9.1.3 A Way of Life and ‘new’ Welsh identities
A Way of Life is a rare example of a fictional narrative that scrutinises Welsh identity in relation to the nation’s ethnic populations. Released in 2004, the film was made by Amma Asante, a woman raised in Streatham in south London by parents who were born in Ghana. Asante’s connection to Wales came through her brother’s marriage to a Welsh woman and their children who, in Asante’s own words, were ‘half of everything you could possibly imagine’ (Blandford, 2004, p. 15).
The complex ethnic and racial identities of her niece and nephew were part of Asante’s motivation to make a film that is explicitly concerned with the interaction between ethnicity and national identity. Another part came from her initial sense of Wales, particularly Cardiff, as a place of greater racial harmony than the rest of the UK because of the length of its history of multiculturalism, only to be disabused of the fact as she got to know it better (Blandford, 2004).
The film’s plot revolves around the murder of a man in a South Wales community by a group of teenagers, including a young, single mother, Leanne (Stephanie Williams) who becomes the film’s leading character. The murdered man is of Turkish origin and has lived in Wales for thirty years. The film is unflinching about the brutality of the murder and the casual racist attitudes on the part of the young people that contribute to it, but its daring is to have us also feel for the difficulty of the lives that the perpetrators lead.
This is frequently a painful film to watch and it represents those parts of South Wales still badly affected by de-industrialisation as very difficult places to grow up. On the other hand, it is a film that is brave enough to look at the origins of racism in an honest and unflinching way. That it is set in Wales, with financial support from the Lottery via the Welsh Arts Council, is arguably a positive signal of a healthy culture that is able to examine its problems from within rather than relying on outmoded myths to sustain itself.
Pause and consider how many times you have seen non-white characters on screen that are Welsh. Can you think of examples in other arts forms, for example in literature?
One of the complex things about discussing the representation of any nation is the point where the representation of, in this case Wales, meets the representation of another aspect of identity. The idea of being both black and Welsh is obviously perfectly normal, but it a dimension to the representation of Wales that is still somewhat neglected.
Now read this piece by Martin McLoone who has often written about cinema in Ireland, but who here applies the same kind of thinking to all the Celtic countries. He suggests that cinema from Wales (and the other Celtic nations) is ‘on the cutting edge of contemporary cultural debate about identity’. As you read Extract 17, consider how far you agree with this suggestion with regard to what you know about cinema from Wales.
Like Divorcing Jack, Kevin Allen’s Swansea-set Twin Town (1997) elects to tackle stereotypes and cinematic clichés directly. As its already bizarre plot rushes towards a climax of melodramatic excess and bad taste, central icons and cultural markers of Welsh identity (rugby, community and male-voice choirs) are lampooned into absurdity. Twin Town – anarchic, populist, youth orientated – contrasts with the more meditatively inclined group of Welsh language films. At the centre of the films is the place of the Welsh language itself and indeed, the most impressive aspect of the Welsh language films in general has been the total confidence they demonstrate in the contemporary relevance of the ancient tongue.
In Endaf Emlyn’s Un Nos Ola’ Lewad/One Full Moon (1991) the relationship between the English and Welsh language is a factor in the crisis of identity that faces the films protagonist, an unnamed boy (Tudor Roberts). In the village school, the children speak English and are encouraged to associate English with access to power and influence – the Welsh speaking children are clearly seen as objects of exploitation and in the case of one young girl, of sexual exploitation as well. The boy is asked to read a passage of English by the school master and the local Anglican canon. He performs the task well enough in a halting, cautious manner but pronounces the word ‘society’ according to Welsh phonetics. This reduces his superiors to laughter. Society, the film suggests, just like community, culture and history, is recognised through the language that describes it.
It would be wrong though to see Welsh language cinema as an unthinking nationalist response to dominant English culture or one that collapses the complexities of identity into dubious essentialist categories. Un Nos Ola’ Lewad is as critical of the oppressive aspects of Welshness as it is of English superiority and is especially scathing about the negative impact Welsh fundamentalist religion has had on women and the young. (In this it dovetails with a tendency in recent Irish cinema which similarly attacks the abuses of religion, especially as those were visited on the young and on women). In his next film, Gadael Lenin/Leaving Lenin (1994), Emlyn considerably lightens the mood. Here, he explores contemporary Welsh identity through the device of removing the Welsh characters from Wales itself to post-Soviet Russia. A group of Welsh speaking sixth formers go on an educational visit to Saint Petersburg, accompanied by their art teacher Eileen (Sharon Morgan) and the old style Welsh Communist husband Mostyn (Wyn Bowen Harries) the deputy headmaster Mervyn (Ifan Huw Dafydd) with whom Eileen had a weekend affair once before, who also travels hoping that as the marriage seems to be unravelling, the affair can be resuscitated. The mix-up on the train between Moscow and St Petersburg splits teachers from students and the film contrasts the two groups’ adventures in parallel narratives. The dialogue is in Welsh, Russian and English and this is one aspect of the film’s audacity and ambition.
Here the minority language, which has such a low profile internationally that the Academy doubted its very existence, is vying for public space with two of the great imperialist languages of the world, engaging at the same time with themes and issues of global as well as of local importance.
The foreign location adds an extra dimension to the underlying theme of Welsh identity and the film explores this to great effect through the sense of loss and disillusionment that Mostyn feels at the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps the moist poignant theme of all, reflecting early 1990s concerns, is the confusion and dilemmas that face today’s young people, whether the youth of St Petersburg adrift in a post-Soviet Russia or those struggling to adulthood in post-Thatcherite Wales. The film proposes a need for new beginnings – whether personal, political or artistic. The irony of the film’s message is that at least Mostyn in his youth had political ideals that allowed him to imagine and work towards a new beginning.
This is a privilege, the film suggests, which today’s young don’t have and must work for.
In this way, the Welsh films resemble some aspects of recent Irish cinema. As the traditional belief systems wither away, religion, patriotism, political beliefs – the loss of something to believe in, especially the loss of political hope – is particularly debilitating.
This sense of loss is evident in Paul Morrison’s Soloman and Gaenor (1998), which returns to the pre-World War One Wales of both Hedd Wyn (1992) and The Englishman Who Went up a Hill But Came down a Mountain. This is a complex historical moment for Wales. At the beginning of the 20th century, it still carried its identity as an industrial force of nineteenth century British expansion but was also about to assume a central role in the radical and progressive labour politics of the 20th century. Within this complex, the film plays out a Romeo and Juliet scenario – the Jewish Saloman hiding his identity behind an English facade to woo Gaenor from a fundamentalist Christian community. In the tragedy that unfolds, the film is again scathing about the impact the fundamentalist religion has on the lives of young people in particular (in this case, both orthodox Jewish as well as Protestant Christian).
But this is more than just a Welsh cry of ‘a plague on both your houses’.
In identifying some aspects of the cinema from the Celtic fringes, we are identifying a cinema that has a double focus. These films are concerned to explode myths and move beyond the regimes of representation that have tended to romanticise and to marginalise the Celtic fringe. Dominant cinema portrayed the Celtic countries as regressive and primitive and if this portrayal was sometimes amiable and sometimes hostile, it was always patronising. However, a second focus of this cinema has been inwards, exploiting the rationalist responses to the representation of the centre. This has meant that the films reflect an uncertainty, an exploration that is as conscious of internal contradiction as it is of larger external realities. Above all, this is a cinema that refuses to operate on the margins. These are cultures that are no longer content to be the peripheral and exploited partners in a strict cultural division of labour. In fact this new cinema has pushed peripherality in to the centre and now operates on the cutting edge of a contemporary cultural debate about identity.
Martin McLoone’s arguments apply specifically to the kind of cinema where writers and directors have a degree of freedom to experiment and present viewpoints. In the next section, covering television, we look at the representations of Wales in an industry that tends to constrain those that work in it a little further, though as we will see there also emerge important contributions to an evolving sense of Wales.