Eye For Film >> Movies >> Utopias (1989) Film Review
Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten
Filmed at a time of disillusionment for the British Left - the reverberations of the fall of Communism were causing demoralisation and destabilising old certainties, while change was also afoot in the Labour Party - Utopias questions what was meant by 'socialism' when people were supposedly saying farewell to the term. But rather than seeking to define socialism, director Marc Karlin instead created a series of portraits of people whose lives had intersected with the concept in practical (rather than abstract) terms - it is part of how they define themselves - and asked what 'socialism' meant to them and whether they believed it to be on its way out.
The film is divided into three parts - Inheritance, For the Present, Possibilities - and combines talking head interviews with dioramic stagings of historical or symbolic importance (juxtaposing images with snippets of audio) as it seeks to find out whether "there is still a space for the word 'us' in current political vocabulary". A range of backgrounds are encompassed by the interviewees - Jack Jones (former union leader of the TGWU), Marsha Marshall (miner's wife and campaigner), David Widgery (GP and member of the Socialist Workers' Party), Bob Rowthorn (an economist), members of the Cravendale Furniture Upholstery Co-Operative, Ambalavaner Sivanandan (director (1973-2013) of the Institute of Race Relations and founding editor of the journal Race & Class), and Sheila Rowbotham (historian and former editor of Jobs for Change, the newspaper of the Greater London Council).
Taken collectively they offer a multi-faceted - and at times necessarily contradictory - portrait of socialism and its part in the British political landscape.
The film screened at AV Festival 2016 as part of a retrospective of Karlin's work. The 2016 edition of the festival has the title "Meanwhile, what about Socialism?", an obvious connection to the late director's preoccupations, especially in this film. To watch Utopias in 2016 is to experience a sense of déjà vu - it shows the NHS and whole concept of the welfare state under attack while the Labour Party flounders through factionalism and an inability to articulate a vision of the future. And yet...while in 1989 the Left was at a low ebb (with the electoral defeat of 1992 still to come), one of the reasons for the festival's focus on socialism is the renewed interest in the concept, as manifested in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US. Is something different going to happen this time?
Early in Utopias, Marshall rhetorically asks: "Can the Labour Party say to me that socialism is dead?" and replies: "I don't think so - all these millions of people can't stop caring, it's just not possible". Many of the participants highlight the institutional barriers to enacting socialist principles at a governmental level (or what has gone wrong in the attempt) - although Jones points out that socialist principles are more widespread in government structures than is usually acknowledged, because governments (local and national) implicitly recognise that the needs of people are interdependent - but the enduring belief in the collective (that people still care about each other, despite what incumbent governments may think) and the power that comes from unity (as seen in practical form in the example of the Cravendale Co-Operative) is quietly inspiring.
To put it another way, Karlin found that there was still an instinctive 'us' in the British political landscape - and arguably Corbyn's grassroots campaign and the scale of his majority in the 2015 Labour leadership contest is an indication that it is still there today. If we are nonetheless living through a period with an increasingly vicious manifestation of the Right in power - where revolutionary behaviour on the Left currently amounts to "a holding position...to fight for what we already have", in Widgery's words - it is a shame that Karlin is not still with us to probe and enlighten with his evident humour and humanity.
Utopias is available to buy or rent from the Marc Karlin Archive on Vimeo.Reviewed on: 07 Mar 2016