Gilbey on Film: election special round two

Our critic's verdict on the (other) party political broadcasts.

Another week, another round of party election broadcasts. Presumably there are some people who still can't get enough of the sound of David Cameron saying the word "change." For that section of the public it was good news this week, as the Conservatives issued yet another five-minute campaign film featuring nothing but Dave. Dave in front of Parliament, Dave in messianic black-and-white stills that suggest Anton Corbijn shooting Bono on the Rattle and Hum tour.

My favourite bit occurs between 4:22 and 4:25, where Dave appears to have recently supped from the bottle marked "Drink Me". Either that or he is delivering his address in front of the world's tallest man.

This latest election broadcast is standard Davesville stuff, delivered with shirtsleeves rolled up to suggest a readiness to muck in. (An altogether more illuminating Cameron speech can be found here.) But it's the pushy, badgering tone which really curdles the soul: if that isn't the voice of someone setting out in painstaking terms precisely why you should let him take you in the shrubbery after the Freshers' Ball and show you his Big Society, then I'm George Osborne. (Note to Conservative Party members: George Osborne is your Chancellor.)

Party monster

Elsewhere, the BNP landed a prime-time BBC1 slot for its own mini-movie. It kicks off with the chilling sound of an air-raid siren, and stock footage from wartime Britain. Unfortunately it then switches to Nick Griffin sitting at a desk. Behind him we see a framed picture of Churchill and several shelves of leather-bound volumes, the content of which we can only guess at. (Chinua Achebe first editions? The collected TV Quick 1991-2009?)

Poor Nick spends all his screen time trying and failing to control his bizarrely ambiguous hand gestures as he tells us of his four gorgeous children. I counted ten different examples of involuntary movement in the first minute alone; you'd swear he was trying to describe a Henry Moore with his hands.

This restlessness goes beyond merely emphasising Nick's naturally sleazy demeanour, which is already a cross between Donald Plesence as Blofeld and a second-hand car salesman trying to flog you a Panzer tank. Rather, it reminded me of the scene in Total Recall when Arnold Schwarzenegger has to pass through Martian passport control disguised as a woman, only for his cover to start malfunctioning just as things are going his way. If the BNP leader is undergoing a similar deterioration, it begs the terrible question: what is on the inside of Nick Griffin? And can it be removed with normal household detergent?

From Nick kicking back in his study, we move to a photo-montage of BNP pet hates (mosques, hijabs, an East London street sign in both English and -- say it isn't so! -- Urdu) accompanied by the standard inflammatory fabrications ("Foreigners jump the queue for housing...") and off-the-wall connections ("Politicians lavish billions on asylum-seekers and rich bankers"). There is nothing funny about the BNP's policies and ideology, so it's oddly liberating to see their amateurism paraded so openly in this way.

The broadcast gives off the air of having been assembled around old Amstrads in the back-rooms of dubious hostelries, with someone's brother keeping a look-out; the atmosphere is less Triumph of the Will and more clapped-out Triumph Herald. Sure, they're racists and Holocaust deniers, but do they have to be such cheapskates?

The "talking heads" section is a good example of the shoddiness. There's a young woman pictured outside Café Rouge -- a damning indictment of the grubby French nation's attempt to flood our high streets with mid-priced Poulet Bretonne. "It's not politically correct," she says, "but I'm proud to be British, which is why I'm voting British National Party." The trick with those cue-cards, of course, is not to let your eyes move from left to right as you read from them.

But Ms Proud-to-be-British is practically Fiona Shaw as Hedda Gabler compared to the couple who appear next. "It was us pensioners that built this country..." says a disturbed-looking elderly man. Oh, do try not to appear as though someone is holding a gun to your head as you speak, there's a good chap. The silver-haired woman on his right looks even more terrified. Her hair was blonde before the camera started rolling, you know.

After a killer line from Rajinder Singh -- "I know the BNP very well and I admire them; they are only doing what is natural" -- we are treated to a cameo from Richard Barnbrook, who emphasises important words with little involuntary thrusts of his elbow, as though his hands, which we can't see, are kneading dough out of frame. Then Blofeld pops up to invite us to vote for the BNP to get our own back on politicians. Hmm, revenge or rationality? It's a toughie.

What swings it for me is the image on which the broadcast ends -- a freeze-frame of a supposedly happy BNP-supporting family. Look at the still below, where it appears the youngest child is gripping his sister's arm with one hideously enlarged hand. Is this what we want? Mutant children? You decide. I'm just disappointed that Nick reneged on his promise to eat Marmite on screen.

bnp 

Cliff hanger

The BNP's pitiful effort resembles Avatar next to the English Democrats' campaign film. Someone who resembles Ben Fogle appears in a couple of obvious locations -- outside Parliament, or within sight of the white cliffs of Dover -- to talk us flatly through various unconvincing reasons why England should be completely autonomous. Hands up who resisted the temptation during the cliff-top scenes to call out to our presenter: "Back a bit, back a bit"? Me neither.)

The capper comes when, realising that he hasn't persuaded us, he throws in a bribe: "Oh -- and there's one other proposal I'm sure you'll all support. [I love that mock-spontaneous "Oh".] An extra bank holiday." You know -- for St George's Day. Buying votes with bank holidays, eh? Well, it's original. Can I swap mine for a toaster?

 

An inconvenient truth

After the crudity of the Conservatives, BNP and English Democrats, the soothing visual simplicity of the Green Party feels refreshing and comparatively sophisticated. No hatchet-faced party leaders, no flannel-spouting presenters with dishcloth charisma. Just three rectangular coloured blocks -- red, blue and yellow -- which are joined by a jaunty, rolling green circle representing the only party "who can really make a change."

My favourite colour is green, so I'm already hooked. And this is a winning aesthetic approach. The green circle morphs into a cross (representing healthcare), a radiator (during the bit about caring for the elderly), a safe's combination lock (behind which is stashed money that would otherwise go on bankers' bonuses) and a thought-bubble (the only misjudgement here: it looks more like a storm-cloud made of spinach).

So on top of all the wonderful things they're planning to do, the Green Party proves it is also flexible. Pliable. Easily moulded. Gets in the carpet. Turns stale if left out overnight and has to be thrown away. Oh dear. Maybe this isn't so simple after all.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs 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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage