Neighbours (BBC, UK, 1980)

st pauls man

The BBC commissioned this film in 1980. It is a documentary about St Pauls, a multi-racial area of Bristol that has been neglected by the government. According to the opening narration the film was made by a multi-racial film crew, and is “a film directed by the people, for the people”. I cannot find much on it except a series of youtube videos. Each video is ten minutes long and there are five of them, but the third has somehow been edited over by someone who thinks their own dubstep video is better than the middle of the film. This is a testament to the capricious nature of contemporary media.

This capriciousness is not, in itself, a bad thing. Without media being changeable, subject to manipulation in a variety of ways, it may be impossible to subvert copyright laws. It is also a fact that even without direct ‘interference’ to the text, films change anyway because experiences are not static, our perceptions of them change over time.

My perception of Neighbours is no exception. It is an observational documentary, ‘designed’ in the typical ‘objective’ sense to ‘inform’ the viewer. The language used by the narrator, however, can be pegged as facile upon cursory analysis. The first shot of the film is an aerial shot of St Pauls, the subject matter of the film. As the camera pans across the roofs of houses the narrator tells the audience what we are looking at. We are told how there are many communities such as St Pauls, which harbors an Irish community, an Asian community, and, the topic in question, the West Indian community.

The immediate problem with this introduction is the omission of the ‘white’ community. Are there no ‘English’ people living in St Pauls? This leads to another question: Why is it that anyone not white becomes part of a ‘community’, as if all ‘minorities’ are homogenous groups that somehow co-exist without ever interacting with anyone outside the ‘community’? To answer these questions we can look at two theories on ‘whiteness’, and the ‘community’ respectively.

In Richard Dyer’s book White, the author describes how the most dominant power in a society will make itself invisible, so as to give the appearance that it isn’t a power at all (review of the book here: 9.1.r_kuchta.txt). That white-ness goes without mention is a testament to the intravenous dominance of white customs and traditions. The fact that until the 1970’s (possibly even later) it was a rule that all BBC voiceovers had to be spoken in the ‘queen’s English’ is resonated in the middle-class tone of the narration of this film. But the bigger problem is that your average viewer won’t even notice.

When the high aerial shot pans over St Pauls community and the narrator tells the audience what they are looking at in a bourgeois accent, the subversive achievement is the establishment of a false dialectic between ‘us’ and ‘them’, which is all the more powerful because ‘us’ is not an obvious factor in either the creation of this picture by the BBC, or a ‘white’ interpretation of it. The narration, coupled with the distance between the camera and the subject matter of the film, politely enforces a separation. This is both furthered and hidden by the idea that the film is made “by the people, for the people”. I will come back to this later.

In Unspeak, Stephen Poole talks about the use of the word ‘community’ by the government and mainstream media in order to place any single individual within a common, simplified discourse surrounding identity (website for the book here: unspeak.net). The ‘primary definers’ of information in the case of a media story that has anything to do with non-whites are generally ‘community leaders’, creating the idea that these people speak for everyone within the ‘community’. This solidifies the notion of ‘community’ as something separate from the nation as a whole. It is as if the nation encompasses a range of communities, but those communities are not themselves the nation, they just reside here, or rather, ‘we’ allow them to.

Examples of this type of intravenous separation manifest as a false dialectic between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This can be seen in Neighbours from the beginning. The introduction, which states how the film is made “by the people, for the people” evokes an image of the BBC giving thousands of pounds worth of filming equipment to people in the street, then allowing them complete editorial control of what they filmed. It is unlikely that this describes the production process of Neighbours. It could be that ‘community leaders’ were consulted over the making of the film, but again these people are as much a representative of the ‘community’ as David Cameron is a representative of me.

The narration, therefore, has made a claim to objectivity, which dismisses both the separation between the filmmakers and what we see on screen, as well as the influential presence of the camera in any situation. I imagine that this was done to bridge the ‘gap’ between ‘us’ and ‘them’ so as to give the audience some kind of exclusive ‘inside’ look on the West Indian ‘community’. But this is a gap the film itself creates in its opening sequence. It is also a gap that contemporary mainstream media continues to foster so as to invent a situation in order to create a ‘story’. We should think about the ramifications this has for the way we view the world.

One of the first sequences of the film shows a protest outside a Bristol police station about the ‘St Pauls sixteen’, a group of black people who were arrested during a riot. The beginning of this sequence is where we first see any interaction between the police and black people. What we see is a black man being aggressive towards a policeman, who then passively backs away, the camera following him as he forlornly concedes the argument. He is undoubtedly aware of the presence of the camera. Any viewer with a take on reality would agree that this is not typical of the police, yet the film gives this image of police passivity at least one more time.

While the camera moves around the group of protesters, it manages to capture what appears to be some shady goings-on. A man has handed something to another man, who quickly places the small item into his pocket. After police enter the frame and begin questioning they are rebutted with heckles and jeering from the crowd. They then leave without furthering their enquiry.

Again, the police are undoubtedly aware of the presence of the camera. But more than that, the fact that the camera has moved to capture this incident proves the impossibility of objectivity. Both sequences, reduced out of any social and economic context (there is no narrated explanation as to why these people are protesting) tell the audience that black people are criminals, and the police are powerless to stop their activities. This comes at the beginning of the film, providing the framework through which the rest of it can be viewed.

One of the most extremely orientalist sequences in Neighbours ends with a cut from an interviewee who has just proclaimed their intention to “return to Africa” (in a cultural sense) to a low, close up shot of a goat staring at an orange sunset. As the sun hovers between two flat blocks the audience hears African music. I don’t know how the BBC managed to find a goat in St Pauls, but to my knowledge they are not a regularity. Yet this shot makes it appear as if the area has transformed, or is transforming, into some stereotypical idea of what Africa might look like according an untraveled Daily Mail reader.

The connotations brought into play by the three components of the shot (goat, sun, flat blocks, not to mention the music) invite the audience to form an opinion on what is ‘happening’ in St Pauls, namely, Africanisation. This is followed later in the film by the positing of a ‘culture clash’, emphasised forcefully by a cut from native afro-Caribbean dancers to black people singing Christian gospel hymns in a church.

The crux of the film occurs when we are shown a sequence featuring dreadlocked black ‘extremists’ in a dimly lit room, talking about the meanings of the Rastafarian religion in relation to white oppression. The unashamed hypocrisy of the mainstream is expressed in a cut from this sequence to one which begins in a schoolyard, where black and white kids play together. This cuts to an interview with John Sinclair (another ‘community leader’), who wants everyone to “cut out all this nonsense and just live where we were born”. His message is directed at the violence-prone youth, and indirectly towards the ‘extremists’ that were on screen around two minutes before. He is the ‘voice of reason’.

What these sequences construct is the theme of ‘can’t we all just get along?’ The audience is fed an idea of rational multiculturalism, while the film totally ignores the social conditions under which the people of St Pauls (particularly young black men) live. What the audience doesn’t hear is that any ‘getting along’ that occurs always takes place on the grounds of the powerful rather than those they oppress. The image of children dancing together in a playground is a utopian appeal to submission on the part of St Pauls and the West Indian ‘community’ disguised as an objective, rational argument.

All in all Neighbours becomes a film about how feral black youth can be tackled by rational white thinking. The film ends with shots of an upper class area of Bristol, Clifton Downs, a confession, perhaps, regarding exactly who the film has been made for. Some questions that spring to mind concern how, and for how long, has the mainstream has been contributing to the distortion of reality? How much of this racist ‘objectivity’ still exists in the mainstream, and whether this kind of vast, ideology pedaling machine is healthy for any society that wants to be truly rational.

You can see the film, or what is left of it, here: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpVvrSGB5js&feature=relmfu]

Author: Anthony Killick

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