Instead of critically looking at the structures our society is built around, or the masses of privilege at play, we look down on poor people, not recognising that it’s way more complicated than a simple change in work ethic.
With that being said, there are two exceptional pieces of media that I watched in the last twelve months which I believe dispel these ideas. Media that shows how easy it is for a situation to spiral out of control, how red tape and arbitrary rules cost lives, how desperate people are often no different from the rest of us, and how poverty is a truly complex thing.
‘Poverty and, by extension, the benefits system, together work to instil shame and isolation in those subjected to such miseries. Political and media narratives reinforce the idea of people in need as architects of their own misfortune and to blame for the fact that they’ve fallen through the cracks. But there simply aren’t enough houses and jobs available to end homelessness and reach full employment overnight. Rather than admit this, and work to ensure that there is a safety net for people who are sick, homeless and unemployed, lives are instead treated as a problem on a balance sheet.’ (source)
The first film – I, Daniel Blake – took me a while to finally watch, because it hits particularly close to home for me. The film is set in my hometown of Newcastle, and most of the locations I know very well. In fact, the job centre where Daniel has to sign on for jobseeker’s allowance is the same one I had to pass on my walk to college every day for two years. I’ve seen people go in and out of that building for years, some of them undoubtedly in very similar situations to those depicted in the film.
The story, created by frequent collaborators Paul Laverty and Ken Loach, follows Daniel Blake, a 61 year old joiner and widower living in Newcastle who suffers from a heart attack. He is told by his doctors that he can’t return to work at the risk of getting seriously ill again, but is rejected for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and deemed fit for work. Due to the arbitrary protocols of the system he instead has to turn to jobseekers support to survive; proving that he is actively seeking work but never actually able to take a job. At the same time he befriends Katie; a single mother of two who is evicted after complaining about the mould in her flat, and spends a year in a hostel in London before being removed from her entire family and relocated to Newcastle. In one of many pointlessly cruel acts of the film she is sanctioned for turning up late to a benefits appointment after getting lost en route, due to being in a completely unfamiliar city alone.
Throughout the film we see the harsh realities of attempting to survive amongst the UK benefits system, as characters have to turn to selling all their possessions, skipping meals, visiting food banks, going without heating, and shoplifting because they can’t afford period products. Whilst they can make for upsetting viewing the film was thoroughly researched, and the events shown aren’t exaggerations of the lived experiences of countless people across the country. In 2015/16, over 1.1 million three-day emergency food supplies were provided to people in crisis by Trussell Trust banks, which directly correlates to the use of arbitrary and ridiculous sanctions in the benefits system, whilst one third of universal credit claimants are hit by further deductions (nearly 40% of them are already in paid work too). Beyond this thousands of people have died soon after being declared fit for work, homelessness in the UK has risen 169% since 2010 (although it’s likely that this figure is a huge underestimate) and even those with steady jobs struggle, as nearly 10,000 police officers have taken second jobs.
‘I watched this film with a friend, who works in the housing benefit department of a London council, and he remarked that he’d seen it all before…
People who disregard Loach’s film as unrealistic proselytising might do well to spend some time actually asking the people affected about their experiences of the labyrinthine housing and benefits system. But more than that, they should consider why they’re so threatened by the stories presented in I, Daniel Blake. The characters are people who are rarely represented in the media and often scapegoated and dehumanised.’ (source)
It’s upsetting, it’s frustrating, it’s rage inducing. But this is why films like these need to be made and stories like these need to be told. It’s one thing to read the figures, it’s another to see someone’s story played out in front of you and understand the reality of how normal these people are. How it could easily be you or someone you know. It’s these kinds of stories that influence how we vote, how we are as activists, and who we really need to fight for.
‘Oscar voters don’t historically like to look at women who are poor, especially when they’re asked to stare at their poverty straight on.’ (source)
The second movie I watched recently is The Florida Project, a film that gave Willem Dafoe an Oscar for best supporting actor, but which I believe deserved much more recognition from the Academy (seriously, how did it not get nommed for best picture?). The film tells the story of single mother Halley and her daughter Moonee, who live in a motel right by Disneyland alongside many other ‘hidden homeless’ (people who can’t afford permanent housing so resort to measures such couch surfing or living in other temporary alternatives like motels, so technically don’t count as homeless), as well as Bobby Hicks, the kind building manager who tries his best to care for his struggling tenants.
The story is beautifully directed through a child’s eyes; full of colour, curiosity, and mischief whilst the shadow of poverty, prostitution and homelessness constantly looms on the periphery of the screen. We see poverty as a child born into it experiences it. Not in an academic way, but in a life lived out within the only context it knows. It doesn’t vilify Halley for ending up as a sex worker, or trying to hustle and sell perfume on the street, instead it hints at the choices and the background that have led her there. It shows how she both really does want to care for her daughter, and that she doesn’t exactly know how. It demonstrates the complexity of the situation, and the fact that this all takes place in the shadow of the huge emblem of American-Dream-Capitalism, Disneyland, is a fact not lost on its audience. We see these characters literally existing on the margins; almost close enough to be inside the Magic Kingdom, but held far enough away that all they can do is flip off the helicopters flying tourists overhead each day.
It’s a film that portrays its subjects in 3-d, both looking at them with empathy whilst also remaining realistic to the situations they’re in and the (sometimes self destructive) people that they are. Bobby is not some untouchable, saint-like saviour, but merely a well-meaning person trying to do the best with what he has, whilst Halley is neither a lazy poor person nor simply a silently suffering victim of injustice. The situation is complicated, but we can see that it is a product of a variety of systems that have led her to the place she is in now:
‘Halley is both a victim of “the system” and an active participant in it. Moonee is a spectacularly charismatic young rascal, as well as a destructively obnoxious one. Their lives are shaped by joy and by trauma; everyone is to blame for their plight, and no one is.’ (source)
Ben Carson (United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) once described poverty as a state of mind, which is far too simplistic a stance to take when it comes to something like this. Whilst he speaks from his own experience, it cannot speak for all experiences. With the Florida Project Baker gives us a much more nuanced and complex portrait of the cycles of poverty and those trapped within them. We see parents attempting to look after their kids in the ways they think are best, and we also see them make bad choices, clearly demonstrating that rising out of poverty isn’t always so simple for many reasons. We see how Moonee urgently needs a more stable home environment, and we see the real love that keeps her and Halley together. The Florida Project breaks down stereotypes and shows the real variety and depth of lives that can be lived on the fringes of society. We see other families who are also poor whilst having jobs, directly opposing the idea of lazy people who just don’t want to work. We see that answers, and solutions, are not always as simple and clear cut as many would prefer.
Sean Baker also manages to achieve the almost impossible with the Florida Project by finding the moments of joy amongst suffering, which is no mean feat:
‘Depict their lives as a string of endless indignities, and you will be accused of exploiting their suffering. Find and portray the joy in their communities, and critics will say you are ignoring systemic injustice and bolstering those who wish to deny them assistance.’ (source)
He manages to show the strength of the human spirit, in an inherently realistic and non-cheesy way. We see how even in difficult circumstances laughter can be found, and that doesn’t negate the struggle either. It shows that just because someone poor doesn’t look or act how we expect doesn’t mean they don’t deserve help, but it also shows how to simply pity them isn’t useful either.
What both these films do so effectively, beyond telling stories that represent the lives of countless real people, is to humanise those that are trapped within these systems of poverty and inequality. They show the breadth and variety of circumstances that can lead people to these places, and keep them there, and show that often what we are told about the poor is simply not the reality. These films should both be a wake up call to change our perspective and a tool to help us begin to break internalised stereotypes down. And more than anything else, they should remind us that everybody deserves respect and dignity, and it is the responsibility of the privileged among us to try and make a society that works more fairly for all.