Timely, well-intentioned documentary about British social housing preaches to the concerted but makes its point well
Words by David G. Hughes / @BelovedFire_
Just as a grassroots political movement has emerged to galvanise support for newly unapologetic socialist Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, so too within the national cinema there has been a corresponding surge in the etiolated life of the left. Often crowdfunded on sites such as Kickstarter, small budget documentaries such as The Spirit of '45 (2013), Tony Benn: Will & Testament (2014) and an upcoming film about the Beast of Bolsover—Labour MP Dennis Skinner—have sought to pay tribute to the Labour movement and revive its relevance for contemporary society.
Although not as explicitly tied to the Labour movement, and its likely the filmmakers wouldn’t be keen to narrow their films expanse by promoting themselves as a party-political broadcast, films such as A Moving Image (2016), concerning gentrification in Brixton, and now Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, belong to this new-found documentarian push to shine a light on the plight of the working-class and counter the neoliberal dominance of austerity Britain. Currently, the conservative right are shielded by the on-screen mythologisation of the historical past and its Great Man figures, peddling pleasurable costume dramas and Royalist yarn as placation of contemporary discontent – the equivalent of putting an insufficient plaster onto a gaping wound. François Truffaut criticised France’s orthodox cinema during the 1950’s as a “la tradition de qualité,” (tradition of quality), and we are witnessing a similarly assuaging phenomenon in Britain, 2017. Conversely, the left is attempting to smash these well-financed fantasies, sold in fiction, within the mode of cinema we most associate with as ‘fact’ – the documentary.
Dispossession concerns the almost-complete collapse of social housing in the U.K. and the subsequent national tribulations caused since Margaret Thatcher's 'right-to-buy' mass privatisation scheme. Director Paul Sng makes no qualms about the disastrous consequences that Thatcher's legacy, and the avaricious property developer dogs let loose by her deregulation, has wrought upon the social fabric of the nation, at the level of living standards, poverty and community. Unbelievable statistics are revealed throughout this journey across a disenfranchised nation—from London, to Birmingham and Glasgow, Sng has intelligently chosen regions of the south, midlands and north for his investigations in order to encapsulate a national picture rather than a London-centric one. The pedagogic information relayed by the film provokes a series of shaking heads in the audience, and whisperings of disbelief—“shocking," said the man next to me.
Alongside analysing the broad economic and political picture with the occasional graph, Sng is wise enough to acknowledge the need for humanity—faces and stories from residents. One such touching moment occurs when a formerly homeless resident of Balfron Tower, the Brutalist high-rise designed by Marxist Hungarian émigré Erno Goldfinger, recollects the magical views of the city that he savoured, fully aware that these angelic perspectives would not have been possible without his quite literal elevation by the social state. He speaks of how deeply he misses his home, having been capriciously removed as a result of unscrupulous council policy. Such forcible removals are things we usually associate with despotic regimes, those who deny their citizens the most fundamental rights to life. But it is happening right here, just in a more bureaucratic and polite manner. Shocking indeed.
Despite occasional tinny audio recordings during the interviews, the film is competently made, structured and well-judged. Recognisable politicians, such as Nicola Sturgeon and Caroline Lucas, appear and it will likely do their standing well with those in the audience as a result. There are, however, far fewer right-wing commentators. It is understandable why they wouldn't be keen to contribute (although Peter Hitchens, to his credit, had the courage to be interviewed), but their inclusion might have been useful when the inevitable accusations of leftist propaganda emerge. Yet, let's not pretend that the film hasn't made its mind up and a faux-objectivity is required.
What's most impressive about Dispossession is that this is not an acrimonious film, it is far from sensationalist and its tone is reasoned, even if it provokes an acrimonious response from its audience, infuriated by the injustice. It certainly lacks the belaboured bloviating of a documentary such as George Galloway’s The Killing$ of Tony Blair (2016). Rather, this is film as irredentism—it seeks to reclaim the narrative that has been firmly fortified by poverty porn, welfare bashing, neoliberal Britain. More crucially, it seeks to reclaim the moribund state of social housing by using images, much as the scorched skeleton of Grenfell Tower has inadvertently done, to synthesise what is otherwise disparate thought and abstract feeling into a cohesive and progressive rallying call. Dispossession has caught the zeitgeist; this is an absolute myth-buster that destroys preconceptions about social housing as a site of degeneracy and exposes where the real iniquity lies, which, as it happens, is systemic. This is a documentary that people have a civic responsibility to see.
Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle
Director: Paul Sng
Country: United Kingdom
Duration: 82 minutes
David G. Hughes is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He has written for Quillette, Little White Lies, Film International, Live for Films, and more.