Milana Vujkov, Marketing Manager at Picturehouse Central and The Gate, Notting Hill, previews this week’s Discover Tuesdays title: The Divide.
Director: Katharine Round. UK/USA 2015. 78 mins.
Katharine Round’s extraordinarily timely, emotionally shattering, formidable doc The Divide follows the lives of seven struggling, tense and perpetually exhausted citizens of the US and the UK. Stark and uncompromising, it viscerally set alarm bells ringing across the auditorium when I watched it in a full house some months ago. All of us had stakes in the game unfolding on screen. When the film was finished, I realised my jaw was clenched throughout. I still wince thinking of the final scene. The Divide is about our daily bread – or lack thereof – and what society expects us to do to deserve it.
Based on the 2009 bestselling book The Spirit Level – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s in-depth analysis of global inequality– the film craftily kicks off with a series of mirror reflections of people. Standing in their bathrooms in the morning, getting ready for the day ahead, each person reminisces about their childhood and early aspirations. The scenes are intentionally claustrophobic, flat and disturbingly bleak, contrasting the 3D humanity of the protagonists with their 2D mechanical lives.
Both the haves and the have-nots are in a constant state of anxiety: the fear of imminent loss due to a manufactured uncertainty. The wealthy build walls to feel secure, the poor watch wall-to-wall television. As people fill the increasing gaps in actual reality with virtual reality, they cannot afford to truly relax. To slow down is to feel the emptiness; frenzied activity equals survival.
The curious effect of this de facto social construct is that everyone seems resigned to it as if it is a natural law – as if this is how life is, rather than how it was made to be. Nevertheless, unmistakable glimpses of impending change are palpable in pauses between the narration, when rationalisation ceases and merely existing in the tight space artificially created for us feels increasingly unbearable.
To implode or to explode? Is that the question? The only two chips left to gamble with.
Then the experts chime in, a welcome intellectual intermezzo, with Noam Chomsky the jewel in the crown, explaining how this miserable state of human affairs came to be. Are we tricked to want more than we can afford, or can we afford much more than we are tricked to want?
Capitalism needs to constantly move forward, like a shark, or it dies. However, the advanced phase of the system is eerily starting to resemble straightforward feudalism. Now that the American Dream is officially over, one is deep in debt before one is born – not unlike a European 13th-century serf, toiling away in a life of inherited servitude.
Reaching zero, not the top, is the collective aspiration of The Divide’s protagonists. Even the few that marginally slip in and out of the magical 1% zone are only several pay cheques away from grave financial woes. If this were not the case, why would they be punching the clock with such dogged determination? Material gain here serves as an anaesthetic to the underlying terror of destitution. We are living in a pyramid scheme that’s starting to eat its own tail. Capitalism is a diminishing philosophy adamant not to let go of its defining principles in the face of evident system failure: conjuring illusions of fast-forwarding towards a progressive future while rewinding to a master/slave dynamic that sets us back an eon in terms of evolution.
As for technology, it’s simply this era’s MacGuffin. The shark is already dead.
The message of the partially crowd-funded The Divide is painful because it’s true. This documentary will be seminal; it will be analysed to bits and viewed as valuable testimonial in decades to come.
The societal divide will inevitably morph into a unifying identity of existential dread across all strata of society. No one can feel safe, even the ones who designed the system for safety. The gates to the Winter Palace are now regularly blasted open under the auspices of the World Wide Web.
The good news is that a growing number of people are waking up, steadying their pace, refusing to take part in this game and focusing on solutions rather than conflict. However, as in most survival stories, the line between the life and death of our civilisation lies in one crucial detail, the only truly irreversible divide: the separation between nature and humanity. The bad news is, time is running out. If we fail to bridge this divide, we’re done.
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