Brexitannia is a fascinating and surprisingly moving documentary of why people voted the way they did in Britain’s EU referendum. This documentary was screened last March 27 during the Festival Millenium.
It is a simply-made film: the people interviewed speak straight to the camera and are situated in their homes or familiar places like the local pub or park, all around the country. There is no direct storyline and the audience is not led in any one direction.
“The referendum was a rare opportunity for people to say what they wanted to say,” says one of the characters. In fact, Brexit being as divisive as it is, it is rare to hear people saying what they think in a setting free from prejudice, and that is what makes Brexitannia valuable.
Of course, some of the characters seem to fit the stereotypes. One woman, in her deck chair in a suburban garden, describes how regulations apparently banning curly cucumbers alarmed her about absurd EU bureaucracy and made her want to leave.
There are racists, one man pointing to his white skin and saying, “English is this colour.” Yet there are also surprises: a Polish man who would have voted Leave if he could, a young female UKIP supporter who says she doesn’t trust right-wing media, a middle-aged man who admits to feeling “territorial” and seeing migrants as a “threat” but who voted Remain.
The point is that this part of the film, subtitled “The People”, does not deliberately seek out either the typical cases – white working class Leave voters, or cosmopolitan, young and especially Scottish Remain voters – nor the exceptions.
There were good arguments for leaving the EU, just as there were good arguments to remain. By paying attention and giving people the time to speak, Brexitannia, allows those arguments to emerge eloquently and expressively.
Several people highlight the EU’s lack of accountability: “If your national government cocks up, you can vote them out. If the EU cocks up, you’re stuck with it.” Farmers and fishermen complain of unfair regulation. Nevertheless, these arguments were and are swamped by other issues: saying “Fuck off” to “arrogant politicians”, British jobs for British workers, going back to the days of empire. As one woman says, “It wasn’t even a vote about in or out. It was about immigration.”
These issues still arouse strong emotions and prejudices. In the cinema, I noticed people laughing at some of the less educated people in the film, even as they said, “there are a lot of assumptions made about Leave voters”.
Brexitannia’s “Part II: the experts” locates these divisions in the wider geopolitical context, with views from intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Heidi Mirza. It is striking how abstract their discussion of neoliberalism and hegemonies seems after the personal testimonies of “the people”.
Nevertheless, the forces they identify – the platform increasingly given to right-wing nationalism or the influence of press magnate Rupert Murdoch – are stirring in their own way. Brexitannia is thus an informative film that is emotionally powerful by sheer virtue of the space it gives to opinions.