In writing Balls, Lily Cole researched the real life stories of 18–19th Century foundlings, and the socio-political context that inspired the work of two pioneering individuals, living a century apart — Emily Brontë and Thomas Coram. By setting Balls in the present, the film invites us to consider what has changed in the last two to three hundred years.
Thomas Coram as a seaman travelled widely between Europe and America’s east coast, where he campaigned to allow women equal rights of inheritance and against slavery. Returning to London in 1704, he was shocked to see infants dying in the streets — it is estimated that 3 were abandoned every day. With poor sanitation, disease rife, no welfare state, and a huge social stigma against illegitimate children, particularly of the ‘lower class’, the babies of poor unwed women at that time had just a 5% chance of survival.
Paris and Italy had long established basic systems of protection for newborns, Coram determined London must provide. He initiated and drove a 17 year campaign to set up the first incorporated charity in the world — The Foundling Hospital, which brought up children at risk of abandonment. The hospital saved countless lives, with focus on improved sanitation, health, and equal access to education for girls (Coram’s passionate belief). And through support from his artist friends such as William Hogarth, The Foundling Hospital also became the UK’s first public art gallery.
Emily Brontë was also wide eyed to the suffering of her era, born in 1818 to a philanthropic Irish pastor who graced her and her sisters with access to an education (still rare at the time for women). Emily’s brother, Branwell, had travelled to Liverpool — the UK’s hub of slavery until its abolishment in 1833 — not long before Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, the extraordinary novel from which Heathcliff, a likely non-white foundling discovered in Liverpool in the late 1700s emerged. Wuthering Heights broke conventions — the narrative determined by, and perhaps railing against racial discrimination, gendered property rights (women not being allowed to own any) and class disparities. Reviewers of the day could not place it. It still remains a classic today.
Changes fast and slow
As these narratives play out in a contemporary context in Balls, some viewers might find distributing parallels with the many injustices that continue today, as Joshua Oppenheimer picked up in his discussion with Cole: such as our treatment of migrants and refugees, or the management of life saving resources for pandemics.
Others might marvel at how much positive change has been achieved in the last few centuries: the slashing of infant mortality rates (which have decreased 100-fold since 1800); the emancipation of women (we are estimated to reach full gender parity in the next century); successes in the fight against racism (slavery has been officially abolished in all countries globally; the Civil Rights Act of 1964); the decline of a social code which stigmatised illegitimate children and their parents.
None of these issues have been ‘solved’ but on the trajectory of change, one might be led to agree with Theodore Parker, and Dr Martin Luther King that:
“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
If you would like to learn more about the research behind balls, you can do so here.