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Film The Inside story of raising consciousness

DEIRDRE O'NEILL explains how a unique film project is promoting cultural democracy and awareness among an impoverished and silenced working class

INSIDE Film is a film-making project that works in prisons, with people on parole and, more recently, with foodbank users. Run completely by volunteers, we teach the theory and practice of film-making and this integration of theory and practice we consider to be a critical intervention into the reality of working-class lives.

An awareness of the reality of life for the working class can be documented or theorised. But it remains simply a question of perception if not accompanied by the ability to challenge that reality in meaningful ways.

The fusing of theory and practice — what Marx referred to as praxis —  makes possible the production of alternative interpretations by people considered disposable under neoliberalism and whose narratives are currently removed from the public sphere.

The students taking part in the project make their own films that they script, storyboard, act in, shoot and edit. The idea underpinning the project is that working-class people have the right to access the means of cultural production, which in turn provides them with the skills, and builds the confidence, to represent their own lives.

Working-class values, attitudes and experiences are distinct from those of other classes. Working-class people think differently, have different priorities and share experiences that separate them from the middle and upper classes. They demonstrate a strong commitment to family and community and are more inclined to think and act collectively.

They also tend to have a solid work ethic although, if you garnered your knowledge of working-class people from their representation on reality television programmes that denigrate participants while sensationalising poverty, you might not think this is true.

Working-class life is often defined externally to the people who live it, by people with no experience of it. Many cultural projects run for the “benefit” of the working class are dependent on middle-class professionals who create situations where they can access funding, further their careers and signal their “declassed” progressiveness.

These projects do not attempt to build movements able to engage critically with neoliberalism. Instead, they develop institutionally approved education programmes focused on ameliorating the pain and despair caused by neoliberalism and, in the process, contain and manage any potential for dissent.

Presenting as politically neutral, they perpetuate the dominant values of the social, cultural and economic status quo.

The generally negative one-dimensional representations and constantly repeated stereotypes of working-class people and working-class lives within the dominant culture are based on the decontextualised end results of lives crippled by neoliberalism and the predations of corporate capitalism.

The processes that create those results, the psychological impact of classism and the effects of its discriminatory practices on the subjectivity of working-class people are ignored.

The films made by the people we work with represent the experience of the working class, whether that involves blurring the boundaries between right and wrong — as the prison films do — or providing a stark picture of life without the means to provide enough food for yourself or your family, as The Food Bank Film does.

These are stories of working-class life narrated by working-class people. They deal with the multiple realities of working-class life as it is lived now – the anger, the contradictions and sometimes the resignation that austerity has created and the consequences of being working-class in a society where you are not valued.

Our insistence on the primacy of class, the rejection of liberal subjectivity and the building of solidarity based on shared experience are crucial factors in the work done by Inside Film.

We have never found this concentration on class to pose a problem for the students we work with. On the contrary, we have found it useful in mounting a defence against the postmodern insistence on the impossibility of stable categories and paradigmatic bodies of knowledge.

You can call our position one of crude Marxism and accuse us of essentialism – that’s fine, we will continue to work with the material reality of working-class lives while arguing that the essentialism you accuse us of is apparent everyday in the one dimensional representation of working-class people in mainstream culture.

The Inside Film project is linking questions of representation to questions of class consciousness and the potential for that consciousness to demand participation in a public sphere from which the working class have been strategically, deliberately and increasingly excluded.

It is demanding that the production of film and the process of education be viewed dialectically through the optic of the wider social and political spectrum of capitalist relations, particularly as they relate to class.

Within the mainstream media, working-class meanings and working class realities are constructed as subordinate — the continuation of the present system is dependent on the exclusion and rejection of working-class meanings.

Our aim is to bring those subordinate meanings to the fore and to position them as the primary meanings. This can only be achieved by wresting control of the means of cultural production from those for whom the present state of affairs is both rewarding and profitable.

It means claiming working-class perspectives are not simply marginalised perspectives that need to be considered as one perspective among many.  What we are arguing is that working-class experience and the knowledge embedded within that experience holds the potential to contribute to political and cultural transformations based on fairness, community and collective interests.

That is why the project aims to articulate and to bring into focus what should be glaringly obvious — it is working-class people who have the unique ability and the undeniable right to talk about what it means to be working class, to represent themselves at this particular historical moment.

The current emphasis on the politics of identity groups derives much of its legitimacy from its ability to direct attention away from questions of class politics and on to non-economic, more socially and politically acceptable forms of single-issue discrimination.

Those issues are generated not by the capitalist system itself, as is the case with class, but emerge from the need to downplay the unequal distribution of wealth under capitalism.

The denial and disavowal of working-class experience within the dominant culture means that the necessary understanding that can lead to political transformation requires an excavation of working-class experience so that it can be re-evaluated, not under the terms of the values of the dominant culture but in relation to the specific values of working-class life.

The concept of cultural democracy presents us with a choice. We can stay within the confines of what is politically, intellectually and culturally acceptable and tinker at the edges to make life a little less brutal for those who are deliberately excluded.

Or we can make a stand and align ourselves with the downtrodden, the impoverished and the silenced.

The Foodbank Film is available on the Inside Film website,



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