Brexit Goes to the Movies

28/06/2016 11:44 | Updated 28 June 2016

The referendum invited each of us to define our identity as either predominantly European or British: are we In, or are we Out. Short and simple, with no room for subtleties.

We're not used to deciding our identity definitively. Social media enable us to write and rewrite our identities over and again. We used to fantasise about our epitaph or the title of our autobiography, but these days pondering over posterity is somewhat reduntant as instant communications invite us to define ourselves in public as often as we want. I doubt I'm alone in "thinking in tweets" - thinking of tweetable soundbites - which more often than not don't make it into the public sphere. On Saturday night I chuckled to myself over the line "apple crumble and custard in bed" (with photo), which I considered to be the perfect sum of my character. But I didn't tweet, I kept it to myself. By Sunday morning, my self-identification with that very British comfort food was replaced by a stronger pang of nostalgia and belonging, when I saw a tweet from the open air screening of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, at Bologna's Piazza Maggiore as part of the Cinema Ritrovato film festival.

I am a huge Chaplin fan, and I know that piazza well. I spent a year at the University of Bologna as part of my undergraduate degree studying Italian and the University of Edinburgh, and I can't begin to describe the enormous influence the year had on my life. To get an idea of what it was like, I suggest watching Pot Luck ("L'auberge espagnole"). Released in 2002, the same year I returned from Bologna, the film stars Romain Duris as a French student in Barcelona. It shows how students from across Europe adjust to living abroad, together. When I first saw the film, I couldn't believe its accuracy and hilarity. How did they know about the drunken Bob Marley guitar-singalongs in the middle of the night in the town square? Pot Luck shows how people from different countries retain their identity and live up to (and play up to) national stereotypes, while at the same time building friendships. It's light-hearted, romantic and funny. And Brits are an integral part of the group.

So it is with dismay that I witness the repercussions of the referendum unfold. I watched Boris Johnson's Brexit victory speech on Friday with a heavy heart. I was horrified to think he was appealing directly to people like me when he said, "We are part of Europe, our children and our grandchildren will continue to have a wonderful future as Europeans, travelling to the continent, understanding the languages and the cultures that make up our common European civilisation, continuing to interact with the peoples of other countries in a way that is open and friendly and outward-looking."

My experience shows me that it is not enough "to interact with the peoples of other countries"; we need to be, as in Pot Luck, equal participants, who contribute and collaborate with others, rather than merely appreciate others with a patronising attitude.

Johnson is mistaken if he thinks that British people can maintain a European cultural identity without EU membership. Johnson describes himself as "a liberal cosmopolitan", able to read novels in Spanish and French and to sing a little German. He prides himself on his knowledge of Greek and ancient civilisations, and he bemoans the decline of modern languages teaching.

How does Johnson think that culture can thrive without the political and institutional structures in place to open opportunities and access? How does he think people reach the point where they're able to read a novel in a foreign language? Education depends on exposure, access, and motivation. The EU's funding for language learning, study programmes, and cultural collaboration keeps our European identity afloat. Without EU status, Britain will lose many of the passports to cultural products which Johnson values. Identity is so fickle that it needs tangible, measurable, concrete products to hinge itself to, such as apple crumble and custard, or films.

There is a poignancy in seeing Chaplin's face on the silver screen at Piazza Maggiore. Chaplin's greatest skill was his ability to appeal to global audiences; his films tap in to universal humanity and sentiment. Chaplin was also a master of the quotable line. He would've made a great tweeter. Take his line, "The saddest thing I can imagine is to get used to luxury." Johnson neglected to check his privilege when he bragged about his knowledge of foreign languages and extensive travel. Britain's EU exit will deprive others of the luxury of access which he takes for granted.

Chaplin used silent film to explore universal themes, and he struggled to work out how best to use his voice after the introduction of sync sound in cinema. In 1940 he could no longer keep silent; and with his phenomenal first speech, in The Great Dictator, Chaplin urges us: "Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!"

#DoAwayWithNationalBarriers doesn't have a great ring to it. But it's better than #Leave.