How to film politics

Towards the end of Ken Loach’s film In conversation with Jeremy Corbyn, there’s a moment when Corbyn reflects on what he’s been hearing from the group of people he’s been listening to. It’s been a very valuable discussion, he remarks, far better than any focus group, and a model of the kind of debate the Labour Party needs to develop further. But you don’t have to take his word for it. Loach devotes much less time in this film to Corbyn speaking than those in front of him – a veritable cross-section of the ordinary public (which is very different from the amorphous ‘public’ which figures in official media discourse). Here is a nurse, a student, a disability campaigner, a local councillor, a Deliveroo driver, a war veteran with PTSD, a carer, trade unionist, doctor, small businessman, barrister, social worker, someone unemployed, a whole range of people of different ages and backgrounds who articulate their critique of austerity and its devastating effects on the broad society. They are thinking people speaking from experience. Some are fluent and eloquent, some are hesitant and repetitive, but the film respects them all. All are given the space to speak their piece, without cutting them off awkwardly in mid-flow, like they do in studio discussion shows.

This is the very antithesis of the typical broadcast documentary about politics. There is no commentary to tell you what you’re supposed to think, no rushing through a journalistic narrative, no cut-away shots to simplistically illustrate the topic, opinions are not reduced to sound bites. This makes it quite different, in terms of style and film language, from Loach’s last documentary, Spirit of ’45, which adopted a conventional hybrid approach to integrate its interviews and archive footage. Here what Loach gives us is in effect a piece of pure observational documentary, which cuts through the stereotypes and cliches of the mainstream media, and the misinformation that serves to distort the public discussion of political issues.

In a funny way, Loach has become, in aesthetic terms, a conservative filmmaker. In his fiction films he retains a stylistic purity which eschews non-realist accretions to the carefully observed scene in front of the camera, which he tries to capture with the least interference possible – this is one of the crucial things that gives these films their realist bite. Here, employing the simplest possible approach, and avoiding unnecessary excursions outside the space of the discussion group, the result is probably as close as you can get to a truthful representation of the real politics which has been animated by the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the resurgence of the Labour Party as a political force in communities across the country. It will be a long time, Corbyn observes in the film, before the right wing press begin to understand what community politics is about, to which one of his interlocutors responds that they do understand, ‘that’s why they’re trying to destroy you and what you stand for’. Perhaps both things are true. On the one hand, the mainstream media display willful and tendentious political ignorance, on the other, they perceive what Corbyn signifies as a threat to the current order. Either way, this film is an exemplary testimony of why Labour under Corbyn holds out real hope for a new twenty-first century democratic socialism, if such a thing is to be possible at all.

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