What is Social Realism?
Cinematically the British New Wave is part of a tradition of social realism within British film which has seen many shifts since the growth of the British documentary movement in the 1930s. Realism is a difficult concept because encapsulated within it there are a range of changing aesthetic conventions all of which have as a central concern the intention of representing ‘the world as it really is’ or ‘life as it is really lived’. Lay (2002) points out:
There is no universal, all-encompassing definition of realism, nor is there agreement amongst academics and film-makers as to its purpose and use. But what we can say is that there are many ‘realisms’ and these realisms all share an interest in presenting some aspect of life as it is lived’. Carroll (1996) suggests that the term should only be used with a prefix attached. This is because another important feature of all realisms is how they are produced at specific historical points. The addition of a prefix, such as social-, neo-, documentary-, specifies the’ what’ and crucially, ‘when’ of that movement or moment. What is regarded as ‘real’, by whom, and how it is represented is unstable dynamic, and ever-changing, precisely because realism is irrevocably tied to the specifics of time and place. ‘Moment’” (Lay, Samantha, 2002: p 8)
As Andre Bazin also noted, each era looks to the technique and aesthetic which can best capture aspects of reality, thus realism is in itself an aesthetic construct dependent upon a set of artistic conventions and forms. It has been noted that for a film to be realist rather than just realistic there are 2 necessary fundamentals. There must have been the intention to capture the experience of the event depicted and secondly the film-maker must have a specific argument or message to make about the social world employing realist conventions to express this.
Raymond Williams has argued that the four main criteria of social realism incorporate the following features:
- Firstly that the texts are secular, released from mysticism and religion
- Secondly that they are grounded in the contemporary scene in terms of setting, characters and social issues
- Thirdly that they contain an element of social extension by which previously under-represented groupings in society become represented
- Fourthly there is the intent of the artist which is mostly a political one although some artists have used the genre as route into a mainstream film-making career.
Social Realism and Representation
Social realist texts usually focus on the type of characters not generally found in mainstream films. Social realist texts draw in characters who inhabit the social margins of society in terms of status and power. This ‘social extension’ has usually involved the representation of the working class at moments of social and economic change.
For example there was a shift in modes of representation of the working class from the Grierson documentaries of the 1930s to British Free Cinema documentaries and the British New Wave features which followed on from the Free Cinema Movement. Free Cinema and New Wave chose to represent the working class neither in victim mode, nor in heroic worker mode as had been done previously. The working class were to be seen as more energetic and vibrant.
Critics generally accept that women have faired badly in the representations of the British New Wave, although Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) and TV docudramas Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home helped redress the balance. By the 1980s social realist films such as Letter to Brehznev (1985), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) reflected the changing nature of society and the growing importance of women in the workforce, not only women but humour too was more apparent. This approach continued into the 1990s with films such as Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (1997). Some have argued that the portrayal of women took a retrograde step in the mid to late 1990s as they became adept consumers unsupportive of husbands as in Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997). Alternatively women became victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse such as Stella Does Tricks (1996) or Nil By Mouth (1997).
It has been argued that in general the representation of the working class has shifted from being producers to consumers reflected in a move which has seen members of the working class in more privatised domestic environments and leisure-time settings instead of as members of geographical communities or in workplace environments where collective bargaining procedures are in place.
Whilst social realist representation has tended to focus upon white working class males there has been some breakthrough in terms of race in films such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Bahji on the Beach (1994). The changing sense of Britishness has been represented through cultural hybridity and multiculturalism from the mid 1980s through until Chada’s Bend it Like Beckham moving from social real to a more fantasy mode in the process. Recently social extension has begun to be granted to the position of asylum seekers and refugees and those effected by the diasporic forces relating to globalisation and the collapse of the post-capitalist states such as Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002) which concerns issues of globalised inequality from a social realist perspective.