Reviews Short Documentary

We Need Space (2021) – 2 stars

Director: Simon White

Writer: Simon White

Running time: 37mins

As we have seen on multiple occasions at IFL, the protest documentary is a deceptively hard format to pull off. From the perspective of an activist, part of a group or groups keen to set the world to rights, it can be easy to lose touch with broader audiences. As a result, their communication has a habit of becoming a means to amplify things that make them angry, assuming it will trigger the same response in others.

We Need Space falls rather squarely into this pitfall. A meandering half-hour of seemingly disparate events, the film leans heavily on protest footage – either of attempts at tub-thumping speeches beforehand, or outrageous footage of animalistic cops using the occasion as an excuse to live out long-held fascistic fantasies – imagery which might boil the blood of those acquainted with the cause, but which without context comes across as confusing and might frustrate the uninitiated.

Of course, the raw materials for something much more impactful are all here. The camera-work of director Simon White and assistants Elsie Barker and Henry Durand should be heartily commended; their bravery in the face of a police force that literally threatens to set the dogs on them just for being there is remarkable. Their ability to seek out stories in among the chaos of a protest which is being ‘dispersed’ is particularly admirable; risking it all to tell the ‘other side’ of an event that the press and broadcast media portrayed as being the fault of protestors – rather than the police who attacked them.

But the film’s format leaves a lot of this footage feeling underwhelming. Over the course of its 37 minutes, it documents the destruction of the UK’s already dwindling natural world to make way for aimless vanity projects in the service of capital, such as HS2 – a ‘high-speed railway’ linking London and the North-West; it covers the plight of the Roma, who are seeing a historic campaign of persecution come to a head with new policing powers; and it covers how the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is being used to silence dissent across the UK. These are stories which should be able to intersect and complement each other – in fact speakers at rallies outside Parliament repeatedly assert the need to build solidarity across those fronts – but the film gives us little to no explanation of how or why these causes might become one.

From the perspective of someone unaware of the topics being discussed, providing some kind of historical, socio-economic explanation of the situation would have been extremely helpful. A quick run through the centuries-long process of privatising the commons (dividing up public land on behalf of a small elite’s economic interests) across Europe would have created a good platform from which to explain the hostility toward forces that challenge that. In this case White and his team could then have tied in travellers, because they may move onto land that private landlords would otherwise like to profiteer from; and an organised, politicised public, who may stand in the way of privatisation.

As it is, however, the film kicks off with an extended talking head, during which we are given a rambling explanation of why it is good to go outside, and how the destruction of woodland is bad on that basis. When suddenly we find ourselves listening to speakers representing the Roma community, or individuals speaking about being jailed for the Bristol Riots, there is not nearly enough connective tissue to carry us along if we’re not familiar enough with the subjects to fill in the gaps ourselves.

Certainly, there is enough room to contextualise the matters addressed here. Frankly we could do with several minutes less of the ‘barnstorming’ speeches in Parliament Square – anyone who has been to one of these rallies will not thank you for returning them to the least interesting part of them, while the sweeping, semantic nature of the talks is not going to supply anyone from outside the activist bubble with the information they need to become more engaged with this film.

Nor, for that matter, will any of the lengthy clips where activists try to get answers from police or security guards about their violent tactics. Police officers know they are not standing where they are to engage in witty riposte. They know they do not need to explain anything. They know that whatever they do, there are legions of press and political hacks willing to do the mental gymnastics needed to excuse their actions. So beyond monosyllabic gurgles to ‘clear out or else’, you aren’t going to get much out of this cyclical line of questioning. As such, what is intended as an exposé of how little police care about disguising the blunt brutality of their work quickly descends into a boorish, Python-esque farce. “Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Come and see the violence inherent in the system!”

Cutting back on this kind of input might also have allowed for more time to explain one of the film’s final talking heads. Jock Palfreyman spent 12 years in a jail in Bulgaria, after he killed a neo-Nazi in self-defence. The situation escalated from when he tried to defend a group of Roma teenagers from a racially motivated assault. We learn this from text slides, rather from Palfreyman himself – who might have offered a more compelling account of things given the chance.

As Palfreyman’s testimony continues, more slabs of text appear, explaining things like the Poll Tax riots, giving the impression that White has become aware the wider film has not done enough to explain how we got here. And it hasn’t. But this is too little, too late. Anyone who is not well versed in the UK’s history of protest has checked out – and black and white text walls are not going to key them back in at this stage.

There are some fantastic moments of reportage in We Need Space. The film lends an empathetic ear to activists and communities across the UK, facing escalating attacks on their human rights and freedom of expression. But that would mean so much more if it served to clue the wider public in on what is being talked about. If the goal is to spark wider outrage, to fuel anger and get more people involved in the movement for change, it needs to give the story’s context more space.

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