The audience at the screening of SORRY WE MISSED YOU was ready to interact with the director even before the film began. Ken Loach spoke long, and passionately about the inequality he saw in the world and the reasons he was inspired to make a film about how the rise in economic instability has a damaging effect on family life. He also made a point of acknowledging that with the strain it puts on families, it also leads to chaos, alienation, and anger, which propels the far right in politics. The audience was transfixed with his comments, but such statements are not unique, which was apparent when watching the documentary CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURYlater in the festival. The documentary coincidentally addressed many of the topics Mr. Loach had raised and gave economic and historical backgrounds to the trends currently affecting America and Europe.
At a time when in many developed nations two-thirds of the population is likely to be poorer than their parents, it isn’t surprising that people are searching for answers. In CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY, Director Justin Pemberton attempts to explain the phenomenon through interviews with French economist Thomas Piketty (the author of the eponymous nonfiction book) along with a group of other experts in order to shed some light on the issue through the lens of history. What becomes apparent is that the current trend towards the creation of a small economic elite is not unique and that prior to the mid-20th century, this was the norm in most societies. Pemberton leads the audience step-by-step through history showing how economic models have changed and reemerged in America and Europe while offering some dire warnings and hopeful critiques for the future. By trying to give enough background for audiences who might not have much historical knowledge, the film sometimes feels overly simplistic. However, for the most part it does raise some interesting points about how the western world has gotten to where it is today and how populations are manipulated by politicians into believing lies which only benefit the elites.
Ken Loach’s SORRY WE MISSED YOU is a perfect complement to CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY as it is an example of how the flawed economic policies of today impact modern families. Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) thinks he’s hit the jackpot when he joins a parcel company as a freelance driver. He has heard that with hard work he can earn more than he could working construction or another menial labor job. However, it quickly becomes clear that it won’t be an easy road to success: he has to buy his own van (or rent one from the company for a significant amount of money per day), his work is closely monitored by a tracking device which beeps if he even takes a bathroom break, and negative reports from customers can cause him to face discipline from his boss. Still, Ricky has hope that things will work out if he tries hard enough, but the hustle leaves him too exhausted to spend time worrying about the state of his family, which is quickly disintegrating. His son Seb (Rhys Stone) is skipping school and getting into the trouble resulting in fines, which the family can’t afford. The stress is putting a strain on Ricky’s relationship with his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) who is overworked as underpaid caregiver for the elderly. Eventually the long hours, stress, and financial strain takes its toll and the family struggles to survive the weight of poverty without hope of relief.
While both films sometimes lack in subtlety, where they fundamentally succeed is in raising awareness of how deeply defective the economic systems we take for granted are and the impact they are having on average families. Perhaps if more everyday people were to spend some time learning about the true causes of such inequality it would be easier to counter the divisive political rhetoric that is so common today. And as a starter-kit for those who wish to know more about economic history, CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY isn’t a bad introduction, and when paired with the family tragedy of SORRY WE MISSED YOU it really packs a punch that is hard to ignore.