New Town Utopia is a feature documentary film about utopian dreams and concrete realities - the challenging, funny, and sometimes tragic story of the British new town of Basildon, Essex. The narrative is guided by the artists, musicians and poets of Basildon - on a journey through memory, place and performance. Facing austerity, adversity and personal battles they are individuals driven by creative spirit to help their community through art, poetry, music - and some rather angry puppets. New Town Utopia features Oscar-winning actor Jim Broadbent (Iris, Topsy-Turvy, Moulin Rouge) as the voice of Lewis Silkin MP. Directed by Christopher Ian Smith (Arterial, Cumulus) and Executive Produced by Margaret Matheson (Scum, Sid and Nancy, Sleep Furiously). In 2018 there will be a UK screening tour in cinemas and galleries, DVD and online release.Written by
Anyone coming to this intriguing documentary should be aware that it has a big agenda: it's very much from a socialist viewpoint, and most of its contributors are from an artistic background.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with this of course, but it does mean that we don't get a complete portrait of Basildon or of its origins. Its origins were in the post-war era, and all we get of the thinking behind it is Jim Broadbent voicing MP Lewis Silkin's speeches of the time - he was partly responsible for town planning in the 1945 Labour government. There are no architects interviewed, virtually no one of a pro-free market disposition and barely any 'ordinary' families, who constitute the majority of Basildon's population.
Mrs Thatcher comes under attack, predictably. Council house sales are blamed for destroying community cohesion and disadvantaging the poor. There are various problems with this outlook: firstly, the people in those now ex-council houses continued to live there, by and large, so why would that change the neighbourhood? If not enough council houses were built after that, that was a separate problem, not the fault of council house sales (something that empowered people and made them feel a greater sense of personal responsibility). The film does not look at other reasons why communities might have fragmented and have 'kids not playing in the streets any more', which could include: warmer, more comfortable houses; greater technology that in many cases - the internet, the iPhone, videogames - encourage people to stay inside more; high immigration (although Basildon has largely escaped this phenomenon - indeed, the town has been a recipient of some of the 'white flight' from London); more travelling, which comes with greater wealth.
Some of the people interviewed have good points, some are moaning minnies (as Mrs T might have said). A few are real gloom buckets, but your words can sound especially gloomy when played alongside mournful music and shots of run down shopping centres and factories (again, there are no other suggestions for why this has happened, how the internet has made us do more of our shopping online, or how globalisation has seen some factory work go abroad, because markets there are greatly developing).
Many artists have an unrealistic idea of their importance in the real world; that is illustrated here. Art is vitally important, of course - it helps us realise we are not alone in our human suffering - but aspects of commerce are far more important in most people's daily lives.
It is capitalism that makes it vastly more likely that there will be a more vibrant arts scene, because as wealth grows (which it tends to do under capitalism) people have more money, and usually more time, to spend on leisure activities, things that are not 'essential' for everyday survival. It is socialist societies that have far less in the way of culture and colourful art. I imagine those living in Soviet tower blocks for most of their existence would look with envy to places like Basildon. Artists are far more likely to thrive in a capitalist land rather than a socialist one, but many seem not to realise that.
New Town Utopia does feature some good photography - parts of it are reminiscent of Patrick Keiller's 'Robinson' trilogy - and I have no doubt that, like Keiller's films, it will gain a period charm in the future. But like Keiller's work it is also somewhat narrow-minded, overly leftist in its diagnosis of Britain's problems, and too pessimistic.
Still, it's a thought-provoking watch.
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