As the saying goes, some of us are more equal than others. A new documentary called The Spirit Level is set to explore how our unequal society is damaging us all. Hazel Pfeifer talks to filmmaker Katharine Round about her labour of love.
When documentary maker Katharine Round’s partner passed her a book he had just finished called The Spirit Level, he informed her that it was going to be her next film. On reading it, she agreed and set the wheels in motion for a highly ambitious project that needs the help of the community it will represent – developed societies all over the world.
“Since then, he has suggested nearly every other book he’s read to be turned into a film so I’m slightly worried!” Round laughs. “I’ve got a bit of a backlog with all the other films I have to make.”
Written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, the book is an empirical study of inequality in societies across the globe, showing how wealth per capita doesn’t necessarily relate to overall wellbeing. In fact, sometimes quite the opposite.
Using reputable research from a number of sources, including the UN, the World Bank and the World Health Organisation, what they found is a very strong correlation between more unequal societies and greater instances of mental illness, obesity and lower life expectancy, among other social problems. And this doesn’t only affect those at the lower end of the scale.
Levels of violence, especially murder, are significantly higher in the US for example, although it is the one of the richest countries per head. Stress related illness and diabetes are shortening life expectancy and quality of life, and mental illnesses are significantly higher in the UK and the US than in Japan, Italy or Sweden.
For Round, the hard evidence was undeniable. “I thought it depoliticized something that had always been quite political and it was really appealing for that reason. I come from a fairly apolitical stand point myself.” But following the Occupy movement and global economic crisis, questions about social inequality have never been more relevant. “It’s got to a point where people are getting really angry. They’re starting to realize that there are problems with equality.” [Article continues below]
The point of the film is to reach an audience that might not read a book full of dry statistics and graphs. The plan is to tell the story through the lives of people who are affected by these statistics. “A film like this is very ambitious, which is partly a great joy and partly a great challenge,” says Round. “We’re going to be filming around the world and we’re going to be showing the stories of people who are facing things that a lot of people will recognize.”
Ambition is inevitably expensive and Round is today embarking on a crowd-funding mission on IndieGoGo to help kick start the publicity and fund the production. With plenty of support from other partners, the online campaign is partly to allow the audience to participate in the making of it. “I like the idea of building a community around it, it’s a film that’s out there to promote social change and I like the idea that everyone can feel like they’re a part of it in some way.”
Connecting with the potential future audience will also provide Round with more than just additional funding. “By hearing what people have to say about inequality, I think that will really help me decide what stories are out there to be told and I can really engage with people in that sense.”
The film, like the book, will no doubt draw criticism from those who dislike the idea of an equal society, but Round feels they should look at it for purely selfish reasons. “In terms of total self-interest, it would be in their interest to have a more equal society because we’d have less violent crime, less stress and our children would have higher standards of well-being.” It’s hard to argue with that.