Documentary update

John Steinbeck, When Bankers Were Good and the Academy Awards.

84th Academy Awards Documentary Feature category

The list of 15 films has been announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It includes Wim Wenders' unmissable tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch and Susanne Rostock's documentary about Harry Belafonte's involvement in the American civil rights movement, Sing Your Song.

The list has some prominent omissions: Werner Herzog's death-row documentary Into the Abyss and most surprisingly, Senna, Asif Kapada's mesmerising documentary about the Brazilian Formula One racing driver who won the world championship three times. The winner of the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Senna is made up of fragments of archival footage. The result is a visually sublime exploration of the excitement and burden of Senna's talent.

The chosen documentary films are:

Battle for Brooklyn (RUMUR Inc.)
Bill Cunningham New York (First Thought Films)
Buck (Cedar Creek Productions)
Hell and Back Again (Roast Beef Productions Limited)
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry Productions, LLC)
Jane's Journey (NEOS Film GmbH & Co. KG)
The Loving Story (Augusta Films)
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (@radical.media)
Pina (Neue Road Movies GmbH)
Project Nim (Red Box Films)
Semper Fi: Always Faithful (Tied to the Tracks Films, Inc.)
Sing Your Song (S2BN Belafonte Productions, LLC)
Undefeated (Spitfire Pictures)
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat (JUF Pictures, Inc.)
We Were Here (Weissman Projects, LLC)

The 84th Academy Awards nominations will be announced live on 24 January, with the award ceremony taking place on 26 February, broadcast live on the ABC Television Network.

Melvyn Bragg's John Steinbeck documentary

Tonight a one-hour documentary for BBC Four will follow former NS guest editor Melvyn Bragg as he explores the legacy of the Nobel Prize-winning author, John Steinbeck. Bragg travels from Oklahoma to California, focusing on the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath and asking why Steinbeck's social concerns still hold great resonance today. Bragg visits the California orchards which formed the centrepiece of The Grapes of Wrath, where migrant labourers and growers engaged in protracted and painful political battles. Across many decades, in several America states, the classic novel has been burned and banned. Its unwavering empathy for the underprivileged and biting critique of social structures has caused it to be branded as subversive by some conservatives. Bragg also travels to the site of the "dust bowl" in Oklahoma and the Monterey coastline that helped shape Steinbeck's ideas on ecology.

Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good

Today on BBC Two Ian Hislop presents a provocative and amusing film about the financiers of the Victorian era, whose behaviour belies the idea that banking is always associated with recklessness and unlimited greed. In the Victorian era there was a vigorous national debate about money's moral purpose and its potential to corrupt. Some extremely wealthy Victorian bankers had a troubled relationship with their acquisitions and engaged in a good deal of soul-searching. Hislop champions these highly generous individuals, such as the millionaire merchant banker George Peabody who made a vast donation to London housing which still provides accommodation to 50,000 Londoners today. Hislop talks to a range of figures, including the chief rabbi Lord Sacks, chairman of the FSA Lord Turner, philanthropic financier Lord Rothschild and the historian (and NS contributor) A N Wilson.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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