What Making Films in the U.K. Taught Me About Brexit

Penny Woolcock draws on 30 years' experience directing fiction and nonfiction films to give her insight into the current political climate in Britain.

We are living in very strange times.

When I meet my friends, we don’t roll out the usual greetings. “Hi, how are you?” “Fine. How are you?” “Fine.” None of us is fine. We’re carrying around that queasy feeling you get when something terrible has happened.

It’s down to Brexit.

It’s odd that I should be so unnerved because I’ve never had a love affair with the European Union. I didn’t even vote in the 1973 referendum because I couldn’t make up my mind. But as the years went on, I felt increasingly happy to be European while remaining critical of the bloated, unaccountable bureaucracy that ran it.

Two weeks after the vote, our lying politicians are a laughing stock across the world, all the key players have resigned and racist attacks have risen fivefold. People I know have experienced racism in multicultural London for the first time in their lives, the Polish Community Centre in West London was daubed with polish vermin go home and my Facebook is full of videos of random acts of racist violence and young people in other parts of the country reporting being called “nigger” for the first time in their lives.

As a white (actually, pinkish beige) person, I haven’t heard anything like this since the 1970s.

In London, it’s easy to live in a bubble, which is why many were astonished by the result of the referendum. It was not just conservatives who voted to leave Europe but disenfranchised, poor people too. Marginalized white people voted Leave and marginalized black people didn’t vote at all.

I wasn’t surprised. Over the past 30 years, I’ve made films in Wales, Yorkshire and the Midlands and my way of working involves spending months in communities and then maintaining relationships for many years. So I know there are large pockets of extreme deprivation and segregation and that the people who live in them have zero investment in civil society.

The deindustrialization pursued so vigorously by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s destroyed the coal and steel industries and decimated whole communities. People were not left to starve, but to fester on welfare. Nobody enjoys feeling they are surplus to requirements, without meaningful work, resigned to being grateful for handouts for the rest of their lives.

When Britain’s support for the Mujahedin in Afghanistan flooded our streets with cheap heroin, it was a match made in heaven: Unemployment, meet Drugs. Many of those who had nothing to do got busy, either selling drugs or consuming them. Building prisons to incarcerate large numbers of newly criminalized people and employing other unskilled people to police them, was an efficiently dreary way of maintaining social control and mopping up the leftovers.

During the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, I lived in Oxford and our Miners’ Support Group was twinned with one in Maerdy, the last pit in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales. Maerdy was self-policing, nobody even owned a front-door key, there was a strong trade union, male choirs and a miners’ institute nearby with a library. Only 10 years later, in 1995, I returned to make a film, Mad Passionate Dreams, in Penrhys, the next village up the valley. It was full of burnt-out cars, out-of-control teenage boys and ruled by drug dealers selling whizz, smack and weed. That’s how quickly it happened. “Why we haven’t had a civil war yet is beyond me,” said one of the subjects.

My main interest as a filmmaker has been in exploring the margins where the people we throw away live out their lives in this new globalized world. I don’t want to join those who have either contempt or pity for those who are left out. Time I spend in these communities is rich in humor and I am full of admiration at their resourcefulness and liveliness. But I also do not want to romanticize the downtrodden. (If poverty and oppression are so good for the soul, turning us all into lovely community-minded people, let’s make them compulsory!) They have to deal with very low levels of trust, high levels of violence, lower life expectancy and massive mental health problems.

People have no investment in civil society because nobody has listened to them for 30 years. Whoever you vote for, the Government gets in pretty much sums up why people can’t be bothered to vote in general elections. This referendum seemed to offer change rather than more of the same and many of those who voted Leave wanted to give a massive two fingers to the establishment.

Between 2007 and 2012, I made two feature films with Jamaican heritage inner city gangs in Birmingham. The first film, 1 Day, was a street-cast fiction and the second, One Mile Away (above), was a documentary in which some of the cast came together to try and bring peace to two big city gangs that had been killing each other for 20 years.

One day when we were filming One Mile Away, one of the young men risking his life to prevent more of his friends being killed in a pointless turf war casually tossed a foam container with a half-eaten burger on the pavement when he’d eaten enough. I protested that he should stick it in a nearby bin. “Why should I?” he replied. “I hate this country. It’s done nothing for me.”

He was born here and had access to free school education until he didn’t feel like it any more. His daughters go to school now. He’s been on welfare many times and received housing benefit. The state paid for him to be moved to a rented apartment away from a dangerous area when he requested it. His three baby mothers gave birth in NHS hospitals and he was nursed back to health after he was shot in a gang incident. If you’re a Daily Mail reader, your blood is probably boiling already and I was angry when I picked up his crap and dumped it in the bin. Then I started to think about it.

Living a marginalized life in a community that was born out of genocide and slavery, where you are supposed to be grateful for any crumb they deign to give you, is a joke. Where is the dignity in this?

It’s not about stuff. All we need is a roof over our heads, interesting things to do, food and love. That’s it. But this is not about absolute poverty but gross inequality.

It used to be that the enemy was an identifiable boss and you could put up a good fight. But who is the enemy now? In the hood, most people believe in the conspiracy theory that the world is controlled by the Illuminati, a sinister elite from another planet, shape-shifting cyborg lizards who include Freemasons, bankers, Jews, the media, the Royal Family, Barack Obama and Jay Z. You cannot challenge or defeat them so you turn your anger where it can be most effective – by stabbing or shooting someone just like you. And there is no point in voting because nothing is going to change.

Paul Mason, a progressive economic journalist who “voted Remain with gritted teeth,” argues that the reason Leave won is that Remain had no story about how people’s lives would be better. Leave had lies – about money and immigration – but they were whopping good ones.

We need to tell better stories.

As filmmakers, we are storytellers. We’re part of the picture. And whatever stories we tell – whether they are explicitly political or not – let us approach them as generously, as creatively and as boldly as we can. We can imagine things better.

Penny Woolcock is a writer and director working in documentaries, television fiction, feature films and live opera. She also sometimes makes art installations. She has a particular interest in life on the margins.