You’ll have heard the facts. The UK’s 1,000 richest individuals own more than the poorest 40 percent. In the US 0.1 percent own as much as the bottom 90 percent. This film, a documentary inspired by the 2009 book The Spirit Level, puts flesh on the bones of the data.
The book’s authors argued that what determines the health of any society is less the overall wealth than how the wealth is distributed. The more inequality, the sicker the society. The Divide introduces us to seven US and UK people living in societies with massive gaps between rich and poor.
While a former bank vice-president tells us that banks view debt as just another product, we see low pay, zero hours and debt taking their toll on three strong women struggling to make ends meet. One of thousands banged up in US jails for minor drug offences tells how he’s been turned into a “ball of hate”.
The Spirit Level argued that inequality hurts us all — rich and poor. If the 0.1 percent are indeed suffering we see no sign of it, though we do see something of higher earners’ socially impoverished lives within gated communities. “You’ll never see anyone,” is part of an estate agent’s sales pitch. Fast-food worker Leah, a wonderful character full of laughter and tears, would love a big house, not to shut herself away in but to fill with her community, her family.
Close-ups of individual lives are interwoven with news archive from 1979 to the present day, including choice words from the mouths of Reagan, Thatcher, Bush and Blair. So George W Bush announces the goal of “five-and-a-half million new minority home owners”, then later condemns “those who made the reckless decision to buy a home they knew they could not afford”.
The Divide is visually rich, sometimes echoing US painter Edward Hopper in shots of atomised individuals, and blues tracks enhance the emotional depth. We get to care about these people. We want something done about this sick society. Early on, a commentator says, “The weaker trade unions are, the more inequality there is. It’s a very striking relationship.”
This brief suggestion of a solution can be easily missed, so it comes as a relief when, near the end, we get a glimpse of resistance. Leah supports a fast food workers’ protest. Others publicly condemn their bosses. The former bank vice-president tells us she asked her boss if the public would ever forgive them for the bank crash and bailout. “The public always forgets,” he reassured her. Screenings of The Divide could play a part in making sure he’s wrong.
The Divide is in cinemas from 22 April and nationwide from 31 May. For more information go to www.thedividedocumentary.com