A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post called ‘Russell Brand: The Neverlutionary‘. In this post, I remarked that Brand was all talk and no action. I commented that for all his criticism of mainstream media, he was its poster boy. And I lamented that, if you don’t practice what you preach, it doesn’t matter how true your words or how many people agree with you, nothing will change.
But oh what a year and a half it’s been. Since I wrote that, Brand has executed the perfect turnaround. It started with regular appearances at political demonstrations, which progressed into direct action, which resulted in actual, well… results. In short, he’s finally put his money where his mouth is.
The Trews now has over a million subscribers on YouTube. That means that each episode regularly receives a 150,000 viewer average – a third of Newsnight’s audience. Its popularity has even led to the Trew Era Café, a non-profit coffeehouse employing local residents and people in rehabilitation programmes.
This made my snide (geddit?) ‘Neverlutionary’ article look rather redundant. And I am very pleased about this. So there was just one remaining point. What had happened to that documentary Brand said he was making four years ago?
Well he finally got round to it: The Emperor’s New Clothes, which was released in the UK this month.
Teaming up with director Michael Winterbottom (Road to Guantanamo, The Shock Doctrine), Brand retains the vitriolic straight-to-camera polemic that has become his trademark. Interspersed with this impassioned commentary is the standard archive/voiceover format (though a surprisingly dodgy sound mix drowns out Brand’s words under much of the footage) combined with interviews from key experts.
Unfortunately, Brand’s other trademark – hypocrisy – is also laced throughout. In one scene the documentary vilifies Amazon, among others, for their offshore tax-haven tomfoolery and encourages the use of local businesses: “if the book [talking about Brand’s Revolution] is bought online, say on Amazon,” states Brand, “then that money would never make it into the local community”. But the documentary’s own official website invites users to purchase it directly from Amazon, via handy click-through links on its VOD page.
In another irksome detail, whilst the entire emphasis of the documentary, indeed of Brand’s politics as a whole, is on the importance of ‘ordinary’ people in the movement, it is only the ‘experts’ and ‘academics’ in the film who are given namestraps on screen – so we know who they are. All the workers and activists remain unidentified – their names do not pop up on screen at any time, and not for anonymity purposes. First names are occasionally mentioned in voiceover, and written in the end credits, but they aren’t treated with the same respect as the other talking heads.
For example, in one of the strongest scenes of the whole documentary exploring banker bonuses versus cuts in disability benefits we meet Angela, a woman with cerebral palsy and a committed campaigner. Again, no name on screen and not even included in the end credits. This is doing Angela a great disservice and it bugs me.
If you’re thinking these are very minor issues, you’re right. But whilst it’s not the end of the world, it is careless and undermines the very spirit of the film.
But what about the good bits? Happily, these far outweigh the negative and there are plenty of them. As well as covering unfair austerity policies, student debts & ‘non-doms’, there is a great section contrasting the lack of prosecutions of bankers with the mass arrests and quick convictions of protesters that really brings home the imbalance in the system’s approach to those in power who commit criminal acts compared to the rest of us.
Other highlights include Brand in conversation with Tesco and Warburtons employees discussing salaries, which illustrates one of the overriding messages in the film – that of disproportionate pay rises for the top 1% of earners. There are some staggering statistics revealed here that will shock you.
The film is also very funny of course. The Michael Moore style (not quite as good as Mark Thomas style) stunts are very entertaining, and Brand’s signature rants are hilarious: “When do you ever meet people who are happy – genuinely happy? Only children, mentally ill people and day-time television presenters, and I’ve been all three.”
The Emperor’s New Clothes is Brand at his banker-baiting best. If you’re already deep into docs like The Corporation, Taking Liberties or Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, you’re not going to be blown away, but you will learn a few things and the call to action at the end is genuinely inspiring.
Overall, though it has its clumsy moments, The Emperor’s New Clothes definitely contains material that, despite the legend of its namesake, everyone should see.
Next month sees the first jury trial in the Libor banking fraud investigation. 13 people have been charged and await trial.
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