Watching documentaries in the company of strangers, then meeting them

Fish crowd for seats at a screening of "The End of the Line" - they weren't convinced (image courtesy of

A weekend at the Bristol Radical Film Festival reminded me why it is so great to watch political documentaries with other human beings and then to chew over what you’ve just seen, outside the privacy of your own home.

Part of the reason we suffer such rubbish, wealth-biased government is because we’re too dumb to think of alternatives or how we might ever put them into practice. Regular, local film screenings and related debates, preferably for free, help plug the many holes in our knowledge. They come with the added, democratic benefit of exposing us to the wisdom and perspectives of strangers, which is always useful.

The last film I watched before leaving the festival – The End of the Line – was a case in point. It documents the pillaging of the world’s seas by industrialised fishing fleets over the last 50 years, and how we risk having no fish within a generation.

One of the film’s upsides is the news that we are, at last, establishing some scientific proof of collapsing fish stocks worldwide. Among several downsides was its failure to drill down into the specifics of who profits from all this plunder or how we might stop them or hold them to account.

As the credits rolled, I thought to myself the film was okay if a little unrealistic in its proposals. It urged people to eat sustainably sourced fish, to badger their politicians about limiting fishing quotas to what scientists recommend, and to back the creation of more marine protected areas around the world. Fine as far as they went but not very convincing. Having witnessed as a reporter how European politicians and civil servants always cave into vested fisheries interests, I know the chances of conventional political solutions to this problem are near zero.

Fifteen minutes of listening to fellow audience members made me realise I’d been far too easy on the film. Just one of the points made was how supermarkets and even McDonald’s were given such an easy ride. Each got some great publicity in the film on the back of a few vague promises to do better. One audience member had surfed the Internet during the screening to check those promises against the facts, finding how limited they were and how those made had been broken since the film’s release.

Other people criticised the film as just too limited and too complacent. It ignored the broader picture of global resource plunder driven by our obsession with economic growth and return on capital. The film’s perspective, which as many observed was very rich-world, failed to convey the relative scale of threat faced by the different parties it featured. While Europeans can switch to other protein sources, or rather the richer ones can, Senegalese fishing communities face far starker problems of just getting enough to eat. The film’s cosy recommendations were hardly going to help them out.

The debate was excellent, one of several I enjoyed after the weekend’s many films. It encouraged me to stick with the regular screenings I have been part of during the past five years in southwest France, where I usually live. Showing free films on the second Friday of every month, with shared food and discussions, opens up opportunities for all sorts of unimagined exchanges and locally organised initiatives. They help people understand the bogus accountability of our politicians and the failures of our conventional media to hold them to account.

I explain the idea in greater depth in my book Fraudcast News, which is now available in paperback, as an eBook or, if you contact me directly, a free PDF file. While documentaries such as The End of the Line at least highlight pressing eco-crises they usually fail to expose the root causes – our failed and corrupt governance systems and the dominance of money over everything.

We have to do better. That includes organising local screenings, volunteer-run film festivals and video activist trainings.