Officially selected to the Sheffield 2015 Doc/Fest and Open City Documentary festival of the same year, The Divide finally gets a wider release in the UK. A film by Katharine Round, a TV director/producer here on her second feature documentary, it attempts to show the real life implications raised by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book The Spirit Level.
Following the lives of 7 characters (6 Americans, one Glaswegian) that stretch from a Wall Street psychologist who’s saving up to buy a family house to a carer that can’t make ends meet, The Divide weaves their storylines with talking head statements from economists and archival political speeches. As it traces the origins of the present economic struggle to the end of the seventies, The Divide presents us the human side of a topic which is usually too dense with numbers and graphics to emotionally appeal to an audience.
Round tries very hard not to take a political stance during the film, which is most welcome and refreshing, but one can’t help but feel that the theme is too great and ambitious. The number of characters plays against the film’s strengths – to have seven different people in a documentary one needs to ensure they are all equally strong, relevant and given the same opportunity to tell their story. This doesn’t happen in The Divide – the struggles of some of the characters are far too similar (Walmart employee and feisty KFC lady have the same low wage, long hours humdrum), while others (the woman that feels excluded from her gated community) feel very much out of place; some characters are given lots of attention (because they’re charismatic, or funny), while others (the Glasgow rapper) make just a one-off appearance. And if in some moments Round managed to capture pure gold with her camera – the interview with the prisoner being incredibly intense – in others she indulges in random character time that is more filler than feeler.
With a good flow and rhythm (though a somewhat abrupt ending) and careful cinematography, The Divide’s biggest sin is to promise so much more than it delivers. It doesn’t feel educational (as the archive and expert interviews strongly feel like an afterthought there to aid the structure and to force some dramatic strength at random intervals) and it doesn’t appear to have a defined direction – if it’s mostly observational when dealing with the characters, posing neither questions nor answers, its random call to arms and barely disguised hatred of the American Dream (mostly personified by the Subtly Racist Gated Communities) feel jarring. Instead of feeling angry, an audience may start wondering why a British Filmmaker decided to turn the magnifying glass to the other side of the Atlantic, when all she had to do would be to take the tube to Stratford or Notting Hill.
Maybe Kieslowski was right when he said only drama can portrait real tears; The Divide would never be able to be as strong as its theme, but at least tried. Sure, it doesn’t show how inequality affects the 1% (maybe it doesn’t). It doesn’t present alternatives to the situation (apart from donations to charity in their official webpage). And it certainly avoids talking about certain historical revolutions from the 20th century when the workers took arms against the capitalists. Still, it puts the matter on the table, with no big stars attached, and gives a voice to the voiceless – and that can never be too overrated.
The Divide will be in select cinemas from 22nd April and will have a Nationwide release on 31st May.