A Dangerous Game launched at the Edinburgh Festival last night. Patrick Small investigates the films significance.
You’ve Been Trumped, Anthony Baxter’s documentary about the fight between local residents and tycoon Donald Trump over his plans to build a luxury golf resort in Aberdeenshire, was a startling success. Released in 2011, it caught the anti-globalisation spirit of the times as people woke up to the realities of post-crash austerity. The film revealed Baxter as a talented story-teller, able to convey facts and emotion with panache and ask questions rarely put to powerful men in an age of media deference.
As Baxter took You’ve Been Trumped on the international festival circuit, he noticed a recurring pattern. Wherever it was shown, people recognised the story as theirs. Communities across the world experienced something along similar lines: the super rich would show up proffering an exorbitant leisure/property scheme on the promise of jobs and myriad economic benefits. When locals protested, elites would push through the proposals regardless of environmental or democratic concerns. The few jobs created would be low-pay and short lived.
“You’ve Been Trumped was made during a time when the world was becoming more attuned to the consequences of unfettered power and money” wrote Baxter in 2012, in Product. “The painful global financial crisis, and the Occupy movement it spawned, has been the real-life backdrop for the many film festivals that asked to show You’ve Been Trumped before its theatrical release. Whether in Alabama or Zagreb, it was obvious that the events that unfold in You’ve Been Trumped were somehow encapsulating the widespread anger about the actions of what all were now calling ‘the 1%’.”
The film set a number of hares running, and sported a formidable cast of very real characters. Local residents Susan Munro, David Milne and Michael Forbes refused to sell their properties to Trump and suffered accordingly, but emerged with considerable dignity. Trump came over as bumptious and self-regarding, and was airily dismissive of Baxter’s dangerously off-message requests at various stage-managed press events. Casually, Trump castigated Forbes for the state of his property, saying he lived “like a pig” and should clean up his “slum” farm.
Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, dazzled by the promise of a jobs bonanza, overruled the local council’s objections to the proposal “in the national interest” and the bulldozers rolled onto the sand dunes of Balmedie, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest.
A Dangerous Game takes up the story of the first film and sets it in international context, interweaving it with similar developments around the world. The production is slicker than its predecessor, with stylish new graphics and a haunting soundtrack. There are contributions from the actor Alex Baldwin, environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Junior (the third son of Robert Kennedy), and Scottish folk singer Karine Polwart.
But Baxter is accomplished at making space for people tell their story: A Dangerous Game opens with the camera panning over Michael Forbes’ derided farmhouse. Forbes reads aloud a letter he has received from San Francisco.
“Though I do not know you I wanted to send you a note to let you know the vast majority of Americans would agree with your opposition. I wish you the best of luck in your struggle against Trump. And trust you will find a way to overcome what I see as one of America’s worst exports: arrogant billionaires who think they can buy their way into anything.”
From there, the film weaves in the sorry tale of destruction at Balmedie, the absence of wildlife once common on the estate, the dismissal of ecological concerns and much more besides.
There are lighter moments. Forbes is visibly moved when the public vote him the Top Scot of 2012, a prestigious award sponsored by Glenfiddich whisky. When the Trump Organisation responded by boycotting Glenfiddich, global sales soared.
In Dubrovnik, locals tell of developers’ plans for a luxury resort above their city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They organise to gather 10,000 petitions, triggering Croatia’s first referendum, which rejects the scheme by margin of 85%. As in Balmedie, the character and motivations of the local people shine through the film. Baxter interviews the Dubrovnik mayor, an enthusiastic proponent of the project, who tells him blithely that the project will go ahead regardless of the result.
We are shown the environmental and economic costs of extravagant golf developments in Dubai and Lake Las Vegas which fell victim to the 2008 crash. Everywhere, the interplay between real estate, private developers and local authorities is exposed as a kind of deranged ecological lunacy, with millions of cubic litres of water diverted from crops or reservoirs to irrigate the opulent golf courses of the plutocrats. In Long Island, as in many other places, locals worry about chemical run off from luxury golf courses and gated palaces. Back in Balmedie, Michael Forbes’ 90 year old mother must carry water from a neighbouring burn to her house after the Trump Organisation allegedly damaged Forbes’ water pipe. Of the 6000 jobs promised by Trump, less than 200 are created. Scottish politicians are shown at their patronising worst when a Holyrood committee rejects David Milne’s 20,000 strong petition for an enquiry into the whole affair.
Robert Kennedy Junior appears throughout , making world-weary and sage observations. “Wherever you see large scale environmental injury, you’ll also see the subversion of democracy. The two go hand in hand. They always do.”
A Dangerous Game is moving documentary storytelling at its best, expertly weaving themes and events from disparate locations into one narrative. It illuminates the battle lines between commons and enclosure, and reminds us that they’re the same everywhere. Best of all, it leaves the notion of trickle-down economics – of presenting mega deals with billionaire tycoons as legitimate economic development – in tatters, fluttering in the sands of Balmedie.
A Dangerous Game opens in cinemas across Scotland in September.