It’s safe to say that Katharine Round and Gordon Gekko would not see eye to eye if asked whether greed was good. The British filmmaker’s subtly profound documentary, The Divide, laments the growing inequality between the super rich and all us plebs below them. Round’s film is yet another rallying cry for the masses to rage against the machine, but one which retains a sickening sense of history repeating itself. Burning with injustice, even helplessness, it is a commendably even-handed indictment of capitalism that leaves an undeniably bitter taste in the mouth.
As much as Michael Douglas’ amoral Wall Street high flier was concerned with a monumental bank balance, his now trademark tagline also speaks to an attitude, aspiration to a rotten nightmare of the American Dream where trappings of wealth and the wants of ambitious individuals exceed the well-being of the collective. The Divide echoes this in depicting gated communities where “Only poor people rake their own leaves;” family life, community spirit, and togetherness usurped by one-upmanship over friendship. The issues of race and religion – so often scapegoated for all society’s ills – are secondary to finance here in terms of segregating demographic groups. In testimony from both sides of The Pond, a nurse, a recovering alcoholic, a prison inmate, KFC and Walmart employees, a Wall Street shrink, and a housewife all speak of their desired goals. To varying degrees, they all simply want a comfortable life.
It’s unfortunate that Round is unable to counterbalance the weight of the US contingent, the British portion of the film frequently feeling little more than an afterthought. However, she does elicit genuine warmth, openness and instances of bittersweet humour from the subjects chosen. A day to day struggle and plucky determination go hand in hand for many, but there is an ever present air of crushing disappointment and hopelessness which generates real pathos, reinforced by a sorrowful howling of delta blues. Overworked executives spend little to no time with their families before dying from stress-induced heart attacks; the unemployed or minimum wage workers, poverty-stricken, live hand to mouth. All the while bank bosses reap enormous salaries. In light of the convoluted mess that was The Big Short, Round’s argumentation is refreshingly simple.
The Divide prefaces a retrospective on the Thatcher/Reagan era onwards with bare facts. Drawn from The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Round proclaims financial inequality, and by extension social mobility, is currently at its worst since 1928. Rather than take a statistic-heavy route, the director makes her points relatable to all by personalising the plights of individuals who are either slaves to or victims of a system that just doesn’t care. She intrudes infrequently, prompting conversation, but Round’s voice is heard loud and clear throughout. The Divide may only be a drop in a vast and unjust ocean of inequality but the small ripples it sends out are significant.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens