On March 24th, as part of their ‘Right Now’ season of documentaries, the Phoenix screened Brexitannia. On the same day, an anti-Brexit really, ‘Devon for Europe’, was taking place on the streets of Exeter town centre. In response, a number of pro-Brexit citizens took to the other side of the road in counter-protest, creating what can only be described as a striking tableau of a binary. The split of opinion manifested itself in a literal representation, two opposing sides divided by a road between them.
Fitting then that these two events should happen simultaneously, as that division is what lies at the very heart of Brexitannia. Timothy George Kelly’s impressively comprehensive and wide-reaching film is all about binaries and direct oppositions, right down to filming the whole piece in black and white. Even the structure of the film is split in two, between ‘The People’, and ‘The Experts’. From the opening shot of a map showing the percentages of ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ voters, there is a palpable sense of two distinct sides.
‘The People’ section, which makes up the majority of the piece, consists of a wide range of interviews from various citizens who voted or were affected by the vote. A minimalistic approach is taken throughout the interviews, often simply placing the speakers against a background that represents an aspect of contemporary British life affected by Brexit, such as fishing docks, a farm or a block of flats. The result is that we have an opportunity to hear unfiltered perspectives from the interviewees, letting them speak for themselves in raw and plain terms. This can be both emotional, as with an elderly man’s concession ‘Brexit doesn’t matter, because we’ve got nothing anyhow’, as well as deeply unsettling; the moment when a white man casually points at his arm and states ‘English is that colour’, before following it up with ‘I’m not racist by the way’, comes to mind.
“We have an opportunity to hear unfiltered perspectives from the interviewees, letting them speak for themselves in raw and plain terms”
However, what is most revealing during these snippets, is the uncertainty on both sides over the minutiae of the situation. There is a telling moment where one woman, when justifying her vote, discusses how she doesn’t know the specifics of the situation so can’t give a complete answer. This pattern of contradictions and confusion colours the monochrome palette of the film, as a collage of obfuscated information forms from the soundbites. Again, it becomes clear that the binaries of ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing, of ‘for’ and ‘against’, have blinded people to the intricacies of the situation, that there is no black and white solution as simple as choosing an all-encompassing side.
Though the film describes itself as ‘non-judgemental’, suggesting a totally objective viewpoint, it does veer into moments where very clear, critical points are made. There is no narration or dialogue that casts judgement, but the way Kelly uses the grammar of cinema to invite the audience to think about the way binaries affect our perspective, comes across as a criticism of our current approach to political and social discourse. Particularly, the way in which Kelly composes some of his edits seems to challenge the assumptions of the speakers head on, such as a moment where complaining about ‘white people not being allowed to be racist’ is followed by a Muslim woman recounting racial abuse from a white person the day after the vote.
“A pattern of contradictions and confusion colours the monochrome palette of the film, as a collage of obfuscated information forms from the soundbites”
Most telling of all is Kelly’s use of the temporal aspect of cinema to convey this point. The second part of the film, entitled ‘The Experts’, featuring interviews with speakers such as Noam Chomsky, is only around 20 minutes in comparison to the hour of interviews for the first section. This seems to me a very cunning way of criticising the way information is distributed unfairly between the two ‘types’ of people the film covers. Whilst this closing section does start to give more clarity and more answers, it raises the prescient question of why these ideas and information are not more widely discussed amongst ‘The People’.
Brexitannia is a unique and subtly challenging look at not only what has happened to Britain following the Brexit vote, but the way in which we engage with each other, and the way in which factors like class and wealth can be used to generate fear and division. Though I have mentioned the film doesn’t feel entirely non-partisan at points, I mean this in no way as a criticism. The point it gestures towards is championing intelligent and compassionate dialogue, which, in a Britain as unsettled and fractured as the one it portrays, is precisely what is needed.
A Q&A with the film’s director, Timothy George Kelly, will be published next week.