Notes in the Margin: Island living

Jersey's film festival turns cinema-going on its head

Jersey: a channel island famous for its cows, potatoes and wealthy residents. It's not the first place you'd think to go for a film festival. But from 22 - 25 September the Branchage International Film Festival returns, for the fourth time, to the tiny island off the coast of Normandy.

The festival launched in 2008, with the aim of entertaining local audiences as well as drawing visitors from the UK and Europe. This is not the place to come to see the premiere of the latest George Clooney movie, or A-list movie stars gracing a red carpet, but, as if in acknowledgement of its lack of headline-grabbing glamour, Branchage has sought to make its name by offering unusual and often unpredictable cinematic experiences.

In past years, the festival has screened The Battleship Potemkin on a tugboat and Sleep Furiously (a 2009 documentary about a small farming community in Wales) in a barn. The locations offer a welcome change of scene from a popcorn-strewn Odeon. This year, the unconventional offerings include screenings at the island's Opera House, at parish halls, in occupation-era war tunnels and at a castle separated from the mainland by a causeway, which the audience can only get to (or escape from) at low tide.

Without the power (yet) to attract big-ticket premieres, the festival mostly screens recent art-house hits (this year the programme includes Joanna Hogg's Archipelago, and the wonderful French film Of Gods and Men, for example). But it also commissions new work, particularly soundtracks, and the new creations are often as intriguing as their venues. To name a few: a new animation film by Sam Steer will be screened accompanied by his harpist sister performing a newly commissioned score; the artist Fritz Stolberg will show a multi-screen installation consisting of footage from the Jersey archive and old home movies discovered in islanders' lofts; the cellist Gerard Le Feuvre will play a new accompaniment to the 1929 footage shot by Captain Irving Johnson as he sailed around Cape Horn on a square rigger vessel; and the festival will close with a live performance of a soundtrack to The Great White Silence - the footage from Captain Scott's last Antarctic expedition in 1924.

Such unusual, live performances show the imagination of this small, relatively unknown festival. It might lack the showiness of Cannes, or the romance of Venice, but those annual jamborees, with their predictable bank of glossy stars and paparazzi, lack something too: a spirit of adventure and originality that allows an audience to watch a film in an entirely new way. And then walk home at low tide.

To find out more about the festival, visit branchagefestival.com

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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