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Tuesday 19 February 2019

Sleeping with the Far Right: Interview with Alice Levine

Explain a little bit about what your new documentary is all about.

In what must be the strangest school exchange ever, I went and lived for seven days with Jack Sen, who is a British Nationalist and former member of UKIP and the BNP. I lived with him and his family – his wife, his daughter and his mother – and I went about his business with him in an attempt to understand and dissect his motivations for being drawn to the far right wing of political thought.

Why did you want to make this programme?

It felt like a really pertinent time. The opportunity arose, first of all, which felt like an opportunity that isn’t extended to you very often. And it felt important because of what’s going on in the world around us. The far right seem to be edging closer to mainstream politics in lots of different parts of the world – Brazil, Hungary, America of course – and I suppose people would think of me as being in a leftie bubble, with my job in media, living in Central London, doing a podcast about porn – so it kind of felt like my curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and see what leads people to these views. I also wanted the challenge of trying to extract as much humour from this bizarre set up as possible and believe it or not there was some.

Why Jack Sen, and how did it come about?                                     

I wouldn’t have known who Jack Sen was before making this film. When we were looking at the far right, the producers were talking to a lot of people in the nationalist movement and beyond, and one name that kept coming up was Jack Sen. He’s not a household name, but he’s someone who’s very connected to power players across the nationalist movement. He’s in regular contact with Dr David Duke, former leader of the KKK. We have an electrifying moment with Nick Griffin, who he does his radio show with. And generally, he is a very, very intriguing man, because he doesn’t really fit the portrait of what perhaps you would think a British nationalist would look or sound like. He’s got an American accent, he’s part-Indian, he’s got a Ukrainian wife, so he felt like a really fascinating subject. And it’s not really a film about politics, it’s film about identity at the heart. So this wasn’t just a chance for someone to recite their manifesto or have a platform to repeat their rhetoric, it had to be about two people getting to know each other. We’re an odd couple, to say the least, so the film is entertaining, and has these strange moments of dark humour. He is a fascinating character, but also somebody who has opinions that are obviously troubling and dangerous, it’s makes for a tense and unique hour.

Why do you think he agreed to it?

I think he hoped that it was going to be an opportunity to disseminate his beliefs on a large scale, a national broadcast platform for him to preach on. I think anybody who has political aspirations, or anyone who has previously been in politics, probably sees it as a great moment to reach some new ears. However, this film definitely isn’t a soapbox for Jack Sen, what we do manage, is to peel back some of the layers of that bravado to see what he is really all about.

He also thought that I was going to be quite a soft touch – there was one point at which he did say he was glad it was me, and he was glad I was a woman, because he thought I’d be maternal. I’m not sure he thought of me in that motherly role by the end though.

How did you get on with the family?

You’re in this really, really strange position, because you’re a houseguest on one level, and you want to be polite and you want to help with dinner, and you want to make sure you’re abiding by all the rules of being a good guest. On the other hand, we’re talking about some incredibly heavy things that you don’t agree with, that you know that you’re going to ultimately end up arguing over. Jack’s mum Faye is a very sweet woman in spite of her beliefs, and we spent some nice time together. She made me cups of tea and a hot water bottle and generally made sure I was okay. But the house was claustrophobic, there was a real tension in the air, and I think that put a pressure on us all.

Faye, in particular, is an enigma, isn’t she?

Yeah, she really is an incredibly intriguing woman. She’s a polyglot, she’s a poet, she watches Fox News on a loop most of the day, she was in a interracial marriage, she’s lived in America and Germany, she is a Nationalist.

She was very kind to us, firstly letting us live in her house for a week but also just the courtesy and patience that she extended to us in conversation. She identifies as a nationalist, but I think our discussions were a lot calmer and a lot more empathetic than those I had with Jack.

Jack is very security conscious – you had a 7pm curfew so he could put on the alarm each night. Is that paranoia, or are there elements out to get him?

As the week progressed, everything became less clear, more smoke, more mirrors. Was there an alarm that was automatically activated at 7:07pm every evening, and deactivated at 9:09am so we were confined to the house? That had a direct call out to the police, which he couldn’t override except with 48 hours’ notice?  I’m not sure, I think almost definitely not. That was just another intriguing part of that week, another attempt for control, another power struggle. A lot of things changed and moved and shifted, so it was always quite hard to pin Jack down and pin the facts down.

Were you ever scared?

I wouldn’t say I was scared for my safety. There were moments when the hairs on my neck stood up because we were in very, very heated conversations, and his mood changed quite dramatically. I was there with the director, we stayed together in the house, I was never on my own. And we had protocols if we needed to step out somewhere else, and the production team rented a house nearby, should we need to go there. That scene where he shouts in my face and calls me an extremist, it was really unpleasant but actually quite rewarding as I felt he showed his true colours, we saw past the supposedly rational veneer.

Towards the end, that very, very electric scene where we talk about Jack’s birth name, I definitely felt the most discomfort then, because he was raging, furious and I think probably a little bit scared in truth. Although I wouldn’t say I ever felt physically in danger, he can do some shocking things online, as we discussed in the film. I told him I was worried that he might disseminate false information about me on the internet that was false, but that could be damaging. I know he has the power and the contacts to make a real impact, reputationally, online. Which is perhaps a more relevant fear in 2019. Not that he’s going to ‘get me’ but that he can push out some vicious things about you on the internet. And also mobilise some nefarious characters to do it for him.

What was the biggest surprise for you, in this whole experience?

I didn’t really expect to make a breakthrough. I didn’t actually think that would happen. He’s so well-rehearsed, he’s made tonnes of speeches before. I didn’t know if we’d ever break through that Nationalism rhetoric, and see Jack, the man. I never really wanted to make a film about the far right, I wanted to make a film about Jack Sen, and use him to see how this happens.

And actually, by the end, we do make a breakthrough, we’re sat on his sofa, and he’s essentially saying to me he felt persecuted, he felt isolated, he felt like he didn’t belong and he didn’t like that feeling. And I thought “That, in itself, is a valid point. We’ve all felt lonely, all felt like we weren’t part of a greater group, felt excluded.” I just don’t think that that’s race-based. I didn’t expect us to ever bond, because I knew we were too politically and ideologically opposed, but actually, at that moment, I thought maybe I understood him a little bit. I thought his framework for breaking down those feelings was flawed, but I understood the core feelings. But not everyone who feels excluded or isolated comes to such extreme views.

So did you finish off the project more or less concerned about the rise of the far right?

It would be easy to dismiss these opinions as niche. People feeling isolated or disenfranchised, or the feeling that this is a very hard moment to be a white man, that is a genuine feeling out there, whether I think it’s valid or not. If you can find a belief system that explains that for you, that is a very powerful thing. And if that framework has hate woven into it, that is a very dangerous thing.

Is Jack going to take over the world single-handedly or become the leader of a huge party – maybe not. But I think all of these conversations, these micro-movements, are really concerning. So it did make me worry about what can catch light. Traditional political forums aren’t the only place that these conversations can have an impact. It doesn’t need to be legitimised members of the establishment on television, making speeches anymore. Social media can be an incredible tool but also a really troubling one.

This is a very different direction for you from a lot of your work. Did you enjoy it, and would you like to do more factual stuff?

I really enjoyed it, once I was out of there. At the time, it was incredibly intense. I think what we’ve ended up with is a really fascinating film. I think it’s a really different take on the far right, on British nationalism. I haven’t seen a film like this before. There’s a lot of places where you can go to understand and to learn what it is that British nationalists believe and feel, and to see them in a political setting. That’s not what this was about. That’s why I was in there. I’m not a journalist or a politician or an activist. I really loved the challenge of it, so I think the next thing I do will be something different.

Lastly, do you ever think Jack has listened to My Dad Wrote a Porno?

I think Jack would be absolutely repulsed by My Dad Wrote a Porno. I think he’d think that it was the beginning of the end. He struggled with me identifying as a feminist, so I’m not sure how he’d cope with My Dad Wrote a Porno. He had very traditional ideals of family life. I think a young woman talking openly about sex? No! He’s quite the prude. He actually said that to me.

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