Review: The Fear Factory

This post was written by Salman Shaheen on March 26, 2010
Posted Under: Criminal Justice,Film,Media,Reviews

When I received my review copy of Spirit Level Film’s latest documentary, The Fear Factory, through my letterbox a few days ago, I had little idea what to expect. A few seconds in, as the ominous music begins to play and the image of a foetus looms into view accompanied by the voiceover telling us that young offenders will be growing up in gaol and that we are heading for the largest prison population that any country could imagine having, it became clear to me that this was a film that was attempting to ask a number of crucial questions of deep moral and social significance. But did it answer them satisfactorily?

The timing of The Fear Factory couldn’t have been more appropriate, emerging as it has just as the return of John Venables to prison for an unspecified violation kicked up a media storm and a renewed public outcry over the murder of James Bulger. The central point that the filmmakers want to get across is that when it comes to crime and punishment, we are as far removed as one can possibly imagine from the evidence-based policy that this government claimed to represent. Instead what we have is moral panic fed by an hysterical media in which the public’s fear of youth crime is wholly disproportionate to any real statistics. What this has led to is an “arms race” between the main political parties over who can appear toughest on crime as both engage in a race to the bottom to bring in tougher penalties and build more prisons whilst the population behind bars soars.

These points are, for the most part, conveyed through a series of somewhat awkwardly cut interviews with prominent talking heads. Having managed to bag the likes of Cherie Blair, Dominic Grieve, David Howarth and an eloquent murderer who now writes for The Guardian, the filmmakers have clearly assembled an impressive roster. However, with very little else besides the odd flash here and there of what could be archive footage, a stereotypically deep and menacing narration and a second or two of questionably selected music, the overreliance on truth by authority makes for a documentary that is informative, but not terribly engaging. The most entertaining moment comes when the Deputy Editor of The Sun attempts to tell us that because politicians listen to the bullshit he puts in the editorial on a whim, they have no principles.

It is quite evident, of course, that The Fear Factory is not there to entertain, or even to inform, but to persuade. Whilst it features a few comments from oppositional figures, they are largely there to look stupid and look stupid they do. This is not an expose or investigative journalism. This is a propaganda film and it should make no apologies about that. Besides decrying the rising prison population and the media and political hysteria that have caused it, the film asks us to question whether people are born bad or if their crimes are a product of the society in which they grew up, and it touches upon the philosophy of prison itself – whether it should be a means of reform or retribution.

Where the filmmakers stand on this issue is quite clear, but my personal feeling is the message, which at times sounds like it is being shouted from a soapbox, will divide opinion. It is easy for bleeding heart liberals like myself who studied Foucault in their second year Social & Political Sciences paper at Cambridge to agree with everything The Fear Factory has to say. I very much doubt those who are paid £700k a year to demonise Britain’s youth in the country’s most odious tabloids will be swayed and for them this film, much like prison, will sadly be more retributive than reformative.

In any case, The Fear Factory is well worth a look and is available for pre-order on DVD now.

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Reader Comments

Salman hits the nail on the head with, “I very much doubt those paid £700k per year”.. will change their mind. The film was made expressly for that purpose and would be of little use as a tool if it doesn’t effect a change of mind. No doubt we’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime, here’s an opinion on it from one of the afore-mentioned £700k brigade… (initially a defender of the tabloids when interviewed in the film)

“Emotional and compelling, yet with a well-structured and balanced argument.If there was more like this on TV they wouldn’t be pointing a finger at the press all the time. A wonderfully put together film that changed my mind.”
Chris Roycroft-Davies, Executive Editor/Leader Writer The Sun 1985-2005

Written By Richard Symons on March 27th, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

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