‘You’re just trying to grab on to a collective identity because you’re fucking alone, you’re busy all the time, you’ve got nothing. There’s no hope.’
The unexpected result of the Brexit referendum was a watershed moment in British history.
The decision to leave the EU has become the single biggest – and most polarising – political issue of our time.
After a wild election campaign, and the subsequent collapse of the ‘hard Brexit’ Conservative majority, even the government seems unsure of what Brexit really means, despite negotiations officially beginning today (19/06).
A year on, with uncertainty surrounding Britain’s future, the questions the referendum raised about what it means to be British remain unanswered.
Enter Timothy George Kelly, a London-based Australian filmmaker who travelled around the UK talking to people about being British in the months after the referendum.
The result, Brexitannia, is a beautifully crafted, sobering snapshot of a country in turmoil. ‘A portrait of democracy in all its ugly glory,’ says Kelly.
The first documentary about Brexit, Brexitannia challenges the caricatures often used to demonise Leave and Remain voters, and brings into focus several other dividing lines – the gulf between country and city, young and old, migration, automation, globalisation, and British identity.
It also crucially places the Brexit vote in its wider socio-economic context, and in doing so offers a way to move past Leave/Remain identity politics.
Brexitannia is divided into two parts. Interviews with ‘the people’ – ordinary voters who explain why they voted the way they did, and their view on what it means to be British – and interviews with ‘the experts,’ who include Noam Chomsky.
The questions the referendum raised about what it means to be British remain unanswered.
This approach sounds rather ungainly, but ‘the experts’ are able to frame the Brexit vote in its proper context – the collapse of neoliberalism – explaining how certain communities have been brought to their knees by privatisation and the free-market ideal.
‘The people’ are shot alone, from a distance – at home or at work – and given time to think aloud and express themselves openly.
Sat alone on their front drive, or standing in their back garden, there is an acute sense of ‘the people’s’ vulnerability, of the distance between them and Westminster.
By giving the interviewees a space to voice their opinions, the film shows the complexities and contradictions of collective democratic decision-making, challenging lazy narratives about what caused Brexit and why people voted Leave or Remain.
But the film never passes judgement.
‘It was never made to be an activist film for Leave or Remain,’ says Kelly. It’s a sociological portrait of a country.’
Shot in black and white, the documentary feels like a historical record. The interviews are interspersed with shots of the sea, soil, white cliffs, and British flags.
Gary points to his forearm and says ‘English is that colour.’
This “Rule, Britannia” imagery juxtaposed with the range of characters – from the dejected to the defiant – in the mundane setting of their everyday lives portrays a nation struggling to define itself.
Several of the interviewees in the film live up to the clichés about Leave/Remain voters.
Like Gary, who – sitting with a pint-sipping mate in the corner of a pub – points to his forearm and says ‘English is that colour,’ or the blustering man in a field wearing a Slazenger t-shirt who dreams of sending the Europeans home and forcing his employers to give him a payrise because there are no more polish workers to undercut him: ‘why should we help out? No one ever helps us.’
Such people yearn for an idealised Britain of old. A Britain that was once Great.
Similarly, there is the classic young, urban, Remain voter, who describes people who voted Leave as less educated – ‘coming to a pro-Remain position takes more reading.’
But others confound the stereotypes, such as the second generation British-Ghanaian woman whose parents voted Leave because they felt people had started to ‘take the mickey out of the [immigration] system.’ It’s too easy now, she says, for people to come to the UK ‘and go straight on benefits.’
Or the bald man from Plymouth, standing with his coffee in front of a lighthouse, who eloquently explains that the Brexit vote wasn’t all down to racism and xenophobia:
‘There are not 17.5 million racists in Britain.’
Then there is the fisherman who describes how the British fishing industry gets a rough deal from the EU:
‘Over 60% of the fish caught within Europe is caught within British water.’
There is the young white working-class woman from the North East who describes explaining to her Dad at the working men’s club why foreign labour is not to blame for job losses:
‘Who do you know that’s lost their house or their job to an immigrant?’
Or the old lady from Liverpool who describes her first reaction to the news of the referendum result:
‘A terrible shock when I got up in the morning and realised we were out. I just sat and cried.‘
And the Muslim woman, and Remain voter, who was subjected to racial abuse while sitting in her car the day after Brexit:
‘Simply because of the colour of our skin, all of a sudden we don’t belong,’ she says. ‘As a Muslim woman – and for my two daughters – I feel desperately unsafe, and desperately unhappy.’
It is unclear which way many of the other interviewees voted, which is telling.
It shows how futile the regressive – yet commonplace – practice of defining people by their Brexit stance (something many of us are guilty of) really is.
Besides, for many of the disenfranchised, predominantly working-class interviewees, nothing has changed since Brexit and they don’t expect it to.
‘The southeast of the country… is where all the work and everything is,’ says a grey-haired man sitting in a small front room. ‘Brexit doesn’t matter, because we’ve got nothing anyhow.’
Brexitannia portrays a downcast and deeply divided nation, humiliated by industrial decline and its waning global stature.
What attitude to adopt, then to move past these divisions, starting with the Leave-Remain dichotomy?
‘To put the burden of Brexit on a sort of mindless nationalism of those types of workers, families and cities, that have lost so much ground because of the financialising, the corporatising, and the internationalising of our national economies,’ argues sociologist Saskia Sassen, ‘is truly unfair. More importantly perhaps, that doesn’t get us anywhere.’
Pro-EU viewers will find some of the justifications for voting Leave featured in the film hard to stomach, and the frequent expression of borderline racist views is depressing.
But by the end of Brexitannia there is an overwhelming sense that ‘the people’ – all of them – are in fact victims. Victims of the failures of neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism ‘undermines democracy by taking decisions from people and placing them in the hands of private power,’ says Noam Chomsky. ‘That in itself is anti-democratic, and it also turns out to be harmful to much of the population.’
There is an overwhelming sense that ‘the people’ – all of them – are in fact victims.
This, in turn, raises a difficult question. If you accept ‘the experts” premise and agree that the scapegoating of migrants and people of colour for the decline of the white working class is a diversionary tactic, then how much is Gary himself to blame for his racist views?
Besides posing probing questions about what it means to be British, Brexitannia also offers a glimpse into the lives of many frustrated working-class Leave voters, who feel the voting booth is the only place they can make their voices heard.
‘Brexit was one of these vary rare opportunities to say fuck off to the government.’
While Remainers who are still sore about Brexit may not agree with such rationale, they can certainly understand the pain of feeling let down by their own country.
Perhaps, in the most British way possible, recognition of this universal feeling of resentment could be the first step towards reconciling the divisions that Brexit has perpetuated.
‘Brexit is partly a cry of help, it’s a cry. There is pain in the success of Brexit. It represents pain, and that is the people who are left behind.’
Brexitannia will be screening for the first time in London on Friday 23rd, during the East End Film Festival. It will be followed by a Q&A with the director and a special panel. Click here for the Facebook event.