Monday, February 05, 2007

A film review to commemorate the end of the slave trade

This year, 2007, sees the 200th anniversary of the vote in the House of Commons to abolish the slave trade. This vote was a huge moral victory for anti-slavery campaigners such as William Wilberforce.

And despite the impression which Gordon Brown and John Prescott may have given, the campaigners against slavery represented a wide range of British opinion - Wilberforce was an independent MP but had strong support from Tory prime minister William Pitt (the younger). The 1807 act was pushed through by the "Ministry of All the Talents" coalition government in which Tories and Whigs of various factions took part.

Following on from the 1807 vote, Britain pushed at the Vienna peace conference for all the major powers to agree to support the end of the slave trade. And then the Royal Navy forced them to stand by their word. It was our navy who hunted down and arrested slavers all over the world. It took a 30-year naval campaign to do it, but by the end of that time the slave trade had been turned from from an open, legal and highly profitable industry operating on a massive scale to a covert, despised, criminal activity.

To commemorate this anniversary, many organisations including the government, the Church of England, the Borough council in Copeland (which includes the port of Whitehaven), and the Conservative party are organising or taking part in ceremonies to celebrate the vote against slavery or to apologise for their role in the slave trade.

It's easy to get cynical about this, especially while we have a Prime Minister who is constantly apologising for things which Britain did centuries ago but who has never once apologised for any of the things for which he is actually responsible. However, anyone with the least doubt that we should express our regrets and apology for the fact that our ancestors were once involved in the slave trade - and on the positive side, that we can also be proud of what our country eventually did to stop the slave trade - would be well advised to see a film called "CSA" (The Confederate States of America) which appears superficially to be a work of "alternative history" fiction but is really a devastating indictment of slavery. So here is a review of the film CSA which I have not seen in cinemas but is faily easy to buy or rent over the internet on DVD.

This film sets out to make the viewer realise how much evil was caused by slavery, presenting itself as a documentary being made in an "alternative history" world in which the South won the American civil war and slavery continues to this day.

This isn't the sort of alternative history fiction beloved of fans of authors such as Harry Turtledove. The mechanics of how history came to follow an alternative track are deliberately downplayed: this film is not really about how any specific change in the timeline could have produced particular consequences. In a few instances the alternate history timeline presented is very implausible, which does not matter so much to this film, but might have ruined a different type of film in which the history was the story.

For instance, it is one thing to suggest that the Confederate States of America might have won independence if they had gained British and French support, which was the objective for which they fought. It is an entirely different matter to suggest that the rebels could have actually conquered and annexed the North, or that they would even have wanted to. If the main message of the film had been that this could have happened it would have completely destroyed the credibility of the story.

However, as the main purpose of the story is to make the evil of slavery real to us by showing how it would have worked in a modern context, the makers of the film can plausibly argue that they more effectively make that point by showing slavery in action throughout the area which in our world is the United States of America and in the film is the Confederate States of America.

The opening sequence starts with a disclaimer that this is a "foreign" documentary made by the "British Broadcasting Service" (which doesn't exist) - this is part of the scene setting. The film is interspersed with adverts for various services and products set in a world in which slavery is normal and both racism and sexism are much more overt and direct than we think we are are used to seeing. At the very end of the film there is an explanation of how much of this advertising is lifted from real adverts for real products, which will shock many people.

Part of the film is presented as a history programme about the "Confederate States" and part as an expose of the supposed current social and political situation.

The film loves taking real events and reversing them: for example the real painting of the surrender at the end of the civil war is described as Grant's surrender to Lee, we see film of the TV debate in the US presidential election of 1960, and it is described as being between Democrat candidate Richard Nixon and Republican candidate John F Kennedy. (It would have been quite plausible in the context of a Southern victory that the Republicans, as the party who wanted to free the slaves, would never have become the establishment party if they had not won.)

Not easy viewing, but if you want to understand the history of slavery in a modern context, I can recommend it. And then think about all the young women from eastern Europe who have been tricked into coming to this country and are currently being coerced into working in the sex industry. The problem is not over.

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