‘Social realism, what the fuck is social realism?’ Paddy Considine, Director of Tyrannosaur (Little White Lies – Oct 2011)
The ‘social’ came from ‘socialist’ when, in the late 1950’s, the soon to be directors of the British New Wave – Karel Reisz (Saturday night, Sunday morning), Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life) and Tony Richardson (The loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) were making documentaries as part of the ‘Free Cinema’ movement. They wanted to produce films and documentaries about the under-represented working class that had a socialist message.
The ‘realism’ part is trickier.
Realism is a loaded term, especially when we are talking about films depicting the British working class. Tyrannosaur is a sad film where the characters, who are often very difficult to like, have relentlessly grim things happen to them. Abused wife Hannah befriends Joseph, a violent older man, and we watch events unfold as both struggle to survive. With headlines such as Toilet bowl drama to titillate the chattering classes from the Daily Telegraph and Is Tyrannosaur poverty porn? from The Observer, the mainstream media’s key question that is asked in response to this film seems to be: are we allowed to tell stories like this anymore? This idea is not new. Similar charges were levelled in the sixties against the upper-middle class New Wave directors accused of romanticizing the common man’s struggle. To make a film about non-middle class Britain is still considered to be what Raymond Williams called ‘socially extended’ and still burdens anyone attempting to describe it with a set of very complex constraints.
Andrew Higson famously criticised social realist films of the early 60’s by calling the viewpoint to which they kept returning ‘that long shot of our town from that hill’. This often poetic, outsider’s or scholar’s view was seen as the distorting ‘gaze of the bourgeoisie’ and therefore a form of misrepresentation. Yet director Paddy Considine is no such outsider; he grew up on a council estate in Burton on Trent and insists, ‘I’m not a tourist here. I grew up in the world Joseph inhabits.’ The film, he says, is about ‘making sense of…my own demons, my relationship with human beings, my relationship with God, my mother, my father…’
Why, by setting his film on a Northern council estate, is he automatically deemed to be representing everyone who lives in social housing? Why can he not speak of the things he wishes to speak of – the use and misuse of religion, the manifestations of guilt, anger and mental illness – without being accused of poverty porn? There is something about the way we treat stories such as these that seems deliberately to avoid seeing what we are being shown.
This rejection of writing about the ‘working class’ or poverty or misery unless it comes from personal experience brings with it many problems. In his analysis of British social realist cinema (Sex, Class and Realism- 1986) John Hill argues that this suppression of ‘social and political dimensions’ through a concentration on ‘private, personal dramas’ can lead to the ‘problems of the social structure’ being reduced to ‘problems of the individual.’ There is also something else that prevents such stories taking on their full meaning. Rather than speaking about what might cause a person to feel such rage and have no way of responding to it besides kicking his dog to death, or what might convince a woman that such destructive self-sacrifice is the right way to live, or a man to enact his insecurities so sadistically, we speak of whether we should or shouldn’t be looking. We agonise over what it means about us if we sympathize, empathise, or condemn as if the only moral question worth addressing is what such suffering says about ourselves.
It makes us feel better to see a story that solves itself in some way within 90 minutes, what Thomas Elasaesser calls ‘a kind of a priori optimism located in the structure of the narrative’ – whatever the problem, one can do something about it. Hill argues that ‘the need for some sort of narrative resolution tends to encourage the adoption of socially conservative endings’ meaning that ‘alternative solutions, collective solutions or social upheaval are, in effect, excluded.’ Decisions about what is – and what is not – realistic are very revealing; what is considered realism betrays an ideological point of view. If, as Hill argues, realism is nothing more than ‘conventions which have successfully achieved the status of being accepted as realistic,’ perhaps it is time to create a new set.
A film depicting two damaged individuals who have found hope through one another is nothing new, but there is a fresh pessimism in Tyrannosaur that rejects the inherent optimism of story resolution: Considine makes it deliberately unclear whether either character will be capable of providing the support that the other needs and keeps open the possibility that they have simply found a new place to continue playing out their cycles of dysfunction. At no point does he let anything that could be called society step in and help, therefore avoiding the narrative trap of celebrating the flexibility of the very system being criticised. It is notable that there is no long shot out, in or from any hill beyond the world of Tyrannosaur – the only escape or mobility offered from this world appears to be a spell in prison. The stress on the individual as the agent of causality, rather than blocking social and political dimensions, makes even clearer the failings of the system that has left them so abandoned.
Tangled up in an old debate about representation we miss the very real and very obvious issues. Rather than circling around terrified lest we are caught out as voyeurs exoticising the Other, we need to let stories like this lead us back to questioning how people might end up acting in the ways that they do. The shame and guilt that keeps these characters following the same old behavioural patterns is a big issue for the audience too. Considine’s film says – you understand this; you have felt this – this rage, this desire to destroy the one you depend too much upon, this bitterness, this entrapment. Call it what you like, he argues, but ‘If you deny it’s happening, then that is even more violent.’ Through psychologically insightful storytelling he makes us identify with people committing horrible acts. This identification yet separation – a kind of secular ‘there but for the grace of God go I’- forces us to empathise with actions that we like to feel are incomprehensible.
In Regarding the pain of others Susan Sontag suggests that ‘perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it.’ Perhaps we need to find a way to finish the sentence that begins, ‘that could be me, if not for…’ If there is no God and our lot in life is not determined by anything other than ourselves and the society we live in, then that sentence must end with the word circumstances. And ‘circumstances’ is a highly political word; it leads to massively radical sentences such as material and environmental circumstances affect the way people behave. If a film can lead us there, then whatever you call it, it is making us acknowledge something real.