Division 19 – Interview with director of this British sci-fi – words Paul Risker
S.A. Halewood’s futuristic Division 19 is set in the year 2039. With jails overflowing, the government has turned them into online portals, allowing citizens to monitor the prisoners 24/7, voting on what they eat, wear and read, and in gladiatorial style, who and when they fight. When champion fighter Hardin Jones (Jamie Draven), the most watched inmate escapes, all he wants is his anonymity.
When imprisoned ten years earlier, his younger brother Nash (Will Rothhaar) was taken in by an underground community of refuseniks, who have remained undetected in the city’s sewers. But when Nash is captured, data-mining specialist Alexandra Neilsen (Alison Doody), who was hired to run the prison system has the bait to lure Hardin, who must risk his freedom to save his brother from being the first inhabitant in a new town of reality stars.
Following the short films Rocket Man, which premiered at Venice Biennale, Two Minute Warning, which wonthe Golden Boot at Portobello Film Festival, and Running Time, which was nominated for a BAFTA Interactive Award for Online Entertainment, Halewood made her directorial feature debut in 2008 with Bigger Than Ben: A Russians’ Guide to Ripping Off London.
Speaking with Flux, Halewood discussed recurring themes in storytelling that reveal the universality of human nature, the need to question the concept of democracy and living in a moment of potential, yet unlikely change.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?
I remember my dad taking us as kids to see three films – he obviously thought this was good for young kids. The first film we saw was Battle of Britain, and he kept saying, “Don’t worry, it’s only tomato ketchup.” The next one was Jaws, which we cried because the shark died. The other was Towering Inferno, and my sister had to be taken out she was so distressed – she ended up being a therapist. My dad was like, “Don’t worry, it’s a model. That building is tiny, they’ve probably got it on a desk.” So looking back, that someone could play with these toys and create an entire world now that I think about it, maybe the fascination is that it’s all pretend, where you can make something that other people go, “This is a real story.”
Do you need to be cautious to ensure that your cinematic influences only inform your own creative voice, rather than lead to imitation?
One of the criticisms that I’ve read that cracks me up with Division 19 is, “They took a bit of this and a bit of that.” Now somebody said we stole from District 9 – what, a spaceship? District 9 is brilliant, but it’s about hatred of the other and multiple other things, which Division 19 isn’t about – it’s got nothing to do with it. And the other thing that makes me laugh is I haven’t seen Running Man okay, so maybe when people say you’ve nicked from Running Man, I’ve never seen the film – wish I had, seen most things.
The other thing is that the much younger reviewers, haven’t they read Brave New World or seen Metropolis? People aren’t copying from other films – to me, these are things that people are still concerned about that have never changed. Now that we are surveilled, and in different ways because there is Facebook and all the rest of it, things change slightly, but I don’t think those concerns go away because nothing has ever been done about them. So you are a product of everything you see, experience and feel, and that’s all you can do then when you are writing your film. I admit that I did put a spaceship in the distant sky in tribute of District 9 because I love it, but everything else is nothing alike – it’s a completely different subject matter.
… Once in The Matrix there was a moment when your brain goes, “Hang on a minute” (the first film obviously). The same in Pi there is a scene where it’s, ”Hang on a minute, that’s a real head fuck” as it were. …Those things might effect me just because of the mentality of being thrown out of my comfort zone. But in terms of physically nicking things from other films, well look, if there are things in Division 19 that are elsewhere, I didn’t purposefully nick them. Those things are going to be there if you are talking about the same subject in a futuristic world that somebody else is talking about.
Recalling the idea that there are so many archetypal stories, is one of the reasons because films like dreams serve to help us to understand our world? Hence, are the same stories told again and again in order to help each generation deal with those cyclic themes that confront each generation?
Again, I suppose the question then becomes why are you always asking the same question? Why does nothing change, because it doesn’t, and maybe that is human nature. I’m fascinated at the moment with The Tower of Babel, and to me, we are in a moment in time that is never going to be had again. But like you said, someone a hundred years ago might have said that.
With The Tower of Babel everyone gets a different language and the Gods keep you separate, and now is a moment where we have encryption. So all the Julian Assange’s in the world, and he’s a bad example because he’s older, but any of these eleven or twelve-year-olds that have languages that nobody who’s fifty and working for the CIA can unencrypt, this is a moment in time where something could change and happen. But it will not because psychologically people are frightened of change, and they’re frightened of freedom. And I think in the end, people go around in circles because the same human nature elements never leave us – the need to fight, the need to have babies, these are things never change. With the internet, there’s a moment where language, the one language, the encrypted language that the geeks for want of another word are using, could be very useful, but they’re emotionally unequipped to deal with it.
But yes, I agree that we are all looking at the same things day in, day out – the same concerns from fifty years ago. There’s an article today in the paper about how bad China is, but we’ve got more CCTV cameras than China. Obviously I’m not saying the UK is worse than China, but we are as surveilled, but in a different way, and we do what we are told a little more now probably than we did years ago. I don’t know, people just don’t stand out, and if they stick their head above the parapet like Julian Assange or [Edward] Snowden, or Mrs Manning, then they get shot down.
Democracy could be said to be a cause for complacency, creating a comfort zone of naïve that scrutinised reveals a political model ripe for exploitation, as seen in Adam McKay’s Vice.
Firstly, I don’t even know that democracy works now because what is a democracy? You look at what’s happened in this country recently, and it seems to me that it’s not actually a democracy, it’s a system that serves the elite for want of a better word. And when that breaks down everybody gets a bit nasty, and it all goes pear shaped.
If you have a parliament that can have as many votes as it likes, or a people that can have as many votes as it likes until you get what you want, then that’s not democratic. Whether you are pro or anti EU, the EU isn’t democratic in itself because if Ireland, France, Holland and Denmark could vote against Lisbon and Maastricht, and be ignored. So I think what’s happening now is even more interesting than all of the whole of Brexit and the rest of it, because hang on a minute, does this even work? And part of the problem with it is as you say, everyone’s become terrified of what they’re going to lose, or what they could lose. People have completely lost their freedom and you see audiences berating politicians, asking, “Why did you do this?” I think, ‘ Why don’t you do something?’ Get out on the streets, stop paying tax, park your cars down Westminster. We can all do something about it, more than making a film, to stand up and be counted. We’ve only had a democracy for 150 years, and when it started out it was farmers representing farmers in these parliaments, workers representing each other, but now it’s lawyers carving up whatever…
This idea of the individual, or groups of people standing up to society is a central part of the narrative, yet it is possible to see how you have expanded upon this to weave a web of perhaps personal frustration, specifically of a commercialised society.
The trouble is that obviously some people love the film, some people hate the film, and then there are some in the middle that are completely confused. For example, the lead character played by Jamie Draven, some people have liked that performance, and other people have said that he’s really bland. Hello, he’s us; he’s the everyman. This is a guy who was in jail for ten years, and this is what you would be like after ten years in jail. And when you realise your life has been taken over by someone else, what are you going to do? He’s not suddenly going to turn into Bruce Willis and start shooting people because that’s unrealistic, but that’s the language that people have now become used to in film.
There are plenty of films where an everyman becomes fantastic with guns and jumping off buildings, and it’s like, “Oh, come on!” But then if you make something where you are saying, “Look, this is how dead we all are”, then his character, although you could argue it’s not a character, it’s a reflection of us sleepwalking through life. Someone will then of course say he’s bland – yes, we are all bland. Anybody who doesn’t do something is really bland, but none of them are really characters, they are points of view if you like. I know that’s maybe not an advisable thing to do with a film, but you have to try other things.
Nielsen is obviously based on statistic collectors, so she’s supposed to be cold and distant, like a robot. The only person who I think is a character is Charles Lyndon (Linus Roache), because he’s named after Tony Blair (his middle-name). There are various codes in the film, but he’s the one person who thinks, ‘Have these people got a point?’ And it’s a bit like climate change – are we too late? Have we all gone down that road now where no one’s going to stand up?
80% of this country is employed by SME’s, so if every single small business said we are going to down tools and not going to pay tax until we get what we want for these people, the government would listen. They are not going to listen to a million people on the street; they are going to listen when there’s some reason why they are going to be losing money, or the money’s not coming in that they are then losing all the time. So I do think you get what you deserve in the end, if you are not going to do anything about it.
Division 19 is released theatrically in the UK on Friday 21 June 2019.