Disparity documentary film review

★★

Directed by: #RenuMehta

Produced by: #RenuMehta

Starring: #RenuMehta #JamesMirrlees

Film review by: William Hemingway



Disparity film poster

Benjamin Franklin famously said there are two certainties in this world: ‘death and taxes’, but he could have confidently added a third certainty to this list – Disparity. Since time immemorial there has been a divide between the rich and the poor, the have and the have-nots. From lords and serfs, to bishops and laymen, to warlords and soldiers, to leaders and the proletariat, there has always been a difference in means and power across nations and across social structure. Disparity does not simply have to mean a difference in wealth either; it can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes including health, education, access to resources, access to opportunities, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, enfranchisement, and so on and so on. In fact disparity is such a widespread and fundamental certainty that it sits amongst the most important issues facing the world today, alongside Covid and Race Relations and the Climate Crisis. In her film, Renu Mehta (along with economist James Mirrlees) aims to shine a light on this particular global issue and perhaps offer us a solution that although may not cure the problems so many face as a result of disparity, could at least go a long way to helping out.

Mehta, who directs as well as produces this documentary, chunks the problem into ten separate sub-headings, which we are introduced to each in turn. We are treated to the scale of the problem, with the familiar statistics of the one-percenters and the world’s richest families owning half of the world’s wealth, before being shown the intricacies and machinations of state aid and all of its pitfalls. It becomes obvious very quickly that things are not as they should be and that government aid also means government kickbacks, and this is all before we even get to the corruption and criminality and the murky world of tax-avoidance.

But all is not lost, and through the work of established NGO’s and private philanthropy, those outside of the system are shown to be making a difference by placing money where it is most needed and in a more effective manner. The difference it seems, comes down to policy and intent, and we find that if wealthy governments really wanted their money to go to helping out the poorest on the planet and for their systems of aid to really make a difference on the ground to lift people out of abject poverty, they could very easily legislate to do so. They just don’t. Instead they continue their cycle of self-service and greed and political games that only work to keep the powerful at the top and the weak at the bottom. We find that this can otherwise be known as International Diplomacy.

Which all brings us to the point of the documentary; the promotion of the MM Aid Model, of which Mehta and Mirrlees are co-authors. It suggests that a matched funding from government aid budgets to private philanthropy, which is channelled through the aforementioned effective systems run by non-governmental organisations, could see an upscaling of the efficacy and size of world aid. With such a noble cause and such a forward thinking idea you might think that it would take no time at all for the world to adopt such a model or for this documentary to get the word out to so many new people to get on board. Unfortunately this hasn’t been the case, and a large part of the problem of spreading the word seems to lie squarely on the shoulders of Mehta and this documentary.

All of the information in the entire film is given to us in expositional statements from experts. Granted, these experts are mostly world leading voices in their field, and the words of the likes of Professor Noam Chomsky and Professor Joseph Stiglitz are enough to make anyone sit up and take note. However, when the only way we can engage with the topic and the documentary is through vox pops and talking heads and maybe the odd screen-filling written statement that only appears for just enough time to read it through once at speed, then it becomes very difficult to emotionally hook into the point of the matter. If Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy) has taught us anything about documentary film-making it’s that narrative is key. Here we get the feeling that we are in a never-ending lecture with multiple lecturers, who we only get introduced to once and then have to remember who they are and what they stand for as they appear and reappear to lecture us some more on a slightly different aspect. At best, this documentary comes off feeling like a (hyper)extended TED talk and at worst like a corporate promotional video, complete with celebrity cameos and plush backgrounds.

Indeed, it can sometimes feel rather jarring to be talked at about abject poverty and the brutality of the world order and how it’s down to us, the ‘common people’ to do something about it, when we’re being told by well educated, well fed, expensively tailored people, sitting on well upholstered seats, in warm, comfortable, high-society surroundings, without any hint of irony whatsoever. Mehta and Mirrlees themselves bookend the documentary with a walk through the (privately owned) Scottish hills in their tweeds and a sunset seat on the beach sipping select malt whisky. This isn’t at all to say that their message and intent isn’t one of good and of empathy and of compassion, but there are ways of saying things and of putting that message across which are severely lacking in this documentary; and for all purposes, no matter the importance of the issue at hand, this is a review of film not intent.