The Global Working Class in Art House Cinema

The idea of ‘art house’ cinema can be off-putting due to its reputation as difficult and requiring high levels of formal education to be understood and appreciated. But as I’ve stated previously, anyone can enjoy these films, and many focus on the working class.  Some were also produced by filmmakers from working-class backgrounds.  The films I recommend below represent working-class people in nuanced ways, and their authentic depictions of working-class life also provide an important global perspective.

Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming Liang, 2013, Taiwan

Tsai Ming Liang’s films are very slow-paced and do not contain a conventional narrative arc. His stories focus on marginalised characters unable to connect with mainstream society. Stray Dogs is a poetic (but definitely not romantic) treatment of homelessness and poverty, set in Taipei, Taiwan. The film centres on a man and his two children who live in abandoned buildings and scrape by on the man’s earnings from his job holding up real estate signs on busy intersections. The children feed themselves on samples handed out at a supermarket and wash in public bathrooms. Tsai Ming Liang depicts the physicality of hardship and creates a heartbreaking film about the effects of class.


Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold, 2009, UK

Britain has a long tradition of working-class films, including, of course, the wonderful films of Ken Loach that are familiar to many film buffs and working-class scholars. Andrea Arnold’s work is not as well-known.  Fish Tank offers a female-centred representation of working-class youth, with the focus on a young woman trying to create a sense of self-worth despite the odds being firmly stacked against her. The film also offers a very authentic depiction of estate life and culture. Fish Tank, along with Arnold’s short films and her first feature, Red Road (2006), offer honest and hard-hitting films about the experiences of white working-class women.


Two Days One Night, Luc Dardenne & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2014, Belgium

The Dardenne brothers have made a number of excellent films that focus on working-class life. Their films often show characters who are unemployed or engaged in the informal economy. Two Days, One Night tells the story of a woman fighting to keep her job in a Belgian factory.  This is a story of working-class resilience and the power of collective action and is an incredibly realistic portrayal of life at the edges of society.


Boy, Taika Waititi, 2010, New Zealand

Taika Waititi’s film is a nostalgic story set in rural New Zealand in 1984. The main character, Boy, is a young Maori lad who lives with his grandmother and dreams about his absent father returning from jail.  Although it deals with some serious issues, the film is reasonably light in tone and presents a combination of everyday life for the community and events from Boy’s imagination. The location is stunning, but the poverty is still evident, and the film successfully depicts the social and political reality of life for rural working-class Maori people.


City of God, Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund, 2002, Brazil

Meirelles and Lund’s film has courted some controversy, with some critics suggesting that it is voyeuristic and employs a touristic lens in its depiction of the favelas (slums) of Brazil. City of God is a fast-paced, slick film that follows many of the conventions of Hollywood gang-related thrillers, but at its heart it is a story of a young man growing up in poverty observing and recording everyday life around him. Some of this everyday life is extreme, and the film doesn’t shy from crime and violence, but overall it is important for its focus on working-class youth and the effects of poverty on children and young people.


Cart, Boo Ji-Young, 2014, Korea

Boo Ji-Young’s film is an industrial tale (based on a real event) set in a Korean supermarket where a group of workers are fighting against unfair dismissal. The film reveals the strength of women working together to fight injustice. It’s a story that would resonate with anyone who has engaged in industrial action or been the victim of an unjust employer. It is also a tale of the constant fight against sexism and ageism faced by female employees.


Girlhood, Céline Sciamma, 2014, France

French film rarely focuses on the lives of French people of colour, but filmmaker Céline Sciamma wanted to make a film that offered a positive representation of young African-French women. Girlhood is a beautifully shot film set in working-class immigrant neighbourhoods of Paris and offers a compelling insight into the lives of young Black women. The film demonstrates both the ways in which the odds are stacked against young Black working-class women in France and also the strong bonds of female friendship.


Peepli Live, Anusha Rizvi, 2010, India

Anusha Rizvi’s debut film is a satirical comedy based on a very serious subject – the deaths of Indian farmers to suicide due to high levels of debt. The film, set in rural central India, focuses on a poor farmer who is persuaded by his brother to commit suicide in order to obtain financial compensation for his family. Despite the satirical depiction of story-hungry journalists and corrupt government officials, Peepli Live also presents a poignant story of rural village life and highlights the ways in which rural Indians are often dismissed and ignored by those in power.


These films all offer the viewer an insight into working-class life in a variety of contexts and each adds to the already rich body of film work that focuses on working-class experience. Despite the variety of different contexts of these films, there are some commonalities that working-class people from across the globe can relate to – the hardship, struggle, and community are recognisable, but the films each provide a better understanding of the specific cultural and political conditions that intersect with class.  I admire the filmmakers’ commitment to telling the stories of those who are marginalised, and we should not underestimate the empowering effects for working-class people seeing their stories on screen.

Sarah Attfield

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3 Responses to The Global Working Class in Art House Cinema

  1. wonderful list…if it were an all-time round-up of “working class” movies I’d put Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette) at the top.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. quirkec says:

    Don’t know if any of you saw Iron Crows, about Bangladeshi workers in Chittagong who disassemble ships. Visually stunning color film, (the counterpart to Sebastian Salgado’s images of these workers), that offers a devastating portrayal of global capitalism.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. knewman4 says:

    Lovely post Sarah! After #OscarsSoWhite you definitely make me want to spend some time watching movies that tell me more about the world—-the world that most people actually live in!

    Liked by 2 people

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