Brexitannia: The Faces and Voices of Brexit

First shown at London’s East End Festival in June of 2017, Brexitannia was the very first documentary about Brexit. It is a striking and deeply pensive film, in contrast with the Brexit movie reviewed in the previous article. Brexitannia (2017) is a superb documentary that is remarkable for its sensitivity, balance, and the ability to present deeply penetrating insights—without even a single word of narration. Countering the censorship regimes of post-liberal authoritarianism, this film is a channel for all sides to speak freely. It is not an activist film and thus does not rush to impose judgments or tell viewers what to think. Unlike Brexit: The Uncivil War, a commercial fictionalization that instructs viewers on what to think, Brexitannia lets the humanity of its subjects shine through in all their complexity. We are presented with a great many “ordinary and everyday” persons, explaining why they chose to vote either to leave or remain in the EU, with some ambiguously transcending both positions. These people are wonderful: they can make one proud to be human, and to take courage from living among such humans. Viewers will likely be left wishing that they could spend time with some or all of the persons who appeared. These persons are, really without exception, all thoughtful, lively, articulate, reflective, sometimes quiet, sometimes very humorous—none convey that a major decision was taken lightly. As one review stated, using some of the words of the filmmaker: “Brexitannia, is a beautifully crafted, sobering snapshot of a country in turmoil. ‘A portrait of democracy in all its ugly glory,’ says Kelly”. By humanizing all sides of the debate, this film should encourage all sides to listen to each other carefully and with consideration, which would be one of the special gifts of a film like this one.

“Brexit is partly a cry of help. It’s a cry, there’s pain in the success of Brexit. It represents pain. And that is the people who were left behind”—Saskia Sassen, speaking in Brexitannia

Brexitannia (2017), which runs for 80 minutes, was directed by Timothy George Kelly, a London-based Australian filmmaker, and was written by Timothy George Kelly, Charlotte Kühlbrandt, and Luke Neima. Also appearing in the film are Noam Chomsky, Saskia Sassen, Guy Standing, Nick Srnicek, Heidi Mirza, and Federico Campagna. This is a film that you must definitely watch for yourself. For my part, I plan to incorporate it into a new undergraduate course that I am teaching in the coming academic year titled, (De)Globalization and the Nation. (The fact that I am choosing it for my course, and have asked our library to acquire a copy, will serve as an indication of the kind of score I am giving this film at the end of the review.)

Timothy Kelly said that the film, “was never made to be an activist film for Leave or Remain. It’s a sociological portrait of a country”. Not being an activist film, it does not impose the filmmaker’s judgment. It certainly is a film that defies the urge to stereotype members of any political camp. Brexitannia could also be judged as an anthropological film, because of the focus on ordinary people in their own settings, speaking for themselves, but it departs in many ways from most ethnographic films. For example, we do not know how or why particular speakers were selected; we do not know if their statements were edited from longer interviews, or were once-off remarks; we do not hear the questions (except in a single instance); and we actually know little about the social positioning of the speakers, apart from what we can gather from their clothing, their accent, or the settings in which they appear. Speakers in the film do not interact with each other; instead, the editing juxtaposes closely related comments, so that a following speaker either immediately confirms or contradicts the preceding one.

This film is shown in black and white. Why? My guess is that colour would be distracting and contemporary, filling the screen and taking attention away from the spoken messages, the voices, and the focused nature of the speakers’ faces. Black and white induces a kind of stillness, tranquility, and invites focused reflection. Black and white film is the closest we can get to the stillness and focus offered by a photograph or an audio tape. One reviewer thought that the “the documentary feels like a historical record”. But what makes a historical record feel like a historical record, if not the stillness and quiet focus that we experience when viewing a record? I do not think that black and white symbolized the binary nature of the choice presented by the Brexit referendum ballot shown at the start of the film. Though the perspectives of the speakers were far from representing a simple binary, one depiction of the film’s contents noted how it showed, “old pitted against young, nationalists against migrants, the countryside against the city, and ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’”.

(The trailer is also available on Vimeo.)

The Structure

Brexitannia is divided into two parts: “Part 1: The People,” which occupies about 60 of the film’s 80 minutes, and, “Part 2: The Experts,” which closes the film.

There are two motifs in this film—symbolic elements that stand for much greater phenomena. One is the simple cucumber, a curly cucumber to be precise, which is that one small thing, that final straw, that led one person to revolt against the EU because it imposed standardization by blocking English curly cucumbers from entry into the European market. The other motif is a plastic bottle of water. The first motif leads Part 1, and the second motif is central to Part 2.

In “Part 1: The People,” the filmmaker was committed to not grinding his own axe by telling the viewer what to think. Instead we are presented with a very wide spectrum of perspectives, which I brutally condensed in the sections below. No stone is left unturned. Again, the reader should really make an effort to see and hear these people for themselves, by either renting, purchasing, or borrowing a copy of the film from a library, because the summary below really does little justice to the richness of the film.

“Part 2: The Experts,” comes closer to producing a singular narrative with the speakers being all critical of neoliberalism and elite hegemony. Racism and nationalism are criticized by some, but sometimes ambiguously. There is still some sympathy for Brexit only insofar as it stands as a revolt against a neoliberal institutional model with definite social and economic outcomes that have been harmful to the majority, but also considerable scepticism. The filmmaker could have chosen a wider body of “experts,” more representative of a broader range of approaches, but I think that would have undermined the focus of the film, which was the gift that was presented in Part 1. In Part 2, Saskia Sassen is the most striking speaker, with the clearest and most compelling explanations, that also display a twist of genius. She brings to light the connections between a bottle of water and a migrant, slowly, carefully, and convincingly.

Listening vs. Censorship

You can limit what people say in public, but not what they think in private. Censorship is ultimately futile and even self-defeating—a lesson that apparently is lost each day at 11:59pm, and has to be relearned starting at 12:00am. One of the strengths of this film was its absence of apparent censorship. We thus get to hear overtly racist views in the film—as we must—but we also hear reticent persons who lean toward self-censorship in straightforward explanations of how they fear political correctness and its limitations on what can be said. No serious anthropologist would ever dare to urge censorship of the public: that would be like editing reality, and thus creating a false picture. We need to know what people think. We are supposed to be experts at listening, not muffling, and certainly not smothering. Those who have lived with an abundance of racism in many different societies (in my case, this includes the UK, Canada, the US, Australia, Trinidad & Tobago, Dominica, and Central America), may have also learned to live without being caught in a permanent scream of denunciation. Outrage is tiresome, and never makes an attempt at either understanding or explanation. Without a willingness to listen, understanding why Brexit happened and how other events like it will happen, we are left with a game of “expert” speculation where preferred versions of reality (ideology) substitute for what is really needed (analysis). It’s when an ideology is really in trouble, and the authority of experts faces impending ruin, that censorship becomes an imperative. Censorship is an instrument wielded by the powerful for the powerful, but pretends to be deployed to protect the masses from themselves.

The invention of “post-truth” is motivated by this same desire for censorship, and we heard it clearly expressed in the previous movie review about Brexit. In none of the cases—not a single one—does any person in this film invoke “post-truth”. The reason is that the invention came from an altogether different class of people: the “experts,” with interests vested in the continuance of the status quo. The same people invoking “post-truth” have among them the greatest fabricators of propaganda and conspiracy theories that dominate the media, and even academia, today. Censorship of challengers allows their preferred fictions to enjoy a moment of pretend dominance.

Reviewing this particular documentary is almost as challenging as reviewing a large book. No summary can capture all of its rich contents. What follows is an outline of the ideas presented by the speakers, with some commentary from myself. If it is too much, you can skip to the end now.

Part 1: The People

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Many different themes are raised by the 49 persons who speak in this part of the film—that fact alone is important: Brexit was a magnet for all sorts of discontents. Brexit was not just about one thing. A wide range of interests, a diversity of opinions, and a multitude of different actors pushed for Brexit, a phenomenon that both incorporates but also transcends party ideology, class affiliation, gender, and ethnicity. It is one of the richest, most complicated “events” of our time—much more so than Trump—and this film is excellent in conveying that reality.

Sovereignty and Democracy
The idea that a government should be accountable to the people that elected it, that are closest to it, especially in periods of instability, was made very effectively. The removal of decision-making from one’s immediate locality, and the centralization of power in a large, bureaucratic, distant institution, was criticized by a number of speakers. Standardization imposed by these distant bureaucratic elites, in the name of a unified market, was rejected and ridiculed: everything from banning curly cucumbers, to adding extra tags to the ears of sheep.

About curly English cucumbers being banned, one lady notes how cucumbers “had to be a uniform shape and size”. She then adds: “And that was the beginning for me. And little by little, I started to notice that, our sovereignty and democracy, as I saw it, was eroding”. Another speaker follows by declaring the 2016 Brexit referendum to be, “the biggest democratic vote that the UK has ever undertaken,” one which saw voters getting what they wanted.

National Identity
Some of the speakers, a minority, really emphasized patriotism, attachment to British symbols, the Queen, and remembering Great Britain’s unique history, as motivations for voting for Brexit. One of those who did so was a young woman, who explained how this thinking led her to support the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Though UKIP is widely denounced as fanning the flames of racism, this supporter had absolutely nothing negative to say about immigrants—her only motivation appeared to be about love for her country, its history, and its culture.

Others speak less about symbolism, and more about the materiality of nationalism: a British currency, with British jobs for British citizens—“And really, you can’t complain about that”.

An elderly lady, taking great pride in the result, declares: “I thought, that will show the politicians, who think that we’re a stupid bunch of shopkeepers, as Hitler said it, that we’ve got a mind, and we’ll only take so much, and then it’s…‘No-no’”.

Another wondered how anyone can feel proud to be British: “You cannot be proud of something that you haven’t done”. Yet another complained that it was “irresponsible” of some to feel pride in British identity: “It’s just like you’re just trying to grab on to a collective identity because you’re fucking alone. Because you’re busy all the time, you’ve got nothing”.

However, an elderly man who identifies as a Welsh nationalist, indicates why people have such an attachment—there are stories and songs of national achievement…unlike anything the EU or even more global entities have to offer.

Cosmopolitanism
Divisions between “town and country,” marked the awareness of a number of the speakers and where they stood. These were the divisions between an internationalized London that is no longer recognizably English (“when I go to London I don’t meet many Londoners anymore,” says one), and the hinterland of deindustrialized towns and distant farming regions. Some supporters of leaving the EU complained of the unfair stigmatization of rural Brexit supporters as being racist and uneducated. Meanwhile, a young urban supporter of Remain, declared Remain supporters to be superior to Brexit supporters: Remain requires that one do more reading, and there is more labour involved in becoming attached to that position. Such speakers are openly comfortable with being seen as snobs, apparently feeling that there is no social cost incurred by snobbery. Besides charging pro-Leave voters with ignorance, they accuse them of being driven by emotion. Interestingly, the pro-Leave voters in this film either do not generally conform to that stereotype, or they are not the only ones displaying emotion. However, those supportive of remaining in the EU also acknowledge that one reason it is so difficult to feel emotionally attached to the EU is that, “by definition, it’s this large, relatively faceless body, because it’s an administrative body,” and this is an important point. One must recognize that the nation is still the object of emotional attachment in many places, while abstract supranational entities are not.

Imperial Nostalgia: Making Britain Great Again
Though softly and gently spoken, one of the disquieting features of a handful of speakers was the emphasis on reinstating Britain’s greatness as an imperial power. One declared Britain to be a land of conquerors, who thus seemed to have an almost natural need to venture out and take. Another took pride in the British as a brave race of warriors. Another spoke of the need to make Britain awesome again. Yet even within this fold, there was some amazingly ambivalent, even critical commentary. One working-class imperial nationalist frankly acknowledged that Britain had “raped and pillaged”. His mate, sitting next to him, was quick to remind him that even during the glory days of Empire, the working class was treated like dirt, and that the working class would once again be treated badly if a new empire were to come into being. Those in the imperial camp also supported Brexit, though one did not even mention the Brexit debate at all.

Empire appeared in contrary ways as well. One speaker cast Britain’s downfall as a classic example of the decline—she says implosion—that inevitably affects all empires. On the other hand, she applied the same principle to the EU itself, as a new empire that had grown too big and was now imploding.

One speaker suggested that Britain regaining its former glory was all an illusion. Speaking in front of a burnt out building in Durham, he pointed to the lack of investment, the lack of industries and facilities. The elderly man who closes Part 1 echoed his words, adding that Brexit would not solve these underlying problems.

To Hell with England and Great Britain
A couple of the young people in the film demonstrated an anti-UK consciousness that was specifically rooted in a critique of the very idea of a “Great Britain”. One thus argued that it would be a good thing if Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales separated and formed independent republics—“to hell with Britain”. He called Britain “an aggressor nation,” with a long history of producing injustice and inequality internationally. He did not specifically address Brexit however. A young woman from Northern Ireland, against Brexit, remarked that as a young, rural, lesbian artist, she had experienced unparalleled freedom, and would not want to jeopardize that with a return to the past. As for “dangerous immigrants,” she reminded us that she lives in a place where white people committed a lot of terrorism. However, she felt it was the state that was responsible for creating divisions among citizens, and that it benefited from such divisions. A young Scottish woman, likely a university student, took a pro-Scottish position which was also anti-Brexit—to me, this remains one of the unexplained mysteries. If separation from Britain matters first and foremost, then why must you mandate that Britain remain a part of the EU?

Knocking the Elites back onto their Hind Legs
One speaker had a powerful denunciation, reproduced here in full:

“We’re just sick to the back teeth of the politicians turning around and saying to us: ‘Oh, you disagree with us? We’re not getting our point across’. ‘Oh, you don’t understand the issues’. ‘You’ve been lied to…’. Well, no, the message is: We do understand. We’re sick of your arrogance, we’re sick of your not listening to us, and by voting to get out of Europe, we hoped to get rid of at least one layer of these arrogant parasites”.

Another speaker’s comment, in the same vein, was expressed in plain terms: “Brexit was one of the very rare opportunities for people to say what they wanted to say or actually it’s one of these very rare opportunities where they could say ‘Fuck Off’ to the government”.

Similarly, other speakers attested to distrusting the media—all of the media—and especially any headlines that indulged in scare mongering. They indicated that instead they did their own research, largely bypassing the media. The more sensationalist the media became, the less they attracted attention and trust (one wonders if the media are capable of learning from this).

Immigration and Otherness
We hear from those critical of immigration, and from immigrants themselves, and sometimes the unexpected comes forth. Those critical of immigration either complain of how large numbers of migrants are used to depress wages, or we hear a couple of individuals either suggest or openly assert that Muslim refugees represent a terrorist threat. Scapegoating enters as a theme. Then we hear from a Muslim woman from the Indian subcontinent, who has lived in England all her life, explaining the deep trauma inflicted on her and her young girls by a bruising verbal assault from an apparent Brexit supporter, the morning after the vote. One feels her deep sadness and despair, feeling that everything she knew and liked had suddenly been upended, that she no longer knew what to do now that the place she had learned to love had seemingly turned on her, and had been ripped from her. Then we also hear from a Polish migrant worker, living in a caravan, who explains that if he had been allowed to vote (the vote was restricted to UK citizens) he likely would have voted for Brexit (but we do not hear why). A young woman of Ghanaian parentage explains that her parents supported Brexit, and that she shared her disappointment with new arrivals getting benefits that were being denied to those who had long been in the UK.

A very bright young, white, working class woman in Newcastle instead challenged her dad to prove that any immigrants he ever knew had ever taken away any job of which he was aware, or any house he had seen. She further challenged him to explain when the town’s industry had been shut down—“during the recession”—and “what caused the recession?” she asks. “Bankers,” he replied. She ends: “Alright so it’s bankers and not migrants then that’s caused this problem. So I don’t think it’s a difficult argument to have with working class communities”. She herself was opposed to the EU as a neoliberal institution, yet voted for Remain because she felt the referendum had become about immigration.

Different speakers tried to rationalize why some felt threatened by the presence of newcomers, resorting to the idea of a primordial territoriality being at play. This metaphor is challenged below.

Race
“English is that color” says a white member of the working class, pointing to his forearm. His mate counters, “You cannot say that. I have nothing to do with that last statement,” he says turning to the camera. Another speaker complains, “If you go to any other foreign country you’ll see their flags flying all the time. Now in England you’re a racist if you fly you’re own flag”. A different speaker denounces accusations of Brexit being racist: “There are not 17 and a half million racists in Britain. Just isn’t true”. One of those interviewed complained that racists got an open hearing in the media, and that some of the newspapers made outrageous accusations against migrants, calling them terrorist supporters, or calling for an outright ban of all migrants. Though not the dominant theme in the film, racism was certainly present as one of the key issues dividing voters. Brexit became a catch-all event, a phenomenon that enveloped multiple other phenomena within it.

Political Correctness
A few of those appearing directly criticized the regime of political correctness, which has many persons afraid to express their opinions because they could even be criminalized, and therefore the only way for the silent majority to make itself felt is through votes like Brexit. Another speaker felt that political correctness applied only to white people, as if others do not and cannot make racist comments just by virtue of who they are.

Some of what we hear is directly a consequence of over a decade of Western governments combating what they called religious extremists, violent fundamentalists, and “Islamo-fascists”. How this was all to be switched off in an instant, to accommodate an influx of refugees, defies rational explanation. As one young woman noted, this has all been boiling up at least since 9/11.

Another speaker warned that, by having targeted white working class men as a privileged and oppressive identity group, white workers had been activated as an identity group, and fought back as whites. This argument reminded me of an article by Samir Gandesha in Canadian Dimension last year: “Does ‘anti-racism’ contribute to racism?”.

Stretched Resources
A variety of speakers criticized the influx of migrants for the economic costs it imposed on average citizens. One complained of having greater difficulty gaining access to the health service, to dental care, while another noted that resources were being stretched. Obviously one could argue that this new austerity is artificially imposed by a government that does not make new social funding available to accommodate the growing numbers—on the other hand, one could argue that if the government did so, and tried to spread the costs of new taxes needed to fund the growing demand, that too would be a new austerity measure. The chances are pretty slim of governments increasing taxes on the rich, in a “globalized environment” where governments compete against each other for capital by lowering such taxes to make themselves more attractive to investors. Thus one way or another, globalization itself is the problem.

Another speaker noted that 33% of Britons were concerned about Brexit, 57% were more concerned about the state of the NHS (the public health service). She then pointed out that with the passage of Brexit, the conditions of negotiating and managing the exit would dominate all national discussion, while the NHS as a priority would be pushed into the background. In other words, Brexit would itself cause a thinning of resources.

The Failure of the Left?
No direct and explicit remark is made about any of the political parties (except UKIP), not to mislead the reader into thinking this film contains such content. What was interesting however were the implications of the analysis offered by a working class man in Plymouth:

“It’s a very easy area [Plymouth] to…go out on a right wing sentiment of vote, to push to the right, because it’s economically very vulnerable. It’s very deprived. There’s a lot of people, on zero-hour-contracts here. There’s a lot of people who are being termed now, the JAMs, the ‘just about managing’: they are working essentially to pay for food, rent and bills, and that’s it”.

What a terrible indictment of how much ground the left has ceded, where economic deprivation and precarious living seems to “naturally” guide voters to the right.

Unemployment and Lost Industries
A number of speakers, some of them situated in the very zones of deindustrialization, appeared to explain their pro-Brexit position as being motivated by the vast destruction of British industry. They listed the shutting down of British coal mines, the steel industry, and shipbuilding yards. From a centre of heavy manufacturing, Britain became a centre of importing manufactured goods, which struck some as an unnecessary dependency on foreign sources. A few instead placed the blame on increased automation—and automation thus became one of the dominant themes toward the end of both parts 1 and 2. Only one person in part 1, who spoke about automation, seemed to have an answer as to what to do about automation and the reduction of available jobs: reduce the number of working days and hours, and pay a social wage, as has been done in various Scandinavian experiments. Others, especially older speakers, disagree: jobs are freedom, self-esteem, and give one a sense of purpose.

As for foreigners taking jobs—a recurring theme across a number of speakers—one young man referred to his friends who refused to work in a field or in a sandwich-packing plant because they felt there were no qualifications to be gained and no room for promotion. When Eastern Europeans came in and took those very jobs, which English workers had refused, the complaint was then that Eastern Europeans had taken their jobs. Just as one speaker invoked the territoriality of a dog protecting its garden, I would think that the more appropriate metaphor here would be of the dog in the manger.

Others instead said the problem was not the number of jobs available, but the level of pay. Those that did so blamed the “greed of the upper echelons,” rather than migrants.

In one area, while older industries (margarine, dye, salt, matches) had closed down, the speaker stood in front of a wall of shipping containers and spoke of a new port being built nearby, an increase in shipping, and office buildings. She spoke of new jobs being created.

A number of speakers noted how useless education had become. An older pair remembered getting engineering apprenticeships at 15 years of age, straight out of school and without qualifications, while those coming out of university today cannot find work. This is backed up by an unemployed university student: “to be quite honest, I would have been better off not having gone to university, and studying a vocation; in my opinion I would have got a lot further”. The older ones placed part of the blame on the plethora of “silly degrees” being offered by universities.

Declining Standard of Living
A few speakers, especially younger ones, noted the decline in the standard of living since the onset of globalization. Wages and job opportunities have both declined. Many young people are living with their parents longer, and putting off getting their own homes and building their own families. One explained the problem as being unaffordable rents, plus unavailable social housing, and expensive house prices—thus limiting the chances of finding any independence.

“The End” of Everything
Part 1 comes to a close with some particularly grim remarks, supposedly inspired by biblical prophesy, that we are now close to the end of the world as we know it. What made the remarks so chilling was how gently the inevitability was put across, but also because both you and I, if we were honest enough to admit it, have felt and thought the very same thing. The danger is that we might fulfill our own prophesy.

Reality is Not a Series of Stereotypes
Some speakers do not fill any one slot. A number of them simply expressed surprise that the vote to leave the EU won, without saying which side they took. Others frankly admit to being of two minds. Others still did not even vote, either because of citizenship, or because of age.

On the whole, the subjects defy stereotyping. There are elderly white voters who are badly shocked and depressed with the Brexit victory. There are elderly white farmers who voted for Remain. There is a young woman in London who voted for Brexit. There is a Polish immigrant who supported Brexit, as well as a descendant of immigrants from Ghana. There is an anti-racist working-class woman who is white, and from the hinterland. Little is as clear-cut as the standard analysis published by some academics and most columnists.

We are not left with a feeling of glowing optimism about Brexit, as a result of watching this film. Few are exuberant. Instead, a particularly sad elderly man, sitting at his kitchen table, concluded Part 1 with these words:

“Brexit doesn’t matter, ’cause we’ve got nothing anyhow”.

Part 2: The Experts

To be candid, had the film consisted entirely of Part 2, it would not have made for a documentary as rich in significance and as memorable as what was actually presented. That in itself tells us something important, when “ordinary people” make a document vibrant, interesting and alive with thought-provoking potential, compared to a drier academic presentation. Another reviewer had this to say:

“The more conventional, talking heads ‘experts’ provide the less interesting section of Brexitannia, lending the film a rather disjointed feel. Real people are much more compelling and their uninhibited conversations allow Timothy George to hold up a mirror to Britain and reflect back a society with all its warts on display”.

Note the impression that academics make: we are not compelling, not like real people—but we supposedly lack warts, so that’s something. At any rate, this juxtaposition might be one of the clever effects of the film itself: it leads us towards a critical view of experts in elite positions by juxtaposing the two sets of speakers, so that by experiencing this reaction for ourselves we better understand where many of Part 1’s speakers are coming from.

Without wanting to criticize just for the sake of it, I still cannot say that the speakers in Part 2 were vital to this film. In some instances, their basic points were rather garbled. Noam Chomsky seems to struggle in explaining the differences between policies and experts in a democracy, only to then conclude that neoliberal democracy is not a democracy. Federico Campagna makes an odd point: “It’s often lamented that there aren’t enough jobs. Of course this is ironic as in the fact that there aren’t enough jobs should be a good sign”. Unless one is extraordinarily cynical, how does the fact there are not enough jobs—which means there is unemployment—become “a good sign”? He explains: “the fact that there aren’t enough jobs, means that there aren’t enough unsatisfied needs that we need to satisfy”. So, joblessness means that everyone has satisfied their needs. Some thinkers are just too complex for me, apparently. Guy Standing makes very familiar, well known points about neoliberalism meaning privatization, market liberalization, and corporatization. Nick Srnicek alleges an absence of a well-defined and clear alternative to neoliberalism, which explains why everything now seems chaotic—although it would have been more accurate to say that none of the alternatives have yet achieved political hegemony. Heidi Mirza overemphasizes the racism of pro-Brexit voters, apparently stung by something an elderly man told her on the street, and her entire commentary focuses on whiteness. She would have been accomplishing one of the aims of neoliberal politicians by getting us to hate the working class—except that she explains that divisions between white workers and black/migrant workers are orchestrated by what she calls the super elites. Otherwise I am generally unimpressed with the reductionism of racial theory on Brexit, and the film itself provides only a little substance to support its heavy contentions.

The film as a whole is in fact good at making the anti-racist pro-working class theme come through strongly. A number of speakers, whether “experts” or not, make the basic observation that it is never migrants who shut down industries, who legislate against wage increases, who deliberately under-fund the health system, and that fail to build enough public housing. Blaming migrants for poverty and austerity is essentially blaming the poor.

Indeed, much of the film seems to have been designed with the aim of combating demonization: the demonization of immigrants, and the demonization of white workers. Of course, there is also disagreement within the film itself, on these very points.

The most memorable commentary in Part 2 came from Saskia Sassen, compiled here:

Last Thoughts and an Assessment

One of the ideas that was provoked by this film was that I began to think that of the two phenomena—Brexit (plus the populist wave in Europe), and the election of Donald Trump—that Brexit is and will be of greater world historic importance than Trump. Brexit implicates a whole continent, and a range of simultaneous struggles that span from Greece to Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Austria, Hungary, Germany, The Netherlands, and the UK, with far-reaching international consequences beyond that. With Brexit, neoliberalism itself comes into sharp focus as a target of critique and protest—but not so clearly in the case of Trump. Also, while Trump may like to characterize himself as the head of a “movement,” he comes across more as a media/celebrity event than a movement. Without a real movement, Trump will be a moment. Maximizing all attention to himself, claiming all credit, sidelining allies and selling out friends, Trump stands alone—by design. If Trump had a movement, then who else stands tall in that movement? Name a second towering figure of importance, a likely successor. If it is a movement, who are the movement’s intellectuals? Who are its representative speakers? Instead we have various columnists and writers from think-tanks penning flattering assessments in order to push their pet projects onto Trump, some of which directly clash with his 2016 campaign. Most of Trump’s neocon supporters and defenders at Fox News would be a prime example. Brexit is a phenomenon; Trump is a personality. Because Brexit is a force of millions, it will have an afterlife that extends well beyond the present. But after Trump, what is there?

As for this film, I have to agree with a reviewer who wrote the following:

“Provocative, extremely political without cheap morals or even conclusions, Brexitannia must be watched by everyone that wants to understand the UK’s present political and social situation, and even the world’s”.

This film would be ideal for a wide range of courses that deal with contemporary political economy, from anthropology to sociology, geography, political science, international relations, cultural studies, British studies, and European studies. Given the sophistication of the film and its superb quality as a testimonial document that provokes a great deal of thought and should stimulate class discussion and advance learning, I am compelled to give the film a rare score of 9.5/10.

(This documentary review forms part of the political economy series on Zero Anthropology. This documentary was viewed four times before the written review was published.)

7 thoughts on “Brexitannia: The Faces and Voices of Brexit

  1. Kali

    Thank you for this review (and calling my attention to this film). I also want to thank you for renewing my enthusiasm for anthropology. I dropped out of grad school in the mid-1990s out of sheer disgust at the field and where it was heading at the time. So glad to see that some anthropologists continue with the tradition of thought and inquiry that drew me to the field of study nearly 30 years ago.

  2. Dan Clarke

    This was a really excellent review. I’ve kept up on Brexit but it’s just such a mash of issues that it’s hard to make sense of. This review cut through a lot and has left me excited to see the film. Many Thanks

  3. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 05/26/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

  4. Karl Kolchak

    Another terrific essay, but I have one quibble. Trump is indeed part of America’s conservative movement, he just didn’t start it nor does he really control it. Being an opportunist, he was willing to say things no other (especially conservative) politician was willing to say to get elected, but his core support comes from from reactionary right wing American billionaires who have been steadily pushing America’s politics rightward for decades now and are delighted with how much Trump has sped up the erosion of political norms. As Trump fades from the scene, a far more cunning and competent successor will indeed appear (my money is on Pence), and because the Democratic opposition provides no real alternative (driving the American working class to the right in a parallel with many of the Brexiteers), they will succeed in their ultimate goal of snuffing out what little remains of our necrotic representative democracy.

    1. Maximilian C. Forte

      I see your point Karl, but what you are calling a movement is something that is institutionalized and reigns at the top. Trump does not have a movement that is something like the Peronist movement in Argentina, or Le Pen’s movement in France, and so on. His is a highly personalized phenomenon, with a so-called “base” that could vanish overnight (in parts of the US, it has been significantly eroded already).

      There is a way to accelerate the process you identified: impeach Trump. The next batter up is Mike Pence. He would be such a nefarious and dangerous alternative, so utterly destructive, that there is a decent chance the US will not have legs left to walk on after he’s done.

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