Documentary Reviews

Pensioners United (2018) – 2.5 stars

Directors: Hazuan Hashim & Phil Maxwell

Running time: 1hr 20mins

Writing about films outside of their historical epoch is always dangerous – especially when dealing with politics. Things we know now have a habit of souring images of things the way they were even a few weeks ago. What a difference two years make in that case.

In 2018, Theresa May was already clinging on to power, having spectacularly thrown away her Parliamentary majority in a car-crash snap election the year before. The left was in the ascendancy, and Jeremy Corbyn could conceivably have been the next Prime Minister. Yet here I sit in 2020, reeling from a colossal victory for the Government now led by Boris Johnson, something which would make Pensioners United hard to swallow even if it were a perfectly executed piece of polemic cinema.

As the British left continues to scramble to explain the disastrous result of December’s poll, it is clear that a great many tactical changes will be necessary, if the UK is ever to relieve this cynical clique of Etonian elitists and disaster capitalists of their stranglehold on the country. One of these aspects, which I doubt will figure much in the Labour leadership debates – but arguably has a much wider importance – is the cinematic language of radicalism.

Unfortunately among socialist groups, there is a tendency to simply view communications technology as a means of pumping out unfiltered ‘propaganda.’ The continued unapologetic use of that word alone well into the 21st century tells you a lot about this no-frills approach to getting the word out – while “don’t get it right, get it written” remains the maxim of choice among various Marxist tendencies. There is some value to writing and indeed living this way – if you spend your week obsessing over the minutia of sentence-structure and the timbre of your prose, the situation will have developed to the point where your ‘news’ is no longer of any value. On the other hand, it’s not a great deal of fun to experience or to watch.

Sadly, for all its good intentions, Hazuan Hashim and Phil Maxwell’s earnest video essay is largely a product of this approach. To start with, Pensioners United simply has not been edited stringently enough. While spending extra time in post-production to really hone this film would have cost precious time as its filmmakers sought to make an important intervention in contemporary political discourse, 1 hour and 20 minutes is frankly a slog – something that means even if it was released quickly enough to effect debate back in 2018, it will largely not have done so as all but the initiated will have tuned out rapidly.

The action focuses on a group of pensioners railing against austerity politics in Liverpool, and if it were tightly compacted into a 15-30 minute super-cut, that would be compelling viewing.  As it is, however, the meat of the story is often passed out with lengthy photo-montages set to a backdrop of rabble-rousing songs or chants. This presents a grating contrast with some of the legitimately compelling footage captured by the documentarians – while serving to highlight the limitations of the footage the filmmakers were able to get access to. Rather than building momentum between the velveteen retoflex /s/ of Tony Benn and tub-thumping speeches and interviews from Scouse pensioners, then, we are instead subjected to a snuffing out of the film’s spark by way of photo-montage of Tony Blair set to a crowd chanting to save the NHS.

Meanwhile, run of the mill footage of traditional grassroots campaigning further serves to demonstrate the need for a new cinematic language from the left. Again, I admit that this may have had a different feel in 2018 when the film was completed, but now the image of a lone old man clutching a clip-board and shouting “You must want to save our NHS” at disinterested Liverpudlians takes on an almost tragi-comic element. It very nearly takes on the form of a parody charity ad; where for just £2-a-month you can help keep poor old communists like Barry off the streets this winter.

One of the things Pensioners United does do well is to explore the pasts of its subjects. There is a good reason that the seemingly indestructible, arse-kicking, pensioners of Liverpool are still taking to the streets into their 80s, and each relays a heartfelt recollection of life before the 1945 political consensus that saw the Attlee Government look to build a New Jerusalem for ordinary people. The testimony is equal parts uplifting and terrifying; we hear of the uncertain life led by the working poor in the slums of pre-war London, as well as inspiring accounts of the defeat of British fascism at the Battle of Cable Street.

Inevitably this comes with a sizeable ‘but’, which is that Ken Loach’s noted documentary The Spirit of ’45 already did this with a great deal more professional sparkle in 2013. While that film was by no means perfect either, and might also be accused of preaching to the converted to an extent, the film executed its goals with aplomb – there was a great deal more humour and joy to humanise its subjects, alongside the misery and anger it rightly exhibited. Pensioners United passes up that opportunity – it is largely humourless. That might sound like a facile and superficial criticism of a film which addresses such important themes. However, humour and joy are valuable tools to deploy if you want the lives depicted by your documentary to resonate with a wider audience.

In an earlier review, I heaped praise on Polish activist film Strajk Kobiet Trwa for precisely this reason. While ultimately the film addresses the international exploitation of women for free labour and an eternal supply of new workers, it is grounded among a group of municipal nursery staff in Poznań. They are women everyone will know – as well as being hard workers, loving partners, committed mothers; they are fully rounded human beings. They laugh, cry, argue, celebrate and struggle to survive, side by side.

Similarly, Call Me Intern was an important polemic on the subject of unpaid internships being deployed by the richest organisations in the wealthiest nations of the world – but it was also not afraid to poke a little fun at the absurdity of that, or for to allow its subjects to occasionally appear as vulnerable, or human.

It is that human touch that Pensioners United is crying out for. We never really have chance to follow any of the personalities on screen for more than a short amount of time, meaning there is a lack of a clear narrative thread running through the film. This would have been a good mechanism to use to walk uninitiated viewers through a strange new world for them, as well as giving the directors the opportunity to make their subjects come alive as characters we feel we could know or identify with. Many of the people on screen will surely have friends and families, grandchildren and even great grandchildren, but this is scarcely mentioned, let alone shown. Scenes between the aged street fighters and the younger members of their families would have brought a great deal of warmth to this otherwise stony affair, while making us more inclined to respond to the film’s intent as a call to arms.

As it is, this means what we get is 1 hour 20 minutes of a political party’s meeting; where an increasingly disconnected left sling the same tired slogans at other members of the congregation. Unless the left can be more willing to move beyond its comfort zone and bear its heart on its sleeve in a way people can recognise as human, its films will remain trapped in this cinematic echo-chamber, much like its political organisations.

It is not the case that radical cinema needs to change its message to win over audiences or critics; films mentioned in this review have managed to do both by simply conveying a degree of wit and charm that many nuts-and-bolts polemic films failed to in the past. Pensioners United is not an inherently bad political film – its message is solid, its principles are clearly stated – but it is bereft of that spark that will genuinely engage newcomers with its causes. That is something Hazuan Hashim and Phil Maxwell will have to adapt to for the sake of their future endeavours.

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