In the Media

My new parish does have its problems with crime, but fear greatly distorts the reality

PUBLISHED April 27, 2012

The man from the council was not best pleased with Michael Caine. I had arrived at Southwark council offices to try to better understand the broader social issues in my new parish.

I was thinking we would be chatting about last summer's riots down the Walworth Road. But it was Caine's 2009 gangsta movie, Harry Brown, set on the Heygate estate, that dominated the conversation.

Apparently, it didn't do the place any favours. For the man from the council, it exemplified the gap that exists between perception and reality.

Caine was brought up a stone's throw from the Walworth Road, though he thinks the place is a lot tougher now than back then.

"[The film] is about sink estates and the violence on them. This is a dark portrait but it's very true and we're all responsible for it. We left the children to rot. We left these children and they grew into animals," he explained.

"What a shithole. You would have to be mad to live round here if you didn't have to," says a police officer in the film. But many people do live round here and love it.

The tradition of social realism in the arts, beginning around the time of the great depression in the 1930s, regarded itself as thoroughly on the side of the poor, offering an unvarnished view of the hardships of everyday life. But when it gets it wrong, social realism crosses the line into poverty porn, where the misery of other people's circumstances is offered up as cheap entertainment ? with those who are the subject of attention being insulted and diminished.

None of which is to say that drugs and gang violence are absent from the Elephant and Castle. In survey after survey, residents place crime as their number one concern. But a relentless and exclusive focus on such issues can end up reinforcing the very problems that social realism seeks sympathetically to describe. For the root cause of violence is fear.

Knives are carried by young people for "protection", because they fear other people who carry knives. And as the fear intensifies, so some people carry guns ? hence a nasty little local arms race.

In the film, Harry Brown is an ex-marine pensioner who turns vigilante to bring about justice for his murdered friend. The message is that only violence can effectively answer violence. Justice means little more than retribution or revenge. But it is precisely this message that is responsible for what the film seeks to condemn.

It is one thing to watch Harry Brown from a safe distance. But when the brutality it describes is next door, it has a whole different effect. Should I warn my children that there are parts of the area that they shouldn't venture into? Instead, I got my coat and took my eldest daughter for a walk to go and see. We found people selling hats and fish and flowers. The Polish restaurant in the Elephant shopping centre served up some delicious sausage. The East Street market was full of bustle and laughter.

What else did we expect? It was ordinary and lively and fun ? completely another world to the "shithole" of Harry Brown. It is not that social realism fails to speak the truth but that it often fails to speak the whole truth, which can itself be another form of lie. Moreover, when it comes to defiance against a culture of violence, it is the ordinary patterns of everyday life that are the most effective forms of resistance. And that is plain to see when one has removed the distorting goggles of fear.

The man from the council was right. Harry Brown was not the best way for Michael Caine to put something back.

Twitter: @giles_fraser