The first few minutes of The Left Behind will make you feel a bit sick. There’s a shot of four people dressed head to toe in black, wearing disarmingly realistic pig masks and staring at each other in a bathroom mirror. The young people behind the masks are about to attack their local halal butchers. They blame the Muslim owners for a lot of things – the bitter state of the job market and the tortuous waiting list for social housing rank very highly – and this aggressive invasion of the shop, where they threaten the workers and smash the glass door, is 'rationalised' by the fact that, well, "at least we’re doing something".
Arriving on BBC Three and produced by the team behind the BAFTA winning Killed By My Debt, The Left Behind is another challenging but important factual drama that’ll force us to look a little harder at the society we’re all trying to muddle through. We follow Gethin, a young, white, single man in Wales. He’s on a zero-hour contract at a chicken shop, but shifts are few and far between. He sleeps on the sofa and lives with his niece, pregnant older sister and her husband but they’re about to be kicked out of their house. The rent has already been put higher than what they can all afford and though they’ve been in communication with the council for a while now, they’re still waiting for the unlikely news that they’ve been allocated a new home. It's not long before Gethin is one of the guys in a pig mask, terrorising members of the Muslim community who he blames for his current circumstance.
It’s devastating and conflicting. As we watch Gethin slowly slip further and further away from his family, an income and a stable home, and closer to living on the street, it’s hard not to feel empathy. But it doesn’t quite override the frustration and anger at the way his position eventually defaults to aligning with the far-right, racist ideology that many of his friends regularly spout over pints at the pub. It’s clear how frustration pushes Gethin to reach the drama's catastrophic conclusion (don’t worry, we won’t spoil it for you) but as an audience member, you won’t want to rationalise it. It’s hard to come out the other side of the film knowing quite what to say or where you’re meant to stand.
Director Joseph Bullman explains that the film is rooted in extensive research. After working on Killed By My Debt, he and the production team "got an astonishing response from all sorts of people. Young people from working class backgrounds had stories to tell about bailiffs visiting their houses and it felt like we’d plugged into the mains," he tells Refinery29. "[We were] wondering about what other aspect of the experiences of ordinary people in Britain weren’t making it onto the telly, and we looked at the far right."
"If you look at a map of where support for those ideas and groups is, it mirrors really closely the post-industrial decline – what some people call 'left-behind Britain'," Bullman adds. Though there are many regions across the country that fit this criteria, they chose to base The Left Behind in Wales.
He says one of the reference points that informed the film is a book by Hilary Pilkington, who embedded herself within an English Defence League group for three years. "When you look at that group of people that she worked with for all that time, 75% of them were all unemployed or in that bullshit gig economy where they don’t know one hour from the next, whether they’re going to be working or have any rights, which is now what loads of working people have. Most people didn’t have proper housing, they’re all furious because they’ve been on the waiting lists for council housing and as they saw it, migrants would come along and because those people were in greater need they’d get priority. So the thing you’d hear over and over again from people sympathetic to those ideas is 'we’re second class citizens'. There’s a structural class pattern that provides a breeding ground for those kind of ideas and that’s really one of the things we wanted to look at in the film."
That’s not to say there’s any excuse for the resulting behaviour, of course. And that's not the point of the film. Bullman says: "There’s no excuse for hatred and prejudice and racism, but we’ve been excluding these people from the terms of the debate. That hasn’t worked and isn’t working, all the time we’ve been doing that they’ve been growing in strength because people feel such a distance from Westminster and our politics, they feel so alienated and so angry."
"People like Gethin have come completely to the wrong conclusion. They’re trying to make sense of why it is… There are loads of things we think are composite things. There’s an amazing Hope Not Hate survey that makes exactly this point, that when people talk about immigration, they’re always talking about it as a bundle of things that are all wrapped up in their mind and it’s boarded-up high streets, ultra low wages, fake-bogus self-employment, zero hours, complete democratic deficit, distance from Westminster and a sense of hopelessness and a complete cultural and economic humiliation." Does that make it easier to watch the type of hate crime that has been growing in the UK played out on screen from the perspective of the people behind it? Not at all. But the difficult nature of the film doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't watch it. You might not know (or like) where The Left Behind nudges you to stand, but at least we'll all have an extra perspective that is often dismissed from the narrative.