We liked Crisis of Civilisation so much that we asked director Dean Puckett to write an article about his new film Grasp the Nettle for our summer issue. Here’s the story behind his gonzo-journey into the heart of Kew Bridge’s Democracy Village…
Grasp the Nettle by Dean Puckett
It’s a rare privilege to stumble upon a completely unique story – in this case, a motley collection of land rights activists squatting a 3 acre piece of land in the heart of suburban London. But when I began filming on the 6th of June 2009, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. For the first few weeks, when I visited and filmed Kew Bridge Eco-Village for a few days at a time, I had a sense that my footage was only skimming the surface of the forces and characters behind this fledgeling movement. Journalists who visited the site for just a day, or hours at a time, left with great sound-bites about sustainability and land rights, but there was something we were all missing.
There was an intoxicating energy about the place, a sense of freedom from a system that many of us recognise is unequal and destructive. Yet this rag-tag bunch of occupiers defied conventional stereotypes of the ‘ecowarrior’. They were people from different walks of life: some were students, others were former professionals; some had years of campaigning behind them, for many this was a new experience. And they had come together not simply to occupy a piece of land, but to transform it, bit by bit – in an exciting and unnerving sense, creating their own reality outside the system.
And the more I filmed, the more fault lines began to appear. Despite promoting a radical alternative to modern industrial capitalism, the village was inevitably and intrinsically linked to the wider city, including the capitalist system. And I would watch, enthralled, as the village’s little community frequently struggled in anguish to understand how to deal with the friction between idealism and reality.
There was certainly more to this movement than meets the eye, and my occasional filming as a visitor could only bring so much insight into this community’s day-to-day struggles with government and big business – and itself. So I moved in.
A year and three months later I find myself with 200 hours of footage, at the tail-end of a journey that quite literally changed my life. Having lived this experience so intimately – sometimes beautiful and exciting, other times completely crazy – it was a challenge to bottle
its essence into a 90 minute film. In the editing room we decided that the very experience of moving in and making the film had to be an element of the story. It seemed like the only way to go: attempt to be as honest as possible, within the parameters of a fundamentally dishonest medium.
While making the film, I found myself opening a window into a world I’d never seen or imagined before. In the process, I got to know ex-MI5 whistleblower David Shayler, who now believed he was Jesus, and dressed as a transvestite; was inspired by visionaries who were sincere and articulate in their thoughts and ideas about how we could create a better world; was bemused by activists whose hopes for a better world were inseparable from, what seemed to me, bizarre conspiracy theories; and was even accused by these conspiracy obsessives of being an undercover police officer. So when I condensed my hundreds of hours of footage into a film, I wanted the audience to feel the way I did when I was there: inspired, in awe, freaked out, alienated, out of my depth.
These inspirations, absurdities and eccentricities weave a complex mosaic of the human struggle to create meaning in a world that often makes little sense. Warts and all, the film captures the reality of life for a group of people disillusioned with a mainstream consumer society whose values and culture threaten to bring the planet to a point of irreversible destruction. As such, it’s a film about activism, idealism, homelessness and insanity.
This has made it problematic for broadcasters in this country. They seem to have abandoned films that look into the nooks and crannies of our societies. Television very rarely gives a meaningful voice to radical political ideas; the person at the BBC who rejected our film on the basis that it was biased decided instead to commission the shows Jamie – Drag Queen At 16 & The War on Britain’s Roads. Broadcasters seem to think that all that matters to people are identity based politics and tabloid titillation. With many families struggling to make ends meet during a protracted economic collapse, young people may be open to watching films about people trying to live in another way. It is a worrying trend that the world we see via television has an increasingly narrow view that is masked by a fake ‘balance’, which never allows any kind of radical perspective. When was the last time the BBC went to a radical voice when discussing the economy? Wouldn’t true balance include a view that asks for the end of corporatism, the free market or even the complete dismantling of the state? In short, the BBC’s balance is bullshit.
“Understanding the BBC as a pre-eminent state propagandist and censor by omission – more often than not in tune with its right-wing enemies – is on no public agenda and it ought to be.” – John Pilger
The ambiguity of Grasp the Nettle has also made it difficult for some film festival selectors. The social realities of holding an urban space, such as alcoholism and homelessness, don’t always make for a film with a concise political point or an easy one-click manifesto on a website. The film allows the audience to feel at times critical or ambiguous about the protagonists, and this seems to be a hard sell. Their branding may make them seem progressive, yet distributors and most film festivals are fundamentally beholden to ‘the market’. See distribution company Dogwoof releasing the recent Snoop Dogg documentary, which is essentially a film about a stoned millionaire going on holiday.
Some festivals are more forward thinking though, and we showed it at the Open City Docs Fest in London recently, as part of their ‘City Stories’ strand – their program was packed with films which explore the ambiguities of life. We’ve now opened up the film up for community screenings, with an eye to online distribution, DVD and a more direct relationship with the people who watch it. Not having a cinema release, means that many film magazine’s and newspapers won’t write about the film – yet another hurdle for the independent filmmaker. Its been a four year journey getting it to the screen, but when we sit down with an audience at screenings as we did with my last documentary ‘The Crisis of Civilization’ it will all be worth it. I wouldn’t change a thing.
As one of the most articulate characters – and now my good pal – Simon, says during the final days of the Democracy Village, outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, “Despite the troubles and the madness, this is very powerful: people are standing up and speaking out.” Grasp the Nettle throws up an array of questions – and not just, what is the point of activism? But even,
what is the point of life – of any struggle that can frequently seem futile? And as the characters learn to let go of outcomes and find meaning in their struggle, it’s my hope that the viewer can too.
Dean Puckett is a documentary filmmaker from London who currently resides in a caravan in Totnes, south Devon. You can find Grasp The Nettle at graspthenettlefilm.com. His previous film The Crisis of Civilization can be seen online for free at crisisofcivilization.com.
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