‘Farmlands – A Lauren Southern Film’ – A Critical Review

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Guest Review and article by “History Rob”  @MrHistoryRob 
A cursory look down the Facebook feed of your average thirtysomething will show a similar story. In among all the holiday photos, christening snaps and party selfies, there will be friends and casual acquaintances lining up to praise ugly people for their alleged physical beauty. In this modern social scenario objectivity is rejected (perhaps understandably) for the sake of kindness and boosting confidence. The alternative media should be wary of the same uncritical eye being cast across its own output. In the few days since Lauren Southern’s ‘Farmlands’ has been released the comment has been overwhelming positive, all in spite of the film having gaping and glaring weaknesses. It seems that the audience have effectively been praising Southern for ‘having a go’. The superficial effort is elevated above the below par content.

This is a real problem. It indicates that the audience are not just struggling to observe the
weaknesses in the content that they view, but that they can not be actually be truly engaging with it at all. If they are not engaging with it, yet at the end of viewing feel they have been informed and have greater knowledge and understanding, it would suggest that a considerable section of the viewing audience are in a mindset that is susceptible to works of propaganda. This is troubling when viewed in the context of a social media landscape that is increasingly populated by prominent figures with questionable motives. It is indicative of a section of the audience that automatically qualifies the credibility of work they view by the social media brand despite the quality of the actual content, even when that content is very poor.

Despite her young age and beauty, Southern has actually established her brand as a social media activist on the basis of the merits of the substance of her work. Her work up until recently has been substantively good. She has demonstrated that she can write good analysis and that she can think on her feet in real world debate. She has been vibrant and exciting. She will always attract a section of support through the door due to her youth and looks, but in the past when the flies landed on the paper, they would find that Southern was able to deliver challenging and interesting content and analysis.

Alas, ‘Farmlands’ is a complete failure, doing little to analyse its subject and representing very little of the talent Ms Southern has exhibited to date. The opening proposition of the documentary is that in present day South Africa the white farmers and white people in general are being subjected to a terrible persecution that the State is endorsing through lack of response. From the outset it appears that Southern and her production associates have entered into this endeavour with the intent to portray a pre-written narrative that there is a proto-genocide of white people taking place in South Africa, which they have subsequently tried to fit the content to. Of course, it may well be the case that a proto-genocide of white people is taking place in South Africa, but this documentary does
nothing to clarify that.

What we get is a series of interviews with victims of horrific crimes of banditry and an attempt to link these crimes with an overt policy of racism towards white people. Again, it could well be that what they are proposing in this regard is the case. The problem is, Southern and her crew never follow through on this adequately supporting this proposition. They talk to some white farmers affected by terrible crimes. They talk to some of the people who are tasked with cleaning up the scene after horrific murderous crimes have be committed. They talk with people they class as ‘white people’ who are struggling with homelessness. They talk with with ‘Blacks First Land First’ a black people led pan-African Marxist movement in favour of force reclamation of land from white people. They even go to a city to talk to a white business owner who has suffered multiple raids to try and illustrate the point that it is not just the remote nature of the white farmlands that is leading to these attacks.

They do all these things and none of them join up to support their narrative.
For instance, they talk to the ‘Blacks First Land First’ representative about the reclamation of farmlands, but none of the crimes that they document in the white farmlands are crimes of reclamation. They are all clearly crimes of banditry. If they were crimes of reclamation, why are they not able to demonstrate that these farmlands have been reclaimed and are now in the ownership of black people? It is a pretty fundamental point that is never addressed. From what they have presented in all cases it appeared to be more a matter of crimes against the relatively more affluent. Ascribing racial motives to crimes with little evidence of an actual racial motive is something that Southern has been particularly critical of in the past (for example in her comments on UK hate law).

It is therefore disappointing to see her taking a comparable but untested stance in regarded to the kinds of crimes she has depicted. There is a superficial effort to try and ask the question of an official as to whether there is an inherent problem with application of the protective element of the law when it comes to white people, but Southern is not shown asking the probing questions and we do not see her take this any further or go looking for answers. This is not the Lauren Southern I have followed for the last couple of years. This is not the investigative journalist I thought she could mature in to. Frankly I think the experience of her visits to South Africa that are documented in this film indicate that she had not put herself in a position to ask the probing questions. Her outlook and experience was too narrow to engage with the many and varied problems in South Africa.

In the opening passages of the film Southern recognises that there is a lack of statistical information to guide on what is happening, and states that she therefore felt compelled to visit herself to investigate. The crimes they document are terrible, but the wider context of utter lawlessness in South Africa is never properly explored. That seems a glaring oversight when you consider that South Africa consistently has a murder rate in top ten in the world, and that is a statistic that could go across race demographics, and might even be more heavily weighted towards black populations.

The South African police recorded 19,016 murders in their 2016/2017 (Source:
https://www.saps.gov.za/services/final_crime_stats_presentation_24_october_2017.pdf).

They needed to address how the experience of white people differed to the experience of other people in South Africa. I suspect that there may have been scope to explore systemic racism along tribal lines, but this is not really even entertained. In fact, we see very little of the ordinary black people of South Africa in this documentary. You can not quantify the problem if you do not look at it in context.

This is where the steady hand of a good producer should have guided the production and drawn out Southern’s strengths and talents. Unfortunately George Llewelyn-John and Caolan Robertson in their roles as production associates have not shown the talent or aptitude to do this on this particular film. In terms of raw footage, most shots are optically sound. They sort of look the part for a documentary of this kind. The panoramic shots are fair, but not exceptionally well photographed. Some of the narrated passages are padded out with acceptable but not very dynamic aerial drone shots. There are indications that there has been some effort to give the veneer of a documentary film with some aesthetic values. This is not however a visually striking documentary. It is not a documentary that uses exceptional mastery of the visual medium to support its narrative. In some ways I think that is the more honest approach, but where this becomes an issue is when the production crew lacks the ability to call upon cinematographic talent for the moments when it is required to capture the basics. The eye of a documentary cameraman should always be tuned to pick up on the subtleties.

Too much of this production feels claustrophobic, with clearly mobile cameras being used from a stationary position for extended passages. The visual aspect is not really used to
support the narrative or push it forwards. They could have side-stepped the visual deficiencies if they had got the narrative and analytical elements of the film right, but they have not done this. I can not over-emphasize that this simply does not feel like a Lauren Southern production. It just lacks the dynamism and insight we have come to expect from her. The film is punctuated by extended passages of narrated dialogue that should never have been signed off. Southern’s delivery is both excruciatingly monotone and monotonous and the content is slight. I had a suspicion that sections of this film, particularly the first few minutes, had been slowed slightly from their original speed. I am still not convinced that this is not the case, but what is obvious is that Ms Southern narrates very slowly. I can not help but wonder if this was a deliberate decision to stretch out the running time. The very first opening shot of the film feels like it is running through treacle.

I dislike the use of music. Generic stock-sounding muzak is the cliché that has destroyed the credibility of many documentaries over the last 20 years or so. It is a personal bugbear of mine when documentary producers resort to X-Factor style ‘sad piano music’ to punctuate emotive passages of their works. This might be a personal production choice, and maybe I am alone in this regard, but I find leaving emotive moments stark and with no music to be more powerful and convincing. The sound of someone crying backed by nothing but the sound of wind on the mic and kids playing in the distance is always going to be vastly more impactful that trying to complement the tone with pointless piano music. You do not need to suspend disbelief with a documentary, it is a matter of real life. It is not Star Wars. You do not need to punctuate the tone of the moment with vapid music. Such practices make it less likely that the audience will have any faith in your content.

There is a moment at the end of Ms Southern’s interview with the vice chairman of ‘Blacks First Land First’ where they slap a big echo effect on a contentious comment as if for obvious emphasis of evilness. This is simply bad practice. Apart from it being completely unnecessary, it comes across very much like propaganda. It was the audio equivalent of compositing devils horns onto her head. No matter what the content of her speech, producers need to have the discipline to resist cheap colouring of the source material. In documentary film making credibility is king Time and again I felt the cynical creep of cheap sensationalism worm its way through this documentary. To be frank, as it is so out of step with the tone of the majority of Southern’s work, my gut feeling is that she was probably the moderating factor against sensationalism in the face of the efforts of George Llewelyn-John and Caolan Robertson. I have carefully watched the output of these two individuals over recent times, particularly since the imprisonment of Tommy Robinson.

Just as things were calming down, they had a rather obvious collaboration with Alex Jones and Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars relating to this particular matter (Southern herself also hosted an interview on her Youtube channel with Llewelyn-John on the same subject). For a number of days across their platforms there was a fairly brazen attempt to exaggerate risks to Robinson’s life in prison. This could have been interpreted to be an attempt to cause maximum public agitation. Comments and reallegations that were levelled last year against Robertson and Llewelyn-John regarding their departure from the employ of Rebel Media. They were alleged by the owner Ezra Levant to have been involved in ‘blackmail’ against his organisation (my understanding being that Robertson and Llewelyn-John refute this allegation), involving Levant arranging payouts of thousands of pounds, with some money continuing to be paid after full and final settlements had apparently been agreed. Since that time all sense of logic has been confounded as the bridges between all parties seemingly have been totally repaired. Levant recently endorsed and underwrote a Rebel Media hosted fund raising campaign for Tommy Robinson’s legal costs that his alleged ‘former blackmailers’ seem to have had some hand in arranging. Figure that one out.

This is one of the truly sad things about the fabric of this documentary. Beyond the stated subject, I see it as the tale of a still promising genuine talent getting into bed with the wrong people. Once you are firmly nailed in a certain camp your perspective and judgement can be lost. In that situation your talent and what makes you stand out can be crushed as people flock to snort your stardust. To some degree this is the wider story of the alternative media and social media personalities. There are a few people out there with real talent and genuine intent. But these people generally do not have anyone looking out for the best interests or giving them sound advice. Some of them are very young. Some of them are actually quite isolated, sometimes in part due to their principled views alienating them from the long established friendships that would otherwise ground them and help form their foundations and give them normal life experiences. In such situations people can often turn to those who appear to show similar concerns and ideas and who are keen to work with them and who are also in the public eye. But these ‘friends’ can be using their friendship as a lever for ever entrenched professional bonds and crass exploitation.
You can be friends with people you work with. You can even fall in love with them (not likely) between Southern and either Robertson or Llewelyn-John in this particularly scenario as I understand the men are themselves a committed homosexual couple) but you have to remain in control and you have to retain your independence. Most importantly you have to be ready to accept that friendship may need to be sacrificed for the sake of your work, particularly when that friendship is in reality a manipulative, exploitative and parasitic relationship.

There might be an argument for saying that at present on social media for every ten big faces there is one big brain. Lauren Southern is without doubt on the upper end of the scale in the brain department, but she needs to either produce herself in the future, or find a suitable producer that can bring the best out of her. You will not find in this film any of the vitality, energy, clarity or humour that makes Southern who she is. She needs to build her confidence and assert herself in her own films so that her personality and talent comes shining through. Unfortunately, I think I am going to be one of the few dissenting voices about this film, a film that deserves a lot more dissent. The sad side effect of the mass de-platforming of so-called controversial figures is that work such as ‘Farmlands’ will have limited mainstream criticism and receive a lot of self-congratulatory back slapping from those who see Southern as one of their own political tribe. Genuine critique of this production is really needed to put Southern on the back foot and bring her to the realisation that she needs to maintain very high standards.

‘Farmlands’ is a major misstep. A production of sensationalized and superficial content, lacking in analysis, scope or any real sense of reaching conclusions. It is a pre-written narrative fitted to sometimes emotive footage with a stock soundtrack plonked on top. It has been made to appeal to a growing niche market of easily riled and outraged viewers, lacking in critical observation, but readily accessible to view by large social media followings. In that regard ‘Farmlands’ contributes very little to the art of documentary film, the causes of social activism or plight of the people it claims to be interested in documenting. It is a film designed to build social media profiles. I hope that Ms Southern can step back, appreciate what has happened, and take her work back in a more disciplined and productive direction.

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