Katharine Round’s documentary The Divide (Cert 12A, 78 mins, ★★★) is based on the influential 2009 book The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in which the authors argue that the gulf between rich and poor in Britain and America – currently at its highest since 1928 – has surprisingly pernicious effects upon everything from life expectancy to mental health. The problem is not just poverty, they said, but inequality: more economically equal societies have better outcomes for all their citizens.
Round illustrates this theory using the lives of seven subjects in the US and the UK, including a low-income Newcastle care worker who scarcely has time to see her children and a well-off Wall Street psychologist complaining of the same thing. Each individual’s story proves compelling, as well as telling a wider story about demoralisation in a society defined chiefly by economic difference.
The tale told by Janet, a weary, gentle Walmart worker in Louisiana, reveals how runaway capitalism – described here by Sir Max Hastings as capitalism gone “hopelessly, disastrously wrong” – first plays by the existing rules, then sets its own.
Janet and her husband once had a successful video shop, which went bust when Walmart joined the video business. When Janet later got a job at Walmart, she was initially impressed by how encouraging the company was to its employees. Then the company began employing fewer people to do the same work. As profits have grown for those at the top of the Walmart structure, lower-wage workers have failed to share the prizes: subjected to fluctuating working hours, many of them draw a company wage while also receiving government food stamps. Janet herself has become increasingly stressed, and is now facing eviction. Meanwhile, Walmart’s CEO made more than $20 million last year, more than 1,000 times the average Walmart worker.
The documentary charts the rise in income inequality since the 1980s, along with the widespread growth of personal debt. The film’s subjects are all at different rungs on the steep economic ladder, at the very bottom of which is Keith, jailed for life as a young man for a minor drugs offence under the US “three strikes and you’re out” law, enraged and brutalised by his long experience of prison. Yet those near the top in America also seem trapped, albeit in a much less explicit style: obsessing about status, living nervously in gated communities, feeding a ravenous mortgage and being terrified of taking a day off sick.
At times, this fascinating documentary almost seems to have bitten off more issues than it has time to chew. Yet Round leaves her audience with powerful questions about what can happen when communities dissolve, to be replaced by the credo of “I am me because I am not you”.