Next month sees the release of Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature The Levelling. Set in Somerset, the film centres on Clover, a veterinary graduate who has to return to her family farm to help prop up her Father after her brother’s death, apparently by suicide. It is an astonishing debut from Leach, with lead Ellie Kendrick surely on her way to stardom with an exceptional performance. The film is set on a farm in Somerset. The Levelling was made through Creative England’s iFeatures scheme, which exists primarily to encourage filmmaking in the regions- the soon to be released Lady Macbeth was also made through the scheme, and is already marked to be a huge hit. iFeatures is relatively new, and it’s encouraging to see some success stories coming through.
But it does highlight a huge problem in both film production and exhibition in the UK- which is that, as an industry, we are still so London-centric, and indeed urban-centric. At a time where we are focused on the need to be inclusive in our storytelling, whilst we may be making steps towards having a greater representation in the way of characters and stories, perhaps we do need to start drawing attention to the lack of representation of spaces, and how these spaces are an integral part of a more diverse cinema.
Riz Ahmed drew upon the need for greater representation in his recent parliamentary speech , where he highlighted the lack of roles available for Asian actors, and how the presentation of Asian people on TV and in film as either terrorists or shopkeepers is unhelpful. What Ahmed was getting at is that it’s not enough to have black and brown people present- there is a need to subvert negative or archetypal representations of people in order to truly achieve equal on-screen representation.
With that in mind, we need to start thinking about how space relates to those representations. For example, if you are the only black family in your entire village, how are you supposed to connect to the story of a black family, set in on a London council estate, when you don’t have any familiar reference points? Where the characters in the film are part of an integrated community? It starts to be really troubling when an entire race of people is assumed to be sharing one universal experience. And it’s a real problem in the industry at a time where many black British filmmakers are struggling to get films made in the first place. Because, in this supposedly more tolerant landscape, Black filmmakers are struggling even further to get films made about black families that don’t live on a council estate. That may sound like a bold statement, but sadly, the volume of anecdotal evidence that I’ve heard in five years of working on the industry tells me it’s true.
Let’s also take the subject of poverty- a staple in British, class-obsessed cinema. There are people living in poverty throughout the UK. And again, cinema would have it that most of those people live in high rise council blocks in urban areas, such as London. Of course, there are many parts of London with huge levels of social deprivation- areas of Newham and Tower Hamlets in particular, and these areas should not be ignored. But poverty and social deprivation runs throughout the UK- particularly in old seaside towns such a Margate, Blackpool and Rhyl, which were once buzzing with holidaymakes, but are now left desolate. Many of those in desperate situations don’t live in a high rise flat- many of them don’t even have homes. Yet our cinema currently only seems to look at poverty through this urban lens. Ken Loach is an obvious example of a filmmaker who deals exclusively with working-class stories outside of London- yet even Loach’s broad CV lacks a presentation of working class people that exist outside of this particular set up. The problem with this is that audiences then start to only associate poverty with a very particular setting; a setting which ignores literally thousands of people in coastal, rural and suburban settings.
With this in mind, The Levelling is really interesting, not because it’s focus is on a particularly underrepresented group in terms of the race or class of the characters, but actually because she is using an unfamiliar setting to talk about a universal issue, namely the issue of grief and suicide. Suicide in particular is often presented as an exclusively working class issue. The problem with this assumption, is that working-class people are then used as plot devices to explore the issue. For example, a character will have a mother who has committed suicide, which then drives them to drink and drug abuse, which then leads to unwanted pregnancy- etc. etc. These working-class characters are often just clothes horses for a number of terrible, terrible issues, which slowly begins to strip them of their identity as people, and turns them in to objects of pity (one of the main reasons I was not a fan of Daniel Blake, sorry Ken.)
But this idea of diversifying spaces doesn’t just help in terms of class, race or gender representations, but can also be useful when exploring issues that transcend any of those elements. What Leach does in The Levelling, is to ask the audience to throw away their preconceptions of the kind of people who are affected by suicide, by placing the character in an unfamiliar setting. She is a character who for many, is in an environment that is unrecognisable, but who is suffering in a way that anybody who dares to imagine can understand. With the level of stigma attached to suicide and mental health issues in general, it’s so important to inform audiences that there is not one specific type of person who suffers. The circumstances which lead to the apparent suicide in the case of The Levelling, are in many ways specific to the environment, which again forces the audience to challenge themselves on how they view this particular issue. This device doesn’t only educate audiences who may have narrow ideas, but it also offers an olive branch to those in similar settings who feel that they can’t speak up.
At a production level, things do seem to be slowly changing. But exhibition needs to catch up too. The great gift to exhibitors with telling stories outside of London and urban areas, is that people of that town or village will flock to see their stories told on screen, and it is a tool that many exhibitors use currently, that serves them well. The next step is to start taking more of a risk with programming regional stories across the country, and not just in London and those specific areas.
At a time where we rapidly need to broaden representation, it is worth remembering that people’s relationship to their own space is as important as their relationship to each other. If we do not diversify these spaces, then we are not truly achieving representation.