It must be kismet that the release date of Katharine Round’s recent harrowing documentary, The Divide fell in the aftermath of the 1% news storm that is The Panama Papers and Trump/Clinton win in the New York primaries. Featuring seven narrated experiences of 99-percenters from the UK and US, spliced with archival footage of politicians from Thatcher to Obama, The Divide manages, under Round’s thoughtful direction, to weave the psychological, economic, and social implications of inequality without being tediously controversial.
Inspired by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level, the documentary seeks to explore via human stories; the connection between rising income inequality brought on by the dramatic transfer of wealth to the top and various social outcomes. The power behind the documentary is the careful yet unexpected selection of Round’s subjects and locale. We never thought that a Wall Street employee would have a similar level of high anxiety as an unemployed rapper from Newcastle, as shown through the immense isolation surrounding each subject as he tells his story. Subverting our expectations on visual economic disparity, Round steers clear of including London. To exclude the city where the rich and poor division is as manifest as living cheek by jowl, the audience cannot help but wonder if this was a financial or an artistic omission.
However, Round use of location in the US, shows how urban geography has been affected by inequity, conceptualising a physical divide with “the gated” versus “the ghettoised”. While Jen weeps about the social isolation of her Californian gated community, her black KFC employee counterpart, cheerfully flicks through her local newspaper filled only with neighbourhood crime and mugshots. Depressingly, Round uses each manufactured neighbourhood as a symbol of their psychological and physical isolation from the invisible advantaged.
A telling comment by economist, Sir Alan Budd, disturbingly reminds us how the economic divide has also contributed to the rise in social and health problems – as while Western countries have become richer, they’ve seemingly become unhappier. He uses the happiness of India’s extreme poor as a contrast. Consequently, it is only that the disenfranchised Westerners are nearly disadvantaged that actually makes them more susceptible to said problems.
Cut to Newcastle, where carer Rochelle has internalised a futile middle class mentality as she worries more about the social status of her job than the money. While Glaswegian rapper Darren who despite being housed, clothed and lyrically articulate, has succumbed to blaming his alcoholism for his stagnant mobility. Again, reminding us that the levelling between the poor and middle class – making everyone working class – has, mentally as well as financially screwed the masses.
Alden, the outwardly more socially and economically prosperous of the narrators, is a Wall Street psychologist with 1% aspirations as blatant as the beige tartan lining of his wife’s jacket. Yet, Round exposes him no better than Rochelle’s worry increasingly disturbing film shows how even an affluent and successful man is plagued by fear in every aspect of his life. Fear on the way to work; fear in meetings; fear of being badly dressed; his thinly veiled fear of losing his job, is exposed when his wife reveals he went straight to work the next day after surgery. And the family’s desire to move from city apartment to a gated New York community, has more to do with fear of their nearly disadvantaged life being seized, rather than a preoccupation with home security. “I’d love to move to Florida one day…” Alden says wistfully.
With its broad range of clips, commentators, ideas, and focus on people, The Divide humanises everyone. Round has accomplished what every great documentary maker aspires to – a unique way of balancing profound character narratives with a heavy ideological weight. The Divide is a sweeping expose on how deep into the psyche income inequality has affected the poor, working, and middle classes.
The Divide is in cinemas now. Find out more at http://thedividedocumentary.com.