Mediation and Crisis: Secret City and the Role of Radical Documentary

The Free University Brighton will be having a screening of Secret City after a talk by Tim Lines at the Marlborough Theatre on November 25th, 7pm. More details here.

Lee Salter talks about Secret City.

Secret City is a zero-budget documentary film by Michael Chanan (Roehampton) and Lee Salter (Sussex). It charts the rise to dominance of the City of London and the Corporation that run it. The film works in the first instance to shine a light on the murky world of the Corporation of London, a body that’s been around for more than a thousand years, yet about which we know relatively little, which is hidden in plain sight.

We’d set about wanting to make a film about the Corporation itself, just to tell people its story, and explain how this ultra-wealthy, politically powerful institution works to dominate politics and the economics of Britain – from its role in the Civil War, slavery and empire, the deepening of the economic crisis provided for historical conditions in which movements rose to ask fundamental question about how we understand “our” economy and society. How is it that finance capitalism has come to dominate economics? Why is it that we know so little about how economic decisions are made? What do we mean by a shadow banking system? Where does the money go? How do corporations and the global elite manage to avoid taxation?

So the film moved to respond to these questions and in so doing began to tie together the critiques of academics, activists and the investigations of the Occupy movement, whose eviction from the stock exchange to the steps of St Pauls raised questions about the ownership of land, the role of the Corporation in protecting the interests of international finance capital. It also drew attention to the potential role of the Church in opposing the malaise of the economic system.

The method of film making that Chanan has developed required us to plan around a core of interviewees and then allow the interviews to guide the aspects of the direction of the film. The interviews were unscripted and any “mistakes” were not to be rectified or reshot. This enables the interviewee and interviewer to move their discourse in unexpected directions, opening the door to new insights and ideas. It was thus that we hear a Church of England vicar talk of the need to overthrow capitalism, a multi-millionaire businessman speak of the perniciousness of the Corporation that uphold a corrupt economic and political system, and to uncover nuggets of information about actors like the City Remembrancer, who acts as the Corporation’s spy in Parliament, or about the emergence of the shadowy Eurodollar market.

With no money, no sponsors and no production company the film-makers had few constraints beyond their material circumstances. The film bears witness to the potential of digital activist film making, with two people a camera and computer, yet we also recognise the privileged circumstances that enabled this materially. This allowed for an explicitly political narrative that allows ideas to flow on their own grounds outside a dominant ideological framework. The lack of organisational and institutional constraint also mean that the film makers had to be innovative in distributing the film, which has now screened from Austria to Mexico and Chile to Switzerland. The three trajectories of the film presentations consisted in co-hosting with activist groups, social centres and university screenings alongside film festivals and independent cinemas, always with a political aim. As such it has grown alongside a broader set of movements including tax justice movements, Occupy and alternative currency movements, to provide an ongoing locus of resistance to the dominance of finance capital. These connections have also enabled us to build a network for the follow-up film, which will focus on the concept of debt and money. More soon…

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