The first Brexit documentary shows a Britain at war with itself

Ethan Race reviews Timothy Kelly's hard-hitting documentary 'Brexitannia'

November 3, 2017
4 min read

“2016 was a year that will go down in history as the year that yet again the British destroyed the European Union. 2016 is the year that finally the people got what they wanted.”

So proudly proclaims a taxi-driver, who looks like an eccentric character from a Mike Leigh movie. Much more than simply the first feature documentary made about Brexit, Brexitannia both criticises nostalgia for the yesteryear of imperial Britannia, whilst ironically commenting on its own being as a historical artifact. It is shot in a 4:3 square aspect ratio and in gorgeous black and white, alluding to many dualisms that permeate the film: ruralism vs cosmopolitanism, light vs dark skin colour, Britain vs Brussels, and of course, the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ ballot of the Brexit vote. The film rages against the reductionism of binary choices, as well as the overly simplistic analysis that much of the British media provided for Brexit. The result is a complex film that somehow manages to operate as a rigorous, qualitative sociological documentary as well as a stunning piece of artistic cinema.

A further dualism – this time structural – divides the film into two sections. The first, titled ‘The People’ (75% of the film), is comprised primarily of interviews with Brits from all around the isles, and the second, titled ‘The Experts’ (25%), includes interviews with both left-wing veteran intellectuals (Noam Chomsky, Saskia Sassen) and new theorists on the block (Nick Srnicek, Federico Campagna).

In ‘The People’, interviews are filmed statically and utilize little to no cutaways. Subjects are given the cinematic space to droll on freely in a manner reminiscent of Errol Morris’s early documentary Vernon, Florida (1981). Some moments are comedy gold; others evoke a sense of tragedy. In Vernon, Florida Morris subsumes all ‘humanity’ to the absurd in a way that unapologetically ridicules the ‘redneck’ southerners, whereas Brexitannia skirts a more delicate line, poking fun at its more ignorant subjects whilst simultaneously ‘hearing them out’.

During these fascinating interviews (50 are included out of an original total of 107), the key concerns of ‘The People’ emerge, as much from the landscapes the wide framing reveals as from the words they speak. Starting with reasons for voting for or against Brexit, the interviews quickly pass on to concerns over immigration, European elites, automation and finally to the rife unemployment that has plagued rural Britain ever since Thatcherism crushed the industrial lifeline of the working-class.

Taking a page from the works of the late great Mark Fisher (to whom the film is dedicated), the film captures what could only be described as a collective mass depression, induced by sustained, socio-economic devastation, and comes to a painful crescendo when one subject concludes: “To us, Brexit doesn’t matter, ‘cos we got nothing anyhow.”

After a full hour (to the dot), the film shifts from the people to ‘The Experts’, who provide a sociological/historical context and emphasize structural and economic issues over ‘skiving’ migrants. To take a term from Nick Srnicek’s  book, these ‘Experts’ are designated the task of Inventing the Future.

And this is the magic of Brexitannia: its insistence on the potential of the masses and the potential of what an ‘expert’ can be, and even what a political film could look like. The film’s affinity to the complexity of the material, lived reality of its subjects avoids all the pitfalls of propaganda, whilst remaining politically committed as a work of cinema.

In this way Brexitannia gives ‘The People’ what current Tory-driven society is incapable of: a way of channelling politically-induced mass depression into potentiality, forging an opening for what the British people so desperately lack: a future.

Brexitannia is now available on iTunes