Paul Sng’s (Invisible Britain, Sleaford Mods) feature length documentary on the decline of social housing seems particularly timely in light of the recent tragedy of Grenfell; a situation that made absolutely clear the contempt held for the poorest and most marginalized groups. The truth is that the housing crisis has been happening for a very long time. Sng is trying to capture the unarguable neglect on the part of some authorities and the desperation of those affected, and for the most part Dispossession succeeds.
In 1979 42% of the population lived in council housing, in 2017 it is 8% and there are 1.2 million on the waiting list. I know this because the film is excellent at giving information. Britain has a housing crisis that has been worsening since Thatcher and has left too many at the mercy of the private housing market and unscrupulous landlords. Rent that should be 40% of income can be up to 80% and these barely affordable homes are disappearing as the area is filled with microbreweries and the white middle classes. However, this is not a simplistic story of gentrification, a generally slow process. Rather this is one of social cleansing; a concerted and rapid effort by authorities to remove those who are considered undesirable.
Dispossession is guerilla filmmaking, where panning shots that should sweep smoothly across and up are shaky because things were captured on the hoof. The sound is patchy at times, but according to the director this is being fixed. Happily the raw quality reflects where the money, such as it was, was spent – on time with the communities and finding the right voices. We hear from a young mother who grew up in the supposedly notorious area of St Ann’s in Nottingham, misconceptions which the film works hard to dispel, the couple fighting for their home of forty-one years in Cressingham in Lambeth and residents of the Gorbals and Govanhill who live in dismay and desperation at the mounting neglect of their area. Nicola Sturgeon, Caroline Lucas, and a surprise turn from Peter Hitchens amongst others all echo the same sentiment. The obliteration of social housing is leaving vulnerable people neglected and scattered to the wind.
Lingering shots of rotting buildings and sadly abandoned toys feel cloying at times but we are bought back to reality by the excellent voices of the contributors. Conspicuous in its absence, however, is any discussion about the racist nature of both gentrification and social cleansing. It could be argued that a single film cannot be expected to do it all, but given the prominence of racism I find it is a problematic oversight.
For those unfamiliar with the timeline of Nye Bevan, Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ and the neo liberalism of nearly every government since, this is a good introduction, albeit one with a very lefty bent. Crystal clear grey and white graphics and a smooth chronology within the wider discussion provide fact and context. The narration comes from Maxine Peake who gives both warmth and subtle but appropriate dismay about the events. The script swoops between simple exposition and lyrical wording, with estates described as ‘canyons from a 1950s cowboy film’. We are kept abreast of the real events whilst simultaneously discussing the more nuanced ideas of a council house once being an aspiration and now being a byword for lazy and underserving.
The authorities in charge of ‘managed decline’ and dubious partnerships with property behemoths like Savills declined to take part in the film thus amplifying the voices of the residents and those trying to fight for them. What we are left with is an informative if one-sided piece with strong voices that on occasion dwells overly on sentimental visuals or shots that don’t tell us anything new. Whilst problematic in some ways the film does what it intends and that is document what has happened and what could happen from a particular perspective that is both important and underrepresented. This a conversation starter and the effort put into contacting the right experts and spending time in communities is a powerful beginning.
For more information on Dispossession and where it is screening click here.