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The divide between rich and poor explored on screen

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Tomáš Tengely-Evans looks at The Divide, a new documentary that looks at the disfiguring effects of class division without slipping into voyeurism
Issue 2456
Fast food worker Leah looks into a mirror at the start of the film
Fast food worker Leah looks into a mirror at the start of the film (Pic: Open City Documentary Films)

Director Katharine Round’s film The Divide is an innovative look at how growing inequality is disfiguring society and disempowers people. 

But it’s not some voyeuristic documentary on poverty. It also shows instances of people fighting back and trying to take control of their lives.

The film is based around seven “windows” into different individuals’ lives. 

The opening shots are particularly powerful, as we’re introduced to each of the protagonists standing in front of their bathroom mirrors. 

They’re all given a voice. But it’s also as if they were addressing you directly. 

In the first window, we’re introduced to Alden, a top psychologist whose office is opposite the big Wall Street banks. 

He specialises in treating the ailments of his super rich banker clients—and perhaps wishes to emulate their “success” but also suffers from similar problems. 


In stark contrast is Leah, a fast food worker in Richmond, Virginia. “My week starts on Sunday evening and goes right through until Friday,” she explains. 

Round’s inspiration for the film came from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s influential book The Spirit Level. 

They argued that the more unequal a society, the more social problems there are from poor diets to mental health. 

In Glasgow’s Pollock housing estate Darren tells us about how poverty and substance problems mean that he’ll most likely follow his mum—and be dead by 36.

Meanwhile, in a gated community playground one child is shunned because he’s from the “poorer” part of the gated community.

Inequality does disfigure society—but it affects poor people much more profoundly than the rich.  

So when the subjects are asked if they have control over their lives, Alden replies “absolutely”, while Leah and other working class people say they don’t.

The film shows the grinding effects of poverty—without being seeped in moralism or becoming a liberal spectator sport. 

It also places it in a wider political context of former US president Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher letting the market rip. 

If it ended there, then it would have been a perfectly decent documentary. But it goes even further, to show people fighting back and the possibility of change. 

Leah is worn down by her job. But just before the credits begin to roll we see her on a picket line fighting for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

The Divide. Directed by Katharine Round. The film will premiere at the Sheffield Doc Fest on 10 June

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