A Sense of Place: Repairing, Maintaining and Reimagining Social Housing on Film

Still from Gagarine (Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh, Haut et Court, 2020)
Challenging views of social housing as dysfunctional and dystopian, Caterina Sartori examines films that reimagine everyday social space through practices of care, repair and maintenance.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Media, Precarity and the Home.” To read the introduction and other posts in the series, click here]

In this second piece for the roundtable, I expand on the idea that there exists a discourse on housing estates that posits the buildings and their residents as a problem to be solved. In a redress to this approach, I focus on cinematic works that instead centre social housing residents as figures that are actively engaged in world-making practices of repairing, maintaining, and reimagining the social and material fabric of their housing.

In her opening piece for this roundtable, Isabelle McNeill similarly teases out examples of films that create a complex interplay between domestic interiors and exteriors and work against the grain of mainstream media representations of housing estates. My own focus remains on the United Kingdom but the argument I believe has a wider application, and clearly a line of continuity between French and British experiences can be drawn, as I will point to with an example below.

Both Isabel and I are concerned here with a move away from understanding social housing estates as a site of dysfunction. We both centre the ongoing labour of care, repair, and maintenance1Stephanie Spray, “Maintenance and the Art of Necessity”, keynote address, RAI Film Festival 2021, https://festival.raifilm.org.uk/film/keynote-by-stephanie-spray/ that residents enact to improve their conditions within the constraints of racial capitalism and the legacies of colonial violence that shape the everyday geographies of social housing. I draw here on a body of literature that brings together Black Geographies, Black Studies and Critical Urban Geographies. In particular I am influenced by the work of geographer Katherine McKittrick, who argues for analytical frameworks that recognise the creation of a “black sense of place”, rather than replicating, however inadvertently, “bifurcated racial categories (black=dispossessed, white=freedom)”2Katherine McKittrick, “On Plantations, Prisons, and a Black Sense of Place,” Social and Cultural Geography 12, no. 8 (2011): 947–63, https://doi.org/10.1080/14649365.2011.624280. that equate black life with social death and placelessness, or the “ungeographic.”3Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

Still from Street 66 (2018)

Following McKittrick’s analysis, I propose here a reading of three films in which the labour of creating a sense of place and of shaping the fabric of everyday life within social housing is brought to the fore. While dispossession and “harassed geographies”4Glória Cecília dos Santos Figueiredo, Brais Estévez, and Thaís Troncon Rosa, “The Black City: Modernisation and Fugitivities in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil,” Radical Housing Journal 2, no. 2 (December 2020): 55–82. are not denied by these films, they nevertheless foreground an affirmative sense of creation. Street 66 (2018), directed by artist Ayo Akingbade, is an experimental biopic of Ghanaian housing activist Dora Boatemah, who campaigned relentlessly for a regeneration of the Angell Town housing estate in Brixton, South West London, that would genuinely benefit the residents rather than real estate developers and politicians. The short film retraces moments of Boatemah’s life using archival material and 16mm footage, as well as audio interviews, to create a patchwork effect. It is a collage film with an unfinished feel, characterised by an open-endedness that does not constrain Boatemah’s legacy in a hagiographic celebration but rather gives the audience a glimpse, necessarily limited, of a woman with tremendous energy and commitment towards housing justice. Although the film tells the story of Boatemah’s life and work, it eschews a straightforwardly expository narrative and realist aesthetics to do so. What remains is a sense of Boatemah as an activist engaged in an ongoing process of collective labour that defends existing social housing and also, crucially, aims to expand and explore its possibilities beyond a horizon of lack and survival. Her vision for the estate included the creation of workshop spaces for small enterprises and of collective space for sociality, thus improving on the existing fabric and imagining a new way of living together. In this sense Boatemah’s work is not simply (and importantly) defensive of social housing, but also creative and visionary. The experimental form of the film reflects this drive – by refusing to work in a strictly realist style, the filmmaker creates a space for imagining other possible ways of structuring urban life.

Still from Estate, a Reverie (2015)

Andrea Zimmerman’s Estate, a Reverie (2015) similarly employs juxtaposition to portray the final years of a social housing complex in Hackney, East London. The film focuses on the sense of everyday utopian possibility that emerges from a community left alone to its own devices before its dispersal. Free of the bureaucratic constraints imposed by municipal housing management, the last residents live in a twilight zone that allows them to express their creativity and form a temporary, liberated community. The materials Zimmerman uses are different to Akingbade’s. In Estate, a Reverie, scenes shot in a observational documentary filmmaking style are juxtaposed with a range of art-based interventions such as re-enactments, processions, projections and performative acts. Filmed in a low key, unobtrusive observational style, scenes of everyday life and low key creativity — eating food together, painting a stairwell, spray painting on a wall, making a community party around a bonfire — create an atmosphere of possibility within the frayed landscape marked by the decline of social housing as a material reality and an idea. Within this “sense of an end” Zimmerman lingers on the networks, links and connections that residents continue to nurture and develop – including the filmmakers’ own attempts at supporting some of her elderly and impoverished neighbours.

Still from Gagarine (2020)

The work of maintenance and construction is also a central theme in the French fiction film Gagarine (Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh, 2020). Set in a Parisian cité on the verge of demolition, the film tells of young Afro-descendent resident Yuri who considers the building as a spaceship and imagines himself an astronaut like his namesake after whom the complex is named. The filmmakers depict the internal and external architectures using tilts and upside-down frames that unsettle the viewer’s balance. As if we were floating in a gravity-free zone, the building itself becomes a machine for travel and for escape, as well as a protective shell. Often the housing complex is framed from above, shot from a drone in a bird’s eye view reminiscent of a view of earth from outer space. When Yuri’s efforts to repair the decaying infrastructure of the buildings fail, and the last residents are decanted, the astronaut protagonist builds a utopian, self-sufficient universe that sustains him in his emplaced voyage. Marked by a distinct Afrofuturist influence, the film plays on the utopian drive behind the social housing architecture, as well as on a DIY aesthetic of self-sufficiency and self-preservation reminiscent of, for example, Zambian Nuotama Bodomo’s short fiction film Afronauts (2014).

The emphasis on repair, maintenance and reimagining that I have identified in the works presented underscores the iterative aspect of place-making within social housing – one that recognises the labour of residents to create a place that reflects and nurtures them. In this sense, to respond more directly to Anna Viola Sborgi’s introductory remarks, home cannot be taken for granted and the pursuit of it is an ongoing effort. The precarity associated with a secure home is especially real for the central characters of the films discussed who are marginalised along gendered, classed and racialised lines and who are at the sharp end of historical processes of dispossession. However, rather than being solely defined by dispossession, the characters mobilise their labour, creativity and visionary spirit to affirm their own sense of place.

Notes[+]

Sartori, Caterina. "A Sense of Place: Repairing, Maintaining and Reimagining Social Housing on Film". Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 6, no. 5 (November 2021)
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.