A post on a forum has got me thinking about the way I enjoy certain movies. Hitchcock was a director who understood implicitly the voyeuristic nature of film. By watching these stories play out with images and sound we are getting a glimpse into a world we otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to see. Our curiosity is rewarded with drama. But is that voyeurism a good thing? And what happens when the voyeuristic eye is turned to settings of those less fortunate?
That’s the issue that was brought up in a discussion of Andrea Arnold’s film, Fish Tank. As part of a general criticism of the film, the poster on this forum also implied that the reason so many people, particularly non-Brits, loved the film was that it provided a luridly satisfying travelogue of underprivileged people living in a council estate. I immediately found the accusation offensive. Here is a film which I found deeply impacting and emotional. My love of the film stems from my love of the character. The setting is fascinating, but only as a place for this character to live in and deal with. The implication that the main reason I liked the film was to do with some sick satisfaction in watching how poor people live felt like a personal slight.
But while I disagree with the effect of “social tourism” on my enjoyment of Fish Tank specifically, I did get to thinking about whether I’ve ever enjoyed a film for that reason. Just the other day I watched and loved Ken Loach’s Kes, which is set in in a poor neighbourhood in Yorkshire. And as much as I loved the story of the boy and his hawk, maybe I was also brought into the film by seeing just how sad things could get in this lower class community. Or how about Slumdog Millionaire? That film was one of my favourites of 2008. Those energetic scenes in the slums are amazingly entertaining, but was I really just taking pleasure in watching poor people in terrible conditions? Is there an exoticism to the poor?
It’s a valid question. Just as many of us love seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark for all the exotic foreign locations, maybe we love watching films like Fish Tank because their settings feel similarly exotic. And if that’s the case, then maybe we should be considering this issue. Is it a problem? Is it exploitative of Fish Tank to focus on the misery and depravity present in council estates? Is the film even an accurate depiction of these places, or is it exaggerating just how bad things are in order to make its story more compelling? And even if it’s doing that, is that inherently bad?
Where Fish Tank might be more problematic in this respect than Slumdog Millionaire, is that the way it’s shot and directed is meant to feel more “realistic” and thus gives the audience an impression of accuracy. Meanwhile, it might be the case that most council estates are better represented in terms of accuracy by the super-stylized Attack the Block.
Honestly, I don’t know the answer to this question. I can say that I loved Fish Tank and Kes because they tell engaging stories, and that while the setting is a part of that it isn’t my focus or the main source of my enjoyment. But it might be part of my enjoyment. It is true that I’m now much more interested in watching these British kitchen sink dramas than I was before. Maybe I am getting a weird, subconscious, voyeuristic kick out of Fish Tank even though I’d prefer not to admit it. Maybe I am engaged in social tourism.
How do you feel about this issue? Do you think it’s a serious ethical problem?