Gilbey on Film: election special

Our critic's verdict on the party political broadcasts.

What's surprising about the election broadcasts of the main parties is that time has stood still. While this election may be won or lost on the modern battlegrounds of Twitter, YouTube or Mumsnet, the parties have all passed up the chance in their broadcasts to slam-dunk the basketball of politics through the hoop marked "zeitgeist" -- by which I mean that none of them have gone for 3D. That said, I did catch a sulphurous whiff during the Conservative film, and the aroma of something stagnant during the Labour and Lib Dem contributions, so perhaps Odorama is making a comeback.

Only one of the main parties elects not to show its leader on camera (can you guess which one it is?) while only one does not feature as its central image a sombre-faced man striding purposefully toward the camera while telling us, more or less, that it's all going to be OK and this won't hurt a bit. The films themselves, on the other hand, make for painful viewing...

The Conservatives

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"How many people do you need to change a country?" asks David Cameron, forehead gleaming in the sun. As any corporate speaker will tell you, it's vital to kick off with a joke. But, nervous that we'll anticipate his punchline, Dave comes in a little too abruptly. "Answer: all of them." Did he get that one out of a cracker?

This is all delivered from a back garden on a pleasant afternoon. Whether or not it's Dave's back garden, the surroundings have been chosen to communicate some subtle messages. There are rows of houses backing on to the garden, which equals community. A shed is visible behind Dave, as is a ladder, signalling that while the garden shows promise, there is still work to be done.

One raised end of a see-saw can be glimpsed screen-left: this symbolises children and play. Its positioning also makes it appear that Dave is sitting on the other seat, weighing it down. My first reaction is that he resembles that big kid with a glandular condition, hogging the apparatus in the under-7s play area. But the thrust of the broadcast -- he wants us to join him in governing the country, you see -- renders implicit the suggestion that we should all pile onto the other end of the see-saw, thereby catapulting him into the plane-less blue sky.

After Cameron's ice-breaker, we are treated to the familiar sound of a jangling guitar -- track 2, if I'm not mistaken, of the popular K-Tel compilation Now That's What I Call MOR Indie On A Major Label, Vol III. Accompanying it is the even more familiar sight of Hardworking Mum Who Wants the Best For Her Kids. Julie of Llandudno is shown larking around with her children and tidying up after they've gone to school, all while pretending not to notice a camera crew in her house.

She's decked out in a coat of perfect Tory Blue, and her kids are in red rain-macs; so while she is decided about her political allegiances, she wouldn't presume to indoctrinate or influence her offspring (aside, that is, from signing them up to plug a party and ideology about which they know nothing and care even less).

Julie volunteers for a charity which helps disabled children. Call me twitchy, but I always get nervous when I hear information like that in a film. After all, we knew from the moment Gwyneth Paltrow's character in Seven was introduced as a primary school teacher that she would end up with her head in a box. Altruistic occupation, grisly end -- that's the rule. Isn't it obvious what wretched fate will befall poor Julie? A Conservative government, if she gets her way.

We then meet two other hardworking types. Ian has his own hydraulics business, and his own mirthless laugh. Danielle works in a hostel with people who've previously been homeless. Whether or not her clients lost their homes during the recent recession, or the early-1990s wave of Tory repossessions, is unspecified. Anyway, Danielle thinks that the important qualities in her line of work are to be a people person, to have empathy and understanding, and to insert an upward inflection that turns her every statement into a question. Is there a place in Dave's Big Society for such equivocation?

Back in the garden, Dave isn't saying. He does warn us, however, that if the Tories are elected on May 6th, we'll all be in power on May 7th, which is bad news for those of us who have dental appointments on that day.

Liberal Democrats

 

Were the Lib Dems to have made their film after Nick Clegg's recent fillip, they would have chosen a more bombastic style, perhaps incorporating the Rocky theme music, a shot of Clegg shadow-boxing outside Parliament, and a stirring slogan -- "If you liked him in the election debate, you'll LOVE him as PM!" But their party election broadcast was filmed before everyone started agreeing with Nick, which explains the half-defeated, half-badgering tone.

As sheets of paper, emblazoned with news of promises made and broken by the other parties, swirl around him and carpet the South Bank, Clegg stalks toward us. The camera retreats. The viewer may feel like doing the same.

Clegg leaves London and pops up in various locations around the country. Wherever he goes, the sheets of paper remain. This has the unfortunate effect of making Clegg into a kind of waste magnet. The final shot has particularly damaging resonances for anyone who has seen Terry Gilliam's film Brazil. As Clegg walks through a mini-tornado of litter, it's impossible not to recall Robert De Niro besieged by sheets of paper sticking to his limbs and body. When the film's hero rushes to his rescue, furiously tearing the paper away, he discovers that there is no one underneath.

Labour

 

The logic of keeping an unpopular leader off-camera is clear, which makes it even stranger that Labour has chosen as Gordon Brown's on-screen avatar a dour and hunted-looking middle-aged man trudging through the wilderness in inclement weather. On the plus side, Sean Pertwee is an actor with whom most people will be unfamiliar, so no off-putting associations there.

The disadvantage is that those of us who know his work -- well, do we really want to take advice on the country's future from a man who willingly appeared in London Kills Me, Goal! and Shopping? If you don't trust Sean, you might heed instead the words of his father, whom he quotes here as telling him: "Don't give up. Show resolve." (Which at least explains Goal! 2: Living the Dream.)

Sean's father was Jon Pertwee, star of Dr Who from 1970 to 1974. The Dr Who link continues with David Tennant, who provides the film's final flourish of narration. Rumour has it that Davros was considered for a cameo part until UKIP snapped him up in a bid to bring some sex-appeal to their anti-Europe campaign.

If election broadcasts had a taste, this one would smack of bran: it may be drab but it's supposed to be good for you. Sam Wollaston in the Guardian has already noted the film's resemblance to The Road -- there's even a shot peering at Sean from behind the trees, like one of the marauding cannibals from that film preparing to pounce. But the actor makes it out with body parts intact. And hope is hinted at as the camera rises majestically over the sight of him plodding onwards to a Labour future: not so much an 'eye of God' shot as 'eye of Gordon.'

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs on film for Cultural Capital every Tuesday

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.