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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Two films, two Brixtons, many gentrifications

Went to Ritzy to see A Moving Image, the new film about gentrification in Brixton. Emerged 75 minutes later without much new light on the topic and rather disappointed. Another, very different two-part film, coming at the same topic from a different angle, was far more evocative of at least two of Brixton's dispersed communities. This film, For What We Are About To Lose - was coincidentally the centrepiece of a small exhibition in Brixton Library, next door to the Ritzy.

Talk about keeping it local!

A Moving Image started with a strangely low-key sequence of a young woman emerging from Brixton Tube station into the street with a smart wheelie suitcase. The underground arrival in Brixton is surely one of the great full-on London experiences, but it seemed underwhelming here. Maybe deliberately, as this young woman was supposed to be returning to Brixton after a few years out east in the artistic community of Shoreditch. Maybe Brixton seemed rather unthrilling to her, what with her memories of an even livelier high street of the early 2000s.

 If so it underlined not only the problem of gentrification, but also  the whole concept of the movie, which was constantly struggling against itself.

On her return to her home patch, this young mixed-race woman, Nina,  played by Tanya Fear, stays in an enormous and ridiculously fashionable loft apartment owned by a friend of a friend. She explores the area, wandering the streets with her top-end digital SLR, filming what she sees.

She has debates with her equally smart girlfriend who agrees to help with her "project". At first she doesn't know what she wants the project to be but when she gets mixed up in a Reclaim Brixton demo she decides that's her subject - gentrification. Not a documentary, mind you, but an art piece, a piece of art.

One great moment in the film only works if you see the film in this cinema: during the demo we see the Ritzy strikers calling for boycott of the Picturehouse group cinemas until they're all paid the living wage. It was one of the few moments in the film that triggered some cheering in the audience.

It takes a while to dawn on Nina that she is part of the gentrification, even though her friends keep telling her, and interviewees make it clear. It's as clear as day to the audience, because the dear girl is wearing a totally different designer outfit in every take, and speaks the lingo of the casually moneyed hipsterish young.

She befriends a young black guy who is meant to be part of the community but he's also an "artist" and the art and music he makes is a truly terrible. The villain of the piece is a young and very successful white actor who falls for the girl and has bought a flat in formerly-squatted Rushcroft Road - you know the buildings - as a "good investment". He's a villain, sure, but he's also, as we learn later on,  a working class lad from Bermondsey made good, whose own family have been driven away from their old neighbourhood. One of the admirable things about this film is that it shows just how complicated this gentrifcation busines is.

In the course of making her art, Nina interviews a few people, and these are the highlights of the film; the bloke from Peckham is especially entertaining. The black members of a local community group are suspicious of her motives and one of their members cruelly tells her that her project "doesn't mean shit".

By the end of the film you can't help but agree with him. It was really much more about Nina's internal struggles with depression (rather clumsily revealed by the discovery of a strip of anti-depressants) and her romantic life.  Maybe it was me, but  the scene where she makes the white boy actor dance with her was very odd: were we supposed to be entertained or what?

The other main character in the film is Big Ben, a mysterious, homeless black busker and ranter who acts as a sort of conscience of the movie. She films him a lot, and perhaps he should be the real subject of her movie. But as soon as she realises this he dies. There's a nice scene where she dreams he's in her flat and sitting on her bed, and then he disappears in a ball of blinding light.

 So, perhaps that's it: the revelation that the true soul of Brixton has already departed.

The interviews with anti-gentrification people from New York and Berlin popped into the film were intriguing; it's only when you go to the community bit of this film's website you realise these videos are part of a bigger project to collect voices from threatened communities around the world.

In other words, the director of A Moving Image, Shola Amoo, is trying to do exactly what Nina is doing: he is Nina, and suddenly it all sort of makes sense.

All in all, a film's a curate's egg; it's intriguing and ambitious, but also annoying, and it seems that some opportunities are wasted. But, if you've never visited Brixton you at least get some moody rooftop views; but not enough, even of this, for my liking.

Still, you have to commend the director for attempting such a complex project, and the film has had plenty of good reviews in the media, so please don't take my criticisms too seriously ( I know that won't happen!)

The other film, For What We Are About To Lose, is a very well-crafted example of the traditional documentary style, with many interviews intercut with archive photos and some lovely footage of Brixton in the 50, 60s, 70s and 80s.

It was made by the Clapham Film Unit, and is in two parts. The first 20 minutes covers the history of the Carlton Mansions squat from the 70s to the final evictions of 2014; the second half looks at Somerleyton Road community. Together the short films are a precious record of what was once the true heart of Brixton, that little bit where Coldharbour Lane crosses Railton and Atlantic Roads, which is now undergoing transformation as part of the Somerleyton Road redevelopment scheme.

You might say that the Carlton Mansions film is only representative of a small fraction of the old Brixton community, the squatters, and that would be true. "Maybe we were all misfits," says one of the  first occupants.  Former squatters are interviewed inside the astonishing and huge buildings where they made their homes and workshops and studios. There were poignant moments, and also painful memories.

One of the original squatters, Dale, reveals how they were actually invited into the building by Lambeth Council, which at the time ran progressive short-life housing schemes, helping people set up housing co-ops and handing out grants to make the places habitable. Dale also worked with Brian Barnes on the famous Nuclear Dawn mural on the huge side wall of the mansions - a mural which is still there but rapidly disappearing under new graffiti.

 Another guy talked about how they had to secure and guard their squat because Brixton was such a "difficult place" in the 80s. It was not only sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There were hard times, hard winters, fights, a suicide, rows. But also a lot of creativity, and we hear from several successful artists and makers who got their first big break in the Mansions.

The Somerleyton Road part of the doc is only 10 minutes or so but an utterly joyous film. Some former residents are brought together in a community centre on Railton Road, and they talk about their lives back in Somerleyton Road back in the 60s and 70s - even before the Barrier Block went up.

There are some wonderful memories of blues parties, some fantastic old footage of Brixton market, and even an impromptu performance of by former members of a lover's rock group, who reminisce about the excitement of seeing Jamaican DJ Peter Metro at a Somerleyton blues before letting on they were part of a group of  five women who took over the stage from him...."we were not deejays but sing-jays, we took a broadway melody and we ride the rhythm...."

One woman at the end sums up the process which is sometimes referred to as social cleansing: "It seems like a plot. They sell your house, move you into a block of flats. Why are we knocking wonderful buildings down to build atrocious things like that?  To me it was like a con. That was the beginning of the change."

You must watch these films! Catch them on the Clapham Film unit website now; there's also a very good, well illustrated free booklet about the films; copies were available in Brixton library, last time I was there.

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