The point of the film The Acting Class (2017) was to draw attention to how working-class people are neglected, their voices censored, and their concerns ignored. We used the acting profession as an example from which it would be possible to generalise to other areas of public life. We wanted to demonstrate how the difficulties working class people face when trying to get into the industry, stay in the industry and get on in the industry constitute a recognisable model replicated in other professions.
What we have seen over the last four decades is a continuous renewal of capitalism by the very people who claim they want to see its downfall. While they might proclaim their commitment to social justice, at the same time they position themselves in ways that pose no threat to the establishment and the neoliberal institutions they profess to criticise. They fail to understand the solutions that they offer are themselves a product of the neoliberal order.
One of the ‘interesting’ aspects of the covid pandemic was how it became apparent that we were all dependent on the ‘unskilled’ labour of the low paid but essential jobs done by the working class and how they were all of a sudden “key workers” and “heroes”. Meanwhile the middle class, who have ignored and profited from the shocking deterioration of the conditions of working-class life for the last forty years, wrung their hands in shock at the crisis. The acting profession, both in front of the camera and behind is dominated by the middle classes. These are people who consider the working class that’s if they consider them at all — as a niche market for the arthouse crowd.
One look at the symbolic often tokenistic performance of dissidence that takes place in universities and art galleries demonstrates how the dominant culture, in all its manifestations, is subservient to the needs of capital. As Marx and Engels pointed out, the cultural ideas in circulation at any given time serve the interests of the ruling class. The reason they do this is because our cultural environment is dictated to us by a very narrow strata of people – as Elliot Barnes -Worrell points out in the film when middle class cultural workers meet – they recognise each other saying –‘you went to Cambridge, I went to Cambridge, we went to Cambridge – let’s all be together’ and that’s the situation we currently find ourselves in in a nutshell.
The result is that most of the people involved in the industry share a world view, a constrained and narrow view, one lacking experience of working-class life or working-class people. This means the majority of representations of working-class life are literally filtered through the lens of a middle class who have never lived on a council estate, never gone hungry, never had three jobs to survive or used a food bank – and yet it is this strata that make the decisions about the kind of films that get funded, the kind of stories that get told, the kind of representations we are subjected to and the kind of people who get to do the acting. It’s important to place this exclusion within a wider political context. The restricted access to the forces of cultural production, the denial of the right of working class voices to be heard and their stories told is one of the essential methods by which those with power reproduce and consolidate that power.
So, the question is, how do we create the spaces for cultural production not just in film but in theatre, television, journalism that includes the working class? I’m not talking here about entering already existing spaces- why would we want to be in them? These spaces have been built to intentionally exclude us, to make it difficult for us to enter or if we do manage to enter make it difficult for us to remain. Allowing a few working-class people access to the means of a model of cultural production that has been set up by, and run for the benefit of the middle classes and where our inclusion is conditional on agreeing to our assimilation will not change the structural conditions that legitimatise the exclusion of the working class from all areas of the public sphere.
I am not suggesting that we struggle for an opportunity to move into spaces within the existing film culture, so that we can, maybe, represent the working class in a more authentic way. That simply means accessing, perhaps from a more critical perspective, the already existing modes of film production. What we need to do is work towards opening a space in which we can create a dissident, oppositional film culture.
The internet and digital film culture have expanded the potential for a new kind of film culture and has made a limited form of exhibition and distribution easier. Platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo have made it possible for filmmakers without access to the mainstream avenues of distribution and exhibition to upload and distribute their films.
But, generally speaking, these films are not treated seriously by the mainstream film establishment. They are ignored by those involved in dominant film production and are not critically discussed.
So how do we build a working-class film culture, one that begins to change how we understand film and who has the ‘right’ to make films, star in films, produce and exhibit films? How can we disrupt the existing film culture, instead of fitting comfortably within it?
The key is participation in a community-based film culture with its own screening spaces and independent forms of distribution and exhibition. The trade unions should be funding training in editing and camera work for working class people -they should be funding acting /scriptwriting workshops for working-class people run by working-class people. They should be run at times and in places that are accessible.
Training should be linked to a political education — it is of the utmost urgency that we create a film culture that is able to represent the working class in ways that working people can recognise and engage with.
We need to address the issues important to working-class lives by responding to their immediate concerns, so that we can build a vision of how a very different society might begin to emerge.