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Whose Dreamland? [John Barlow, UK, 2017] /// Payal Chawla: The Mind That Matters [Ajay Chitnis, India, 2017]

April 10, 2019

Using the visual connectivity of national waterways, Whose Dreamland? collects filmed sequences from English seaside ports and towns, as well as constituencies along the Thames estuary, to give visual context to some of Britain’s staunchest euro-skeptic areas. Our visual journey down the quintessentially British Thames estuary into the most historically significant port of UK boarder defence, Dover, grounds the documentary’s account of regional attitudes concerning the EU.

 

Through its focus on Dover, a historical bastion in the defence of British ideals in the face of the ‘other’, as well as Margate, a town adversely affected by the rise in affordability of overseas holidays in the 1970s, filmmaker John Barlow hones in on the recognisable plight of some UK areas that contributed to the decision to leave the EU in 2016.

Through narration, the viewer gains in-depth political context concerning the 2017 EU referendum, before moving on to explore some of filmmaker John Barlow’s personal opinions on events following the leave campaign. Whose Dreamland? addresses the doubts and insecurities that have arisen for many people following the decision to leave the European community, and hypothesises on the repercussions of our nation’s abandonment of its ideals.

 

Opening with a sound clip of the divergence of the referendum result in parliament, our visual journey then takes us through Downe, the town once home to Nigel Farage, along to Margate where UKIP held their annual party conference in 2014, before finishing in the port of Dover, separated from Europe by only 21miles of water.

 

Filmmaker John Barlow’s shot selection, filmed in Super 16mm film, is continually insightful and nicely anchors the political narrative. Extreme long shots over London’s central business district give the viewer a nice sense of scope in the face of the enormous political undertaking involved in our complex separation from the European Union, whilst a close up of a doorway at the London metal exchange, where Nigel Farage previously worked as a commodities trader, provide specifying detail that gives an intimacy to the filmmaker’s account. Finishing on an image of a ship leaving port at Dover provides a timely metaphor for our separation from the greater political community, with the potential to find ourselves forever banished, unable to return.

 

Whilst the premise of Barlow’s experimental documentary is strong, and its choice of images apt, it does have two clear weaknesses, the first of which is the style of narration. Abigail Wincott's narration is at the forefront of the film and a slightly vivacious, almost condescending tone gives the documentary the feel of an educational piece for consumption by A-Level students. The expression in the narrator's voice is too lively to marry fluidly with the lackadaisical pace of the filmic images, which feature little to no in-shot movement and minimal editing. The images are given time to breathe, whilst the information being narrated to us is not; two contradictory styles of voice and image that both have their place, though in this instance, it seems, not together.

 

The other, more difficult problem the film encounters is the question of the significance of the story it is trying to tell. Mid-way through the film, the narration shifts into the first person. At first it seems as though the viewer is being afforded a range of discerning opinions and voices from people in the local communities the film presents. However, it seems we are simply listening to the filmmaker, (we suspect) John Barlow’s fairly uninteresting opinion piece. Barlow’s documentary gives an accompanying visual framework to information on areas of euro-skepticism, but other than highlighting a perceived fear of the ‘other’ present amongst voters in Margate, doesn’t give an awful lot of socio-political context to the regions he is filming.

Barlow accuses Nigel Farage of having manipulated the euro-skeptic environment of Margate in an approach that Barlow finds to be ‘deeply cynical and opportunistic’, yet in much the same way, Barlow uses images of Margate (an area that voted to leave) to create a documentary that panders to his own belief that we probably should have stayed. The decision to not lend a voice to the people of Margate with this documentary is an approach that, like Farage, is undeniably opportunistic, with his review of Farage’s political tactics seeming hypocritically cynical. The narration states that it finds the scale of Margate’s ‘rejection of our EU membership abhorrent’. The filmmaker’s decision to vocally brandish a town’s political leanings as ‘abhorrent’ seems needlessly incendiary.

 

Whose Dreamland? is a visually effective piece of filmmaking, one that utilises the rich national symbolism of British waterways to its benefit. The story that accompanies these images does at times, however, fall flat. Barlow’s background in UK politics, make him well placed to create this topical documentary, but the conclusion of his piece, that Brexit has led to social uncertainty and that Nigel Farage is a highly (and most likely rightly) unpopular figure, at no point threatens to tread new ground.

This short film’s ode to Payal Chawla charts the trained law professional’s battle against pregnancy discrimination whilst working for a major company in her native India. The Mind That Matters follows Payal Chawla’s development as a gifted student at the University of Chicago through to her career in law and, ultimately, her doomed legal battle to overcome her perceived discrimination on accounts of pregnancy.

 

The film works best when viewed as something akin to a school project entitled ‘My Hero – Payal Chawla’. There is a good chance that the film delivers on its aim of inspiring young women who have been discriminated against to keep on fighting in pursuit of their personal and professional ambitions and freedoms. However, as a piece of short form cinema, it falls some way short of both commercial and critical British taste.

 

The film opens with a dense body of typed statistics on the extreme level of work place discrimination faced by pregnant women and young mothers, including the fact that 1 in 5 new mothers experience workplace harassment from their colleagues when pregnant or returning from maternity leave. However, past this opening, the documentary becomes surprisingly uninformative.

 

For viewers hoping to discern more about the intricacies of Indian court proceedings or big business arbitration appeals, this short piece probably isn’t the place to get it. Likewise, even the more casual viewer hoping to gain an insight into the life and mind of Payal Chawla actually aren’t given a huge amount to get their teeth into, other than a series of filmed testimonies from teachers, friends and parents who swear by her talents and moral fortitude.

From a filmmaking perspective, Payal Chawla: The Mind That Matters is a piece that most British viewers will struggle to stomach. Everything from the choice of music, to the tinted shots and the Powerpoint-esque cross fades simply don’t line up with most domestic film viewers’ expectations or tastes.

 

The film is gushing in its praise of Payal Chawla, and it appears rightfully so. She is an inspirational and dedicated lawyer, activist and mother who admits she knew her court appeal was never likely to bear fruit but, rather, hopes that it will set a precedent for future appeals of this nature to be fought.

 

Payal Chawla: The Mind That Matters is rousing if not massively informative. The piece features many stimulating quotes for dissemination amongst young female student viewers, such as boldly stating ‘you are destined to be the creator of a new era’. Despite all of this film’s shortcomings, it is not overly useful to be too disparaging of its quality, as hopefully it will still have helped young people strive for a new era of equality both inside and outside of the workplace, a noble endeavour for filmmakers of any skill level.

'Whose Dreamland?' and 'Payal Chawla: The Mind That Matters' were films in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2018.

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