Thursday, 16 April 2009

Considering the 'Chav' as Britain's New Movie Monster

The class divide and juvenile delinquency have traditionally been an area of focus in British cinema. Many, such as Ken Loach and Shane Meadows have used these themes as a platform for social commentary, introducing us to highly sympathetic and human characters in bleak and forbidding environments. British cinema has always given us images of the violent, criminal youth but it has often been with a sense of disillusionment; young people driven into their situation by an unsympathetic society and a Thatcherite nightmare. Even the more recent considerations on the subject, such as Noel Clarke's Kidulthood, born very much in the wake of the tabloid structured panic about 'chav' culture, seek to put a human edge on the Daily Mail nightmare unfolding in the film.

Last year's Eden Lake, however, followed a very different approach. The film does offer flashes of the human emotions of its young delinquents and anyone who has seen the ending can testify that upbringing has had a huge influence on how the children have turned out, but to a large extent they are horror movie monsters; caricatures of savagery that lack the boundaries of civilised society. One of the most striking things about the reaction to the film was alarmed international viewers asking "is Britain really this bad!?" to which many British viewers responded "yes!"

Eden Lake is a film of ultra-violence, torture and remorselessness, so it is rather surprising, and perhaps worrying that many saw this is an entirely plausible story. This is perhaps because the film satirically incorporates many of the moral panics surrounding modern youth culture into its storyline. One of the most evident examples of this is the filming of the torture with mobile phones, a heavily exaggerated example of the 'happy slapping' phenomena that gets so much press attention in Britain.

Although some will see the film as a satirical sideswipe at tabloid panic, it could be argued Eden Lake is not a healthy portrayal of youth culture in Britain. It may, however, be the first of many films to incorporate the 'chav' into the horror movie genre. In America the redneck reins supreme in horror movies. You know the drill; young, attractive city folk head off into a remote, backwater town and encounter a hostile bunch of lower class, uneducated and uncivilised locals. It reinforces any number of stereotypes but it has been done a million times before and the redneck will continue to be a goldmine for horror movie directors. They are the 'other;' vaguely plausible and a part of the cultural landscape but not one of 'us,' watching the movie in our middle class homes.

Britain, tiny island as it is, does not quite have a redneck equivalent. In Britain, a 'remote' town is an hour away from a major city so the concept of a cut-off society with no concept of the 'real world' seems implausible (only slightly more implausible, it must be said, then it is in America). However, chavs are increasingly being portrayed in the media in the same way rednecks are shown in horror movies; violent and aggressive, low on education and social etiquette and with a "we look after our own" mentality. The simple lifestyle and religious reverence is replaced with a streetwise, urban community that fits modern Britain and in the chav we have our 'other;' we know they are there, we've heard the horror stories and they are not one of 'us.'

Its a worrying concept. Films like Eden Lake can only serve to fuel the tabloid fervour surrounding youth culture and an examination of the cultural and societal impacts on young people must be considered before they are portrayed as evil incarnate.

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