David Simon has a lot to answer for.
There was a time, around the turn of the millennium, when big institutions had their day in the sun: In foreign affairs, people began to look to the United Nations as a venue for resolving political conflicts while independent NGOs were seen not only as fonts of specialised knowledge but as self-less agents for change and charity. In domestic affairs, the backlash against the Thatcherite era of cuts and privatisations gained political substance as people began to demand proper investment in schools and hospitals. In the UK at least, this unexpected belief in the power of institutions to change the world swept the Labour party into power with a mandate for an ‘ethical foreign policy’ and massive investment in public services. For a while, people believed. People felt the institutional sun on their up-turned faces.
But then, as these things inevitably do, the wheel began to turn.
It is hard to tell when precisely it was that the rot began to creep into cultural representations of social institutions but it was pretty obvious when the roof fell in. Over the course of five short series, David Simon’s HBO series The Wire took a crowbar to the knees of pretty much every large social institution in America: The police, organised labour, politics, the media, schools and even criminal gangs. Nobody escaped Simon’s forensic wrath. According to The Wire, no institution could be trusted to deliver social change because institutions rely upon human agents who are invariably both too self-serving and too short sighted to act in the interests of society as a whole.
Change, we were told, simply could not come from above.
If The Wire’s brutal analysis constituted the crest of a wave of disillusionment then Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002) was undeniably a distant but powerful off shore surge that contributed to the bathymetric sway. The film focuses upon Ireland’s infamous Magdalene asylums, institutions run by the Catholic Church with parental consent that effectively pressed young women into slavery in order to ‘protect’ them and others from their fallen morality. Over the course of 119 minutes, The Magdalene Sisters wages a viciously effective assault on the notion that charitable institutions could ever be anything other than venues for misguided authoritarianism and the psychological and physical abuse of vulnerable people.
But what of the individual in all of this?
If it is unacceptable to suggest that the poor are simply lazy and that the vulnerable are simply weak, then surely it is just as unpalatable to suggest that the poor and vulnerable are nothing but the passive victims of misguided social institutions? If may well be reductive and simplistic to place all of one’s faith for social renewal in large institutions but it is just as simplistic to paint these institutions as nothing more than part of an unjust and exploitative system. People are individuals. People have choice. People have agency. A more sophisticated representation of the ills of our society would allow for this. It would acknowledge the responsibilities that we have to ourselves.
Peter Mullan’s latest film Neds (Non-educated Delinquents) attempts to examine both sides of the coin. Set in 1970s Scotland, the film depicts a social landscape bristling with institutions that are quick to open their arms to working class children but just as quick to turn their backs on these same children if they fail to follow the (largely unwritten) rules. However, while Mullan does a brilliant job of depicting the fickle and irrational nature of big institutions, his film’s real power comes from a willingness to recognise that we play a large part in our own downfall and salvation.