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.

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland