Katharine Round on The Divide
Panama Papers, “dodgy” Daves and offshore squirrelling; director and producer Katharine Round’s cogent new documentary The Divide could not be released at a more pertinent time. As questions are raised over dubious financial practices, the power of “the 1%” and unnerving economic inequality; The Divide, (inspired by bestseller The Spirit Level), explores the affects and influence of this polarity on everyday lives both here and in the US. BEV caught up with Katharine Round (also a participant on Filmonomics). The Divide is released on Friday 22nd April.
The release of the film coincides with current debates around the financial dealings of politicians and the richest. What do you feel is the relevance of the film and topic in light of these recent revelations?
KR: I think the recent revelations have highlighted just how much wealth and power is concentrated in very few hands, and in some senses the film couldn’t be any more timely. What’s often missing in conversations about this however is what it means for the society we live in. It might not be fair or morally right to take part in this kind of tax avoidance, but beyond that, it tears at the fabric of society. Extreme inequality affects health outcomes, erodes trust and pulls psychological levers in all of us that create anxiety and insecurity. This is the story The Divide focuses on, so instead of being another film telling us what’s wrong, we actually see and live it through the eyes of our characters in very human terms.
The film follows the stories of 7 individuals both here and in the states. What made you decide on this duel approach rather than just focusing on issues in the UK (or indeed the US) alone?
The inspiration for the film was the book The Spirit Level, which explores the relationship between levels of inequality and social outcomes across a range of different countries. The US and the UK are amongst the countries with the highest levels of inequality, and the reasons for the growth in both countries is a shared economic history and ideological shift which has led to changes in attitudes towards markets, the adoption of similar policies regarding labour rights, and the financialisation of both economies (amongst other factors). Much of this ideology originates from the US, the country with the highest level of inequality, and where the social effects are most pronounced. However, I didn’t want to make a film just about the US, even though that may have been easier in some senses, because this would be to deny that the effects of these attitudes have fed through to other territories. Because the UK is the closest historically, it felt natural to include what is happening here too. Inequality in the UK is not as severe as the US, we do have a greater safety net, but it is widening rapidly so in some senses viewed from here we can see the US elements of the film as a warning as to where we’re heading if we continue on our current path.
Why did you want to make this film and do you think film can effect change?
KR: When I read “The Spirit Level’ I was struck by the power of the relationships shown between high levels of inequality and social outcomes in a society. It’s something that is discussed a lot in certain circles but the message doesn’t seem to break through elsewhere, perhaps because it is difficult to relate to abstract concepts around economics and easy to get fatigue around statistics. I felt that if you could put a face to this research and create an emotional connection to what it actually means, then it might reach further.. Which of course is something you can do with film that is much harder with a non-fiction book. The narratives and stories told by the media are instrumental in shaping how the world is viewed, so a film that shines a light on an important issue or lets us meet someone who alters our view of the world can be incredibly powerful. We’ve seen real change happen as a result of films, from Blackfish to the Act of Killing and the End of the Line.
You choose to focus on people and personal testimonies, powerful subtlety rather than doc shock tactics or ‘gasp stats’. What criteria led you to choosing those who participated in the final film?
KR: I was looking for people through whom we could understand both the big picture economic shifts, and more importantly, the social effects on our lives. So by looking at the sectors of the economy that have been most affected by each of the broader trends I was able to speak to a huge number of people and gain a greater understanding of how their lives had been affected by the circumstances they now find themselves in. In the US I spoke to those in the fast food industry who are fighting for a living wage, employees of the largest multinational corporation Walmart, workers on Wall Street, and many others. In the UK I looked at the prevalence of zero hours contracts and the effects on the caring professions. It was then a process of figuring out how these different lives would fit together to tell a coherent story which encompassed the broad reasons for the rise in inequality across both countries, but through whom we could experience the psychological and social effects and gain a greater understanding of the human meaning of inequality.
The film was initiated via a successful crowd funding campaign and your collaboration with Dartmouth Films on the release takes an independent, personal approach to reaching audiences. Can you talk a bit about how new (perhaps more democratic) modes of producing/distributing documentaries affect you as a filmmaker?
KR: Working independently gives a huge amount of editorial control but obviously we don’t have the same resources as big studios or broadcasters, which is always a challenge. Crowdfunding was a way of enabling us to make a film as ambitious in scope and vision as one funded more traditionally, but through small contributions from a large number of people who supported the project. It meant we didn’t have to engage with traditional broadcasters who may have compromised the film to suit their own agenda, and helped it to be and remain editorially independent, which I felt was important when dealing with a subject like this one!