Review of Chapter Nine: "Film and the Politics of Working Class Representation: The Inside Film project," Deirdre O’Neill
Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. By Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy
By Amanda Donaldson
Social class and the division of the classes has become something we avoid talking about, for more pressing issues. Our capitalist society is built on a hierarchal system that places the people with the means of production in a higher class while placing the labourers who sell their labour to the upper class in a lower fraction: the working class. In her chapter Film and the Politics of Working Class Representation: The Inside Film project, Deirdre O’Neill seeks to examine and discuss the ways in which negative and positive representations can affect the subjectivities of members of society, with a focus on its effects on working class people. O’Neill frames her work with theories of class structure within our capitalist society and how our subjectivities are developed and shaped by environment. O’Neill hypothesizes that film can be used as a radical pedagogic tool, and she examines the benefits of the medium through the lens of The Inside Film Project and its work with prisoners and ex-prisoners (O’Neill, 2016, 112).
O’Neill’s piece begins with a brief introduction to the topics and subjects that will frame her arguments throughout the rest of the chapter, specifically the “questions of subjectivity and representations as they relate to the working class” (O’Neill, 2016, p. 112). She goes on to introduce The Inside Film project as her lens for her study, and she describes it as a project that “works with a specific group of people (prisoners and ex-prisoners) in a particular set of circumstances (in prison or on parole)” (O’Neill, 2016, p. 112), and it explores how film can foster “a critical engagement with society in ways that more traditional academic subjects are unable to do” (O’Neill, 2016, p. 112). O’Neill expresses that the students working on this project have complete creative control in the creation of their film – they script, storyboard, edit, and even act in their own pieces. However, even before the students get to engage in the filmmaking process, the students are provided with both the historical and theoretical frameworks they need to understand their own practice. The project emphasizes “the importance of self-representation for the working class” (O’Neill, 2016, p. 112) and O’Neill argues that this allows them to present accurate depictions of experiences specific to working class citizens, and to depict the values and attitudes of the working class as distinct from those of other classes. O’Neill continues to emphasize that the work of The Inside Film project will offer content that does not present the generalized, and often criminalized, stereotypes that can be found in the mainstream media, and the importance of this is something she will explore as the chapter continues.
O’Neill research about the film medium and its outcome is dependent on an understanding of the Marxist theory of class to conceptualize and practice class-based radical pedagogy (O’Neill, 2016, p. 112). O’Neill’s work utilizes the Marxist idea that the model of the class is premised on the division of labour “wherein the working class sells their labour to the bourgeoisie who own the forces of production” (O’Neill, 2016, p. 113). She then begins to explain this theory in great detail, providing the reader with the background information necessary for understanding the rest of her argument. O’Neill explains that according to Marx, the two classes both oppose and interlock with one another, and the nature of the capitalist system in which they exist is one that is antagonistic and alienating and therefore creates not only struggle but the conflict between and within the classes. O’Neill then expresses an important point: “Consciousness of class is not necessary to experience class” (O’Neill, 2016, p. 113). The conflict and struggle will exist, even if the classes are not aware of it. Many working class people, as O’Neill showcases with the prisoners later in the chapter, find it difficult to differentiate between the ways in which society treats them, the way the media represents them, and the impossibility of the demands made of them by society. This inability to understand their predicament produces a cycle of deprivation, crime, and imprisonment, one that the working class finds themselves bound to and unable to reconcile (O’Neill, 2016, p. 115). They are then left with an incoherent subjectivity, something O’Neill explores later in her text.
O’Neill’s chapter argues that projects like The Inside Film allow for working class people to create and engage with content that accurately represents them, rather than only having access to the stereotypes that they and the public are consistently presented with. O’Neill also points out that years of neoliberalism has “dramatically restructured the working class while the category has all but been erased from public discourse” (O’Neill, 2016, p. 113). She explains that this ideology has then “led to the removal of class as an analytical framework with the explanatory power to account for the individual and social pathologies we are currently witnessing in contemporary society” (O’Neill, 2016, p.113). It is not that class no long exists, rather neoliberalism has introduced and entrenched in our society a language that has masked the policies that are designed to reinstate and strengthen capitalist class power. (O’Neill, 2016, p. 113) She believes that pedagogic projects like Inside Film and their representations of class could help society to unlearn this language and can act as a catalyst for change.
After providing her reader with a detailed explanation of the Marxist model of class, O’Neill acknowledges that this theory did not allot for the growth of a professional middle class, one that stands between the working and capitalist classes. According to O’Neill, the middle class is separated from the working class by their cultural and educational ‘capital’ (O’Neill, 2016, p. 113). The middle class will also often occupy positions that place them in supervisory or authoritative roles over the working class. She states that this indicates that their experiences with capitalism are different from that of the working class. O’Neill’s argument, then, bases itself on this idea that members of the middle class and working class will live in and understand society in very different ways. She acknowledges that these classes contain various fractions, like “an affluent working class” (O’Neill, 2016, 114), which is why The Inside Film Project chooses to focus on prisoners and ex-prisoners. These students will often occupy positions in society that require limited education, and the work will be unskilled and carry a low income and low status. They will be presented with little to no opportunity for social mobility, will generally not own property, and will not make enough money to afford the basic necessities of living (O’Neill, 2016, p. 114). O’Neill emphasizes the inclusion of “the increasing numbers of working poor and the unemployed” (O’Neill, 2016, p. 114) within her study, because their experiences are “more likely to be distorted and silenced by a privileged middle class,” and this treatment, coupled with their treatment within the media, is what “condemns them to marginalization and silence and…from playing a participatory role in the public sphere” (O’Neill, 2016, p. 114). However, despite her focus on income and employment, O’Neill does not treat the working class as simply an economic category within her text – she considers the social, cultural, and political aspects of the class’s formation and experiences.
To challenge the hierarchy of a capitalist society, O’Neill argues that there would first need to be a change within the working class subjectivity, specifically within the individual. Her work also looks at the effect of pedagogical practices on the construction of subjectivities, and their potential to alter them. In order to do this, O’Neill first examines the working class subjectivity, explaining that it “cannot be separated from the conditions under which it comes into being“ (O’Neill, 2016, p. 115) and that “our sense of self develops through personal, environmental and institutional social interactions [that are] directly influenced by our historically determinate class positions” (O’Neill, 2016, p. 115). Therefore, based on this knowledge, O’Neill explains that working class people will develop a subjectivity that is different from those who develop theirs under privileged circumstances. And it is these subjectivities that are critical to The Inside Film project’s aim to expose the ways in which the lives and experiences of working class people are misrepresented for political and ideological purposes. (O’Neill, 2016, p. 115). These representations are what create the incoherent and contradictory working class subjectivity mentioned previously. O’Neill recognizes that there is a possibility to change this, however, because the capitalist system relies on this structure, to change this hierarchy into something fairer would cause the system to collapse.
According to O’Neill, The Inside Film project seeks to highlight the effects that the mainstream media and its distortions of working-class life have on the participants of the project, and how those effects can be seen and shared amongst other members of the working class. The project allows for members of the working class to create content that equitably and accurately represents their experiences within a capitalist society. The specific example O’Neill uses is that of a project entitled Who Am I?. The film structures itself around questions of race, gender, and religion, and operates on levels of the subjective, the national, and the international. The questions are posed from the perspective of working class men serving prison sentences, and it examines their personal actions juxtaposed with the criminal actions of the wealthy and powerful (O’Neill, 2016, p. 117). Before the filmmaking process began, the students took part in a workshop on Third Cinema, which is a “low-budget, politically motivated cinema” that utilized radical strategies that reject the conventions of dominant filmmaking, like narrative linearity, continuity editing, and spatial and temporal logic (O’Neill, 2016, p.118). It had a massive influence on their work, because it allowed them to convey the anger and frustration they wanted in their piece, as well as cover a wider range of topics that their budget and time restraints otherwise would not have. The film attempted to look at the complex relationship between the media, politics, economics, and history, and how these interconnecting factors affect the construction of one’s identity. During the filmmaking process, many of the prisoners found that their experiences both in and out of prison overlapped, and that these conditions have shaped their identities in similar ways. From this, O’Neill is able to draw the conclusion that, although the medium alone cannot change the hierarchy in which society is structured, film can contribute to the conditions necessary to bringing about change. Film not only allows for a chance to change and shape individual subjectivities formed under capitalism, but it also can work as an educational tool for the public and can help to deconstruct the negative representations of the working class currently in the mainstream media.
Overall, O’Neill’s work examines the connection between subjectivity and representation (O’Neill, 2016, p. 114), and the effectiveness of film as a pedagogic practice. I found the chapter to be kind of interesting, however it was a little difficult to get through. I found O’Neill’s writing to be dry and a little dispassionate. Much of the content was based on explaining the theories surrounding class, rather than focusing on film as an educational tool. This examination did not come into her work until much later, and by that point, I was not as interested as I was when I initially began reading. The explanation of the Marxist theory of class and her descriptions of subjectivity was a necessary framework for her chapter, because readers without prior knowledge about such topics would not have been able to fully comprehend her argument, and therefore it would not have been as effective as it was. I do believe, however, that the chapter would have been more efficient if O’Neil had spent more time in looking at the film medium as an educational praxis, rather than spending the majority of the article focusing on explanations of class structures. I enjoyed O’Neill’s use of The Inside Film project as her lens for the topic. I believe it was a very impactful choice to use a film created by members of the working class in order to emphasize the importance of this kind of representation and the positive effect film can have on subjectivities when the content is a faithful and positive representation of its subjects. Through her explanation of the film’s premise, Third Cinema techniques, and specific scenes and themes from the film, I was able to really visualize the content of this piece. However I do believe it would have been even more helpful if there were a way to access this film. I think that if the reader were able to actually watch it, O’Neill would have had a stronger impact on her reader. It would also have been helpful if there was something to compare Who Am I? to, possibly a more mainstream movie that does not accurately represent the experiences of the working class the way that Who Am I? was able to.
This chapter began with an introduction to class theories, and O’Neill goes on to explain, in great detail, the Marxist definition of class and social structures. The chapter hypothesizes that it is possible to use film as an educational tool, with a specific focus on its use in representing the working class and its ability to shape and alter an individual’s subjectivity. O’Neill’s piece as a whole was extremely educational, and I learned a lot, despite the dry tone and heavy emphasis on history and sociological matters. The work was effective, but I believe it would have had a greater impact if O’Neill had spent more time focusing on the film medium, and by possibly including more accessible examples for her reader to relate to.
O'Neill, D. (2016). Film and the Politics of Working Class Representation: The Inside Film project. In Y. Tzioumakis & C. Molloy (Eds.), The Routledge companion to cinema and politics (pp. 112-122). Basingstoke: Taylor & Francis Ltd.