Documentary as a film genre is sometimes regarded as being made by and for do-gooders enjoyment. That isn’t always inaccurate. While there have been exemplary films about people living in hardship, more often than not the people making films and programmes on the subject of poverty neglect to involve anyone behind the camera who has direct experience of being poor and vulnerable.
Documentaries about the working class will only feel authentic when they are made by people who have experienced hardship.
Poverty is on the rise. But too often when evidence makes it to the screen, a sense of moral judgment appears to be built into its very fabric. Documentaries about working-class people are often shot and edited to look grey and lifeless. Or they will focus on a sad story of personal suffering, perhaps with a sudden happy ending after an external saviour enters the scene.
There tends to be little exploration of the wider social context or coverage of individuals and communities trying to help themselves. Therefore, it’s not surprising those on the lower rungs of society feel demoralized when they see themselves reflected on screen as either wasters or exceptional, with nothing in between.
It seems the documentary industry may have had enough of the top-down view of poverty.
There are moves to make films that reflect more accurately the lived experience of poverty. This is an important change for the continued credibility of documentary film-making.
During a recent documentary festival in Sheffield, a panel discussed the new approach to portraying extreme poverty on screen. The exchange was a stirring experience. Leading the charge was the young film-maker Daisy-May Hudson, whose 2015 debut, Half Way, is a powerful self-made work. Hudson’s film captures her personal experience of being made homeless, along with her sister and her mother, and of navigating an uncaring bureaucratic system that could only offer them unsuitable housing. They fought back and won.
Half Way is raw, intelligent, funny and superbly constructed. Best of all, it’s an authentic story of being poor made by, and about, someone working-class.
Experience and understanding are the key to authentic documentary-making of this sort.
At a time when online platforms and streaming services have given everyone the chance to get their films seen without needing permission from broadcasters or festivals, the gatekeepers of mass audiences need to rethink what stories they choose to support and who they choose to make them.
Eight years of austerity policies, rising poverty and a backlash against gentrification have created a political climate perhaps more ready to listen to less privileged voices. Otherwise, after all, we’re not getting the complete picture.
Let’s hear about poverty from the poor for a change
By Charlie Phillips, The Guardian