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What we don’t talk about when we talk about gentrification

South London filmmaker Shola Amoo faced up to some uncomfortable home truths in making A Moving Image, his film about gentrification in Brixton

When Shola Amoo reread the unfinished script he’d written for his new film, something didn’t sit quite right. With A Moving Image, screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival tomorrow (Oct 8), the British-Nigerian filmmaker wanted to tell the story of a Brixton-born artist returning to her old neighbourhood to make a documentary about gentrification. Amoo, an Elephant & Castle native who saw the sprawling Heygate Estate torn down from his doorstep, poured all of his feelings of outrage on the issue into his screenplay, but, through various drafts, he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that something was missing. That something, it turned out, was himself.

“It just didn’t feel truthful enough,” says Amoo. “With the earlier drafts there was more of a self-righteous anger to it. But the more I started to engage (with the issue), the more I had to acknowledge my complicity as an artist, as one of the footsoldiers of gentrification in a way. In places like Harlem in New York, you have an interesting dichotomy where a lot of the gentrifiers are these affluent ‘Afropolitans’ who come to the area because they love the history of Harlem, and then they start pushing out working-class black people... Trying to make this film about a topic I feel super-passionate about without letting it fall into hypocrisy was a really fine balance, and that was really how the narrative came around.”

The idea that Amoo struck upon for the finished version of the film was a novel one: artfully blending fact and fiction, he had his main character, Nina (Tanya Fear) interact with real people affected by gentrification in Brixton, as part of a journey that would see her begin to acknowledge her own part in the problem. Through her research, Nina is confronted by an uncomfortable question, one that Amoo was forced to ask himself through his own work on the project: namely, “Who really benefits when you make a film about a community in civil strife, the community or the filmmaker?”

We got the inside story from Amoo, who is asking people from around the world to share their stories about gentrification on the film’s website.

How did you get the idea to frame your film as part documentary, part fictional story?

Shola Amoo: I had maybe half a script and it wasn’t really giving me what I felt the subject required, which was space and nuance. What really became apparent was that real people would need to be a part of this process. I wanted something with, as you can see from what we’re trying to build with our website, a kind of interactive legacy around the theme of gentrification. So merging fact and fiction was really interesting because it became more of an organic process – the stuff we did in the fictional elements would respond to the stuff we’d experienced in the documentary, and vice versa.

In what ways did the documentary parts help guide the fictional parts of the film?

Shola Amoo: I think Reclaim Brixton was one key documentary element (Nina interviews real protesters at last April’s Reclaim Brixton event), because we had this weird situation where we have a fictional character in this real event with, like, 5,000 people. Once we filmed that event we had to respond to it, and we come back to it in the film with some fictional characters who are quite critical of it, whereas Nina feels like she learned something from it, and that all stemmed from Tanya being there and experiencing it, for her as an actress she ingested that energy and took it through to the other scenes with her.

To extent does your experience in making the film, and as a south Londoner in general, reflect what we end up seeing on screen?

Shola Amoo: Well, my protagonist’s dilemma is my dilemma, in that she’s making an art project about this worthy subject, trying to understand her complicity in it. I’m from Elephant & Castle, and I remember when all the Heygate stuff was happening (the estate was demolished in 2011). Heygate was one of the largest estates in Europe, it used to have a thousand social homes. Then (private property developer) Lend Lease and Southwark council decided to regenerate, and the new version of the ‘Elephant Park’, as they’re dubbing it, only has about 70 (82, according to the 35% campaign group), and it’s all lost in the mix of ‘affordable housing’ that isn’t really affordable. People had ideas about Heygate as this sink estate – lots of urban, gritty films like Harry Brown were shot there – but there was also a community there that I think gets overlooked. The sad thing is only one in five (residents) were rehoused locally in the SE17 postcode, and the rest were spread across London, some beyond. The council did CPOs (compulsory purchase orders), which means that you have to sell your house at a rate that isn’t going to compete with the market rates, so you can’t then rebuy a house in the same area. We’re seeing that play out in a similar way on the Aylesbury Estate, where this conservative MP (communities secretary Sajid Javid) basically stated that what the council were doing in trying to remove some of the residents there was against their human rights. It’s kind of a landmark case, so I hope it’s a catalyst for something, because that’s a real point.

“Who really benefits when you make a film about a community in civil strife, the community or the filmmaker? These are the questions I’m working through” – Shola Amoo

You get a real sense of Brixton’s vibrancy in the film, despite the seriousness of the subject matter.

Shola Amoo: I wanted to explore these issues but I wanted to do it in an interesting and stylistic way. When we make films in the UK about worthy subjects, there’s a propensity to have grey skies – we don’t make a certain type of film that I’ve always loved, which is what Spike Lee did with his early films like Do the Right Thing, which explores racial tension in Brooklyn, but does it with such vibrancy, colour and life. Plus, you know, we’re talking about Brixton, which is one of the most colourful places in London, so it had to embody the energy of that space. Brixton is like the British Harlem in a way, and I think gentrification is particularly hard to stomach there.

One thing about Nina’s character is that, aside from not wanting to make herself part of the story to begin with, she also doesn’t want to acknowledge that gentrification is an issue of race as well as class.

Shola Amoo: Yeah, I think the racial element of gentrification is there, and we have to explore it. When you’re talking about places like Elephant and Peckham and Brixton, or even areas where you have Asian communities like Brick Lane, there are questions to be answered, about whether people feel like they can’t be part of things that are culturally relevant to them in their communities. It’s like Spike Lee talking about the Brooklyn scene where you’ve got things like playing loud music, stuff that no one would police years ago, are now things like that are being taken away from people there. I’ve heard similar complaints in Brixton, about the square which has always been kind of high-energy, and the drumming by the station – these are things that have happened historically in the neighbourhood.

It’s not always clear who is real and who is an actor in the film – what about ‘Big Ben’, for instance? (Ben is a local musician who sings protest songs about gentrification on the street.)

Shola Amoo: Ben is a south London musician that was doing, interestingly enough, anti-gentrification work before I approached him. This is probably his first role as an actor, but the funny thing is I saw him onstage at the Bussey Building in Peckham, and I didn’t remember him until I bumped into him at the Elephant & Castle Tesco, when I was struggling to cast this role. And that’s how he came onboard this project – the music that he brought to it is all him.

To what extent is gentrification an issue that people should assume personal responsibility for? And how much is it an issue for councils and government to address?

Shola Amoo: When I think about gentrification I have to split it in two, the micro and the macro. On the micro, it’s the individual’s responsibility about where they shop, the places they spend their money, how they engage with an area on a personal level. That’s the only stuff you can control. On the macro, you’re dealing with legislation and stuff like that, council and government. But then it comes to me as an individual to think, ‘What can we do, how do we protest legislation, how can we ensure councils aren’t regenerating when they should be refurbishing?’ And that comes down to your own personal sense of responsibility.

How do you hope that your film will contribute to the debate?

Shola Amoo: I feel like in acknowledging you’re complicit as an artist, you can also use that art to do something else. And that’s what I was trying to do, I wanted to do something that could be used as a social tool, which is part of the interactive element to the site. So hopefully to some degree I’m answering that question of what you can actually use your art for; who really benefits when you make a film about a community in civil strife, the community or the filmmaker? These are the questions I’m working through.

Share your stories about gentrification through the film’s website here. For information about screenings of A Moving Image, visit the BFI London Film Festival website