The Divide - Film Review

   Wealth, we've been traditionally told, "trickles down".

   The key tenant of neo-liberal capitalism, of Reaganomics, states that, in order for a society to function cohesively, the richest of individuals must be protected. By owning a great amount they will, hypothetically, spend a great amount and, as such, their money will slowly filter through to other parts of society via the shops they spend in and the retailers who serve them. By protecting the rich, they state, all of us benefit.

   This, as we all know, is baloney. The release of the Panama Papers further confirmed this - the wealthy elite aren't interested in re-investing money into society; they're more concerned with accumulating ungodly sums and stashing their lucre in bank accounts the taxman can't reach. Whilst many of us struggle to survive the day-to-day cost of living, David Cameron and his peers are most concerned with protecting their excessive privilege and stock-piling wealth away from the common good.

   Yet, for anyone who has ever read Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better , we know there is more at play here than just a sense of "fairness". Their book argues, candidly and in great detail, that almost all of our ills throughout society stem from inequality - everything from crime to obesity, and mental health issues to violence, find their roots in the inequitable division of people and income differentials.

   Controversially to many, Pickett and Wilkinson's thesis suggests that, in order for a collection of people to flourish, the wage gap between the richest and poorest should become shallower - the very opposite of the neo-liberal assumptions that have propped up hyper-capitalism found throughout the West. If the authors are correct, the ramifications of their findings are humongous. The rich, it would seem, would be better off too if the ratio of their wealth in comparison to the poorest people were to be reduced. Does their excessive affluence make them truly happier? Or does their avaricious pursuit of opulent wealth make each of us spiritually impoverished?

   In Katharine Round's The Divide, a documentary very much inspired and influenced by The Spirit Level, we meet seven individuals (five in the US and two in the UK) who put a human face on the effects of society's embrace of modern capitalism. Alongside Rochelle the care-giver from Sunderland, a young woman struggling to earn the respect she deserves for the dignity her job grants to others, there's the Glaswegian rapper Darren struggling to stay sober and, interestingly enough, individuals as far removed as fiscally imaginable from these people who are also cracking under the immense strains of neo-liberalism.

   The documentary introduces us to the fascinating case of Wall Street psychologist Alden, a man who dearly aspires to make it to the top 1%. He chooses to drive to work rather than take the cheaper option of public transport - he can't, he surmises, afford to risk the chance of getting sick from the germs the great unwashed may spread to him. He scoffs at salaries as low as $100'000 a year. He is, in short, quite the putrid man, corrupted by insatiable greed and the impossible promises of capitalism. Yet, he too is a victim of a system in which too much is never enough and those with too little are left behind. Alden is locked into a lifestyle of long hours and keeping up appearances which diminishes him - his idea of heaven is the rare occasions he gets to break off from his work and find time to eat alone, untroubled by the pressures of his job. His wife, clearly neglected by Alden's long hours, laments her other half's insane work schedule. She is pleased, however, that the troubles caused by his work arrangement allow them to live with vulgar affluence.

   Richard Berman, a venture capitalist, surmises the issue succinctly: "Without big rewards people like me are not going to work fifteen to twenty hours a day in order to get rich". He works grueling hours not through want or need but to accumulate excess. Noam Chomsky, an obvious choice of talking head in The Divide, explains that the nature of capitalism isn't to ask its citizens to make informed choices but, rather, to acquiesce to a lifestyle of consumption and waste. Were we all to act rationally, he infers, neo-liberalism would wilt and die.

   Round's brief, 74 minute long documentary manages to be both pertinent (released in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal and, too, an array of cinema releases on the topic of economics including the recent  B oom Bust Boom ) and constitutes a new approach to a much-discussed subject. Through focusing on real lives, the documentary presents to us a way of engaging with economics with more emotional clout than any number of abstract numbers ever could. We see the collateral damage of a clearly failing ideology and we are made to question what the alternatives could be to such a dehumanising system and how we could possibly implement it.

   Yet, unlike The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short, for example, The Divide is a rather somber and sober-minded movie. There's very little in the way of comedic elements or examples of reaching out to those not already deeply moved by and interested in the subject. This is a film for the high-minded, those who (like myself) will be enthused to witness the presence of  the economist Ha-Joon Chang during the feature.

   One does worry that the audiences who find The Divide will already be converts to the need for reform. However, as evidenced by the swelling mass of people who've found solace in the "protest" and anti-authoritarian votes represented by the embrace of Corbyn or Farage, Sanders or Trump, this is an audience which is growing daily. Perhaps, too, the message found here, and in The Spirit Level, will start "trickling up" - there's a number of wealthy people, like Alden, who could be much happier were they to embrace a more equal society. Instead of accepting the toxicity of "the divide", Alden and his peers should instead look to study the lessons found within The Divide.

   For those of you interested in the broad topic of finances and how they effect our lives on a day-to-day basis, please check out my Economics interview with Joe Richards.

THE DIVIDE is in cinemas from 22 April and nationwide on 31st May

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