- Text by Alex King
“We wanted to find ways of refreshing people’s sense of shock, that this is grotesque,” explains director Michael Winterbottom. “So it’s about finding lots of different ways to remind people things don’t have to be like this. The way things are is wrong, but things can change.”
The Emperor’s New Clothes is the most engaging documentary yet to challenge growing inequality and the widening chasm between the 1% and the rest of us. The film is a collaboration between director Michael Winterbottom and Russell Brand, who brings both his passion for activism and his immense comic talents to the table.
As Brand explains in the opening, we already know the story: the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer – in the UK and around the world. Getting to the root of why this is happening could so easily be incredibly dry, yet the The Emperor’s New Clothes entertains throughout.
Brand has a rare ability to engage people around politics in a fun and often hilarious way, such as describing companies like Apple and Google as a “glittering band of tech gypsies,” moving profits around the world to avoid tax. “I’ve always been the kind of person who sadly watches things like Newsnight and everything like that,” Winterbottom explains. “But working with Russell he reminds you how sterile those arguments often are. You always have like two opposing views, it’s arguing about some technicalities, going round and round in circles. You know there’s never going to be any conclusion.”
Brand’s skill as an entertainer and storyteller allows The Emperor’s New Clothes to weave together the forces that are driving deepening inequality, such as tax havens, non-domiciled tax status, the bankers’ bailout and their spiralling bonuses, government austerity programmes, and puts everything in the context of three decades of free market fundamentalism – without ever being boring.
Instead, the film leaves you feeling empowered that you can play a part in overturning the system. “I hope that people who watch it will go out of the cinema feeling angry, but hopefully energised,” Winterbottom explains. “Not angry like ‘go to bed and cry about it’ but angry like ‘let’s do something.’”
Much of the film’s anger and outrage is directed towards bankers, who refused to be part of the film. “We spent a lot of time trying to get bankers to come and talk about what they do,” Winterbottom explains. “But even the Bankers’ Association, the people who are supposed to talk about it, wouldn’t talk to us. They said ‘No individual banker will come and talk to you’ because they know that as soon as their face is visible and their name is recognised, they become the person who represents bankers. They know that people think it’s wrong. They know it’s wrong, so they just want to be invisible.”
But Brand refuses to let them hide and jumps in a van with a huge ‘Shop A Banker’ billboard on the side. Cruising around the City of London, he leans out of the window with a megaphone to encourage bankers to hand over their overpaid CEOs in his own bombastic style. After this fails, he attempts to meet the bankers in person at their corporate headquarters: Michael Moore ambush journalism style, but a funnier version at that. While the banks’ staff attempt to snap Brand on their mobile phones, he’s predictably turned away by security guards and PR people, whose sullen expressions and flimsy excuses say as much as any interview.
Winterbottom has a strong track record of great social issue films, including dramas like Welcome to Sarajevo, the documentary adaptation of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and docu-drama The Road to Guantanamo. The Emperor’s New Clothes feels like the freshest and most urgent, thanks to its focus on real people and the real campaigns that ordinary people have started – and won. The global forces the film narrates are illustrated through their effects on local people in Grays, the painfully average Essex commuter town where Russell grew up, and it features campaigns he has been associated with, like Occupy and the New Era estate campaign, which successfully fought off a predatory landlord in East London.
As the effects of growing inequality and social injustice begin to bite, more and more people are getting involved in campaigns that matter to them, like housing, climate change and tuition fees. The Emperor’s New Clothes celebrates this growing consciousness and makes a strong call for people to become active and take back control over their lives.
“When you see Russell, I think he enjoys what he does, it’s enjoyable,” Winterbottom explains. “[The] experience of coming together and fighting for what [is right] is something that’s enjoyable. Community activity, community involvement is more satisfying than sitting at home and watching the telly. [We wanted to encourage] people from all different walks of life to get involved in whatever is relevant to them. To try and remind people watching that activism is fun.”
The Emperor’s New Clothes is released in the UK on April 24.