Sheffield Doc/Fest On Tour: You’ve Been Trumped Review

You’ve Been Trumped won the Green Award at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest and is screening in selected cinemas across the UK as part of the festival’s national tour.

The category for which the film received its festival prize is awarded to the documentary that “best addresses major environmental challenges”; in this case, the subject matter concerns the efforts made by residents of the Menie Estate, a coastal community in north Aberdeenshire, to prevent the building of a two-course golfing complex on their land by billionaire property tycoon Donald Trump.

Trump bought the area of land in 2005, only to have his proposal to Aberdeenshire council to build his luxury resort rejected by one vote in 2007. Hopes were renewed, however, when Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond – into whose Gordon constituency the Menie Estate falls – intervened and overturned the local council’s original decision.

Directed and shot by Anthony Baxter and produced by Richard Phinney, You’ve Been Trumped follows the development of the elite course through the perspective of local residents who oppose the plans, among them quarryman and salmon netsman Michael Forbes, whose home – necessarily incorporating years of workmanship – Trump refers to repeatedly as a “pigsty” and a “slum”; another resident is David Milne, whose own home is an old and unique coastguard station overlooking the North Sea, which is also referred to by Trump in similar vein.

It’s important for a documentary such as this not to appeal too much to backward nostalgia, and to their credit, its makers include information that bolsters their argument against Trump and his cohorts. It isn’t a simple case of local residents upholding a hostility to a golf resort to which they’ll never be able to afford access; the 4,000-year-old area itself hosted natural, wind-blown sand dunes and a unique eco-system that was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest; not only would the building of a golf course on the dunes destroy their scientific value, Trump’s plans don’t allow for residents’ homes to remain intact, and as the film shows, he at one point ruthlessly sought compulsory purchase orders against them.

It isn’t enough that the building plans require the removal of residents’ homes; Trump enters petty, media-fuelled feuds with residents: whilst staunch opponent Forbes has his water cut off and not rectified for over a week, Milne’s view of the site’s progress is blocked by high steeps of land, the product of, he tells us, around ten days’ worth of petty and purposeless work.

Alex Salmond, of the Scottish National Party, gave Trump the go-ahead with a statement to press that “the economic and social benefits [given by the resort] for the north-east of Scotland substantially outweigh any environmental impact”. But as the film shows, the company managing construction is Irish and utilises its own labour, while specialist materials for the construction are imported in; furthermore, plans for the finished luxury hotel typically incorporate a 400-bed hostel for its staff, suggesting a profit-making demand for migrant workers not from the region.

The appeals to regional economic growth are illusory; what is made explicit early in the film is that the economic interests of the ruling elite puts them in bed with big business. Trump is symptomatic of the criminality of capitalism itself.

As  the documentary progresses, the increasing helplessness on the parts of Menie’s residents is exacerbated by an intimidating security presence employed under the guise of “health and safety”. After director Baxter and his producer Phinney confront the loathsome head of security about Michael Forbes’ lack of water supply, they are challenged by two policemen. The filmmakers are questioned with underhanded menace, and diplomatically stress that they are freelancers making a documentary in the public’s interests; with unbearable impotency we watch Baxter being aggressively detained by the police.

Depicting the rapidity with which such scenarios escalate, this particular episode exposes the raw relations of the political system. Police exist, historically speaking, only to protect the private property and surplus wealth of capitalists. The mental or physical aggression with which they serve the political interests of their employers – separated irrevocably from the working classes at the moment they are recruited from them – couldn’t be more unquestionable.

Oddly, capitalism – the c word that many people fear most – isn’t mentioned in the documentary. Likewise, the Scottish government’s endorsement of Trump and co.’s ruthless “entrepreneurialism” – its endorsement, in other words, of profit-expansion no matter what the cost – lacks a more thorough context. Suffice to say, though, the utter ineptitude of these people shines through.

Trump, for his part, comes off as truly abhorrent; like any playground bully, though, whose actual force is self-delusionary and whose reputation is magnified by those around him, Trump’s inner circle, a parade of parasitic tag-alongs, might be – even in their immensely more condensed screen-time – even more disgusting. His son and his PA are particularly grotesque, while his security team would no doubt be the first to crumble under a revolutionary mass movement against them.

Given the intrinsic strengths of his material, it’s a pity that Baxter’s editorial craftsmanship is often complacent. He’s too keen on cutting away during interviews in order to accommodate sound bridges, for instance, and scenes on the whole are messily constructed, drawing attention to themselves with emphatic freeze-frames and sound effects that imbue a sensationalism to a subject matter not needing it.

A score by Sigur Rós vocalist jónsi doesn’t help matters at all, and even undermines the film’s overall concerns about local heritage (how far is the Aberdeenshire coast from Iceland?).

At the beginning of the film and recurringly thereafter, Baxter strains for a narrative parallel to the 1983 film Local Hero – filmed in the same area – building to a final showdown, of sorts, between Baxter himself and a Trump secretary, filmed within the confines of the traditional red phone-box from the earlier film. That previous incidents in Baxter’s film have provoked genuine outrage, our lack of surprise following the dead end of this climactic phone-call is to be expected.

But, even if it does lack aesthetic cohesion at times, You’ve Been Trumped is a rightfully damning depiction of a particular oligarch and the opportunistic political establishment he embodies.

The October 20 screening of We Are Poets at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema was preceded by a short documentary called Eighty Eight. Directed by Seb Feehan and Josh Bramford and produced by Hannah Bone – all of Newport Film School – the short follows 88-year-old widower Ralph Settle as he spends his days playing music on the streets of Cornwall. Shot mostly in close-up and making much use of focus pulls in HD, it’s one of those “character studies” that make a virtue of their subject’s eccentricities, with a vague sentimentality lingering over its eleven minute duration. It won the Student Doc Award at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest.

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Michael Pattison

Michael Pattison is a film critic from Gateshead.

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