Gilbey on Film: Chronicle of Protest, previewed

Activist video is providing a corrective to the mainstream media - but nothing beats the power of a

One of the qualities I love about cinema is its assertiveness: it's so much harder to overrule or ignore a film when it's on a cinema screen, whether that screen is in the Grand Palais in Cannes or the Slough Cineworld, than when it's on television, laptop or iPod. I was impressed when I watched Chronicle of Protest, the omnibus edition of Michael Chanan's attentive video blogs for the NS, on DVD this week. But its real power will become apparent, I suspect, only when it is screened in a cinema, as it will be this Saturday as part of the East End Film Festival.

Chanan's blogs have already contributed to the democratising of the media by drawing heavily on amateur videos, shot by activists on the various protests and sit-ins which have engulfed and energised the country since the coalition government came to power. Moving that material to a cinema screen provides a kind of ratification that is pleasantly at odds with the film's urgent, snapshot feel.

The idea behind the commission, if I understand it correctly, was to provide a coherent picture of the mood of protest. Mainstream media can only fragment and dissipate such a groundswell, filtering each separate demonstration through its own agenda. (One example highlighted by some of the film's interviewees is the bizarre way in which the unhappy travel experiences of two members of the Royal Family became the focal point of the protest against the hoisting of tuition fees.) Chronicle of Protest goes some way toward being a corrective to this.

Through some nifty editing and lucid rhetoric, the connections between the actions of the coalition and the hardships imposed on communities become transparent. A level-headedness emerges in the judicious cutting of scenes which another documentary might have played straight; I especially liked the way Chanan cuts back and forth between the temperate oratory of Terry Eagleton and the incendiary scenes of protestors storming Jeremy Hunt's appearance at the LSE. Laurie Penny of the NS reflects that the government is rather like a spider, in that it is more scared of us than we are of it, and Chanan helpfully replays in slow-motion close-up a shot of Hunt looking mortified as the room is besieged.

I also liked the material showing another of this magazine's writers, Mehdi Hasan, imagining at the podium what he would do to attack the government if he were Ed Miliband. I express no favouritism to Mehdi, whom I have met only once (I believed we discussed Terminator-related matters), when I say that his address gives the film an extra jolt of fiery energy. (Later, Chanan films an interview with him from a suspiciously low angle, as though Mehdi is being stung in a Panorama exposé, perhaps on a cash-for-guest-editorships scandal.)

One thing I didn't like about this otherwise involving film was its framing device of performances by the First of May Band, whose compositions ("Hey there, Mr Banker Man/ You don't look so great/ Someone ought to tell you/ You're past your sell-by date") seem too simplistic to provide more than a cosmetic reflection of the woes documented on screen.

"Chronicle of Protest" screens at the Rio Cinema, London E8 at 3.45pm on 30 April. Tickets available here. It will be released on dvd in May

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.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.