The 19th Oxford Human Rights Festival at Brookes was held in March 2019 and featured inspiring films, exhibitions, talks and workshops on the theme of activism. Legendary film-maker Mike Leigh introduced a free screening of his recent film, Peterloo and later took questions from the audience. He spoke to Observe about his film-making, politics and the anxieties of being a grandfather.
“I’m 76, a grandfather and I look at my 18-month old grandson and think, ‘what’s the world going to be like when he’s my age’.”
In many ways, the signs aren’t good with political turmoil, climate change and wars endangering human rights across the globe. So with everything that is going on in the present, why did Mike focus on an event from the past?
A metaphor for what is happening now
“On one level Peterloo is a dramatic reconstruction of things that happened 200 years ago. However it is also a metaphor for what is happening now. And looking at things in the distance helps us to focus on where we are.”
The film portrays a demonstration calling for democratic reforms, by between 60,000 and 80,000 people at St Peter’s Field (now St Peter’s Square) in Manchester in 1819. At least 15 demonstrators were killed and many hundreds injured when cavalry charged into the crowd. It became known as the Peterloo Massacre – named after the Battle of Waterloo which had taken place four years earlier.
It took place during a period of revolutions and wars in Europe, and in a society where people were denied their basic human rights. Only 2% of British adults had the vote, Manchester had no elected representatives at all and the government had just suspended habeas corpus (which protected people against detention without legal justification).
An important event on the long road to democracy
But Peterloo doesn’t just depict the denial of human rights, it portrays people willing to stand up and claim their right to be heard. Although universal suffrage was still over 100 years away, their campaign was ultimately successful. And one of the reasons for that was the value they placed on education.
“Peterloo was an important event on the long road to democracy. These working-class people were literate, articulate and quoted the classics. There was no state education, they learnt to read at Sunday School or were self-taught.
“If they could jump in a time machine to 2019 and discover the cynicism with which education is held by some people, they would be disgusted and appalled. Similarly they would be appalled to know we’ve got the vote yet many people don’t use it.”
Any film that motivates people to care about life is an activist film
Mike Leigh says he was greatly encouraged by young people – including school and university students – making their voices heard in the campaign against catastrophic climate change. But does he think of his film-making as a form of activism?
“My films are not polemics. I don’t make films that say ‘think this!’ But any film that motivates people to care about life is an activist film. I invite people to take away stuff to ponder, reflect on and argue about.”
Motivating people to care about life is a central ethos of the Oxford Human Rights Festival and the work of its many contributors does just that. In a political world of populism, social media bubbles and knee-jerk reactions, the festival provides a space to empathise with people who are struggling to claim and use their human rights to ultimately make the world a better place, just as those who protested at Peterloo did.
And is Mike optimistic about the world his grandson is growing up in?
“I look at him, this bundle of energy and intelligence, and he makes me optimistic. But on the other hand, seeing what’s going on in the world, it’s hard not to be pessimistic. It’s a tough one.”
The 18th Oxford Human Rights Festival takes place at Brookes from 13 March to 3 April 2020. This year’s theme is resilience.
Words: Sirius Gibson
Photography: Cyrus Mower