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Gentrification on Film: Capital Expansion and the Limits of Video Activism

Flag Wars (2003)

Flag Wars (2003)

By Anthony Killick.

Our current period of urban-environmental “change” (a word that is now almost synonymous with “chaos”), is characterised primarily by the ever-accelerating speed at which capital is pumped into the physical landscape (what was once called the fabric) of the city. One of the consequences is that working-class people have been uprooted and wantonly re-dispersed according to the geographic needs and fluctuations of capital. This is nothing new (it has been going on since the enclosures at least), but that hardly matters to those currently being bullied, bitched and cajoled out of their homes via contemporary processes of accumulation by dispossession. In any case, debilitating first-hand experiences are detrimental to the time and patience needed for properly asking why gentrification takes place. Why are eviction threats being posted through my letterbox (by a company I’ve never heard of)? Why are the council suddenly so adamant to level my estate? What the fuck is “PFI”?

Pointing out the “economic interests” of “various stakeholders” or, even worse, referring to an inevitable “human nature” (a term used to make greedy people into heroes) in order to justify the demolition of entire neighbourhoods further belies coherent analysis. Instead, any decent explanation of why gentrification takes place begins with the term “growth”, which acts as a bridge for connecting abstract global processes of capital expansion and uneven geographical development to the material and physical experience of eviction. This abstract-material (in this case growth-eviction) problem has been the framework of analysis for many films that document gentrification processes.

First, it is helpful to distinguish these films from those that in one way or another foreground “the city” (Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) and Mathieu Kassovits’ Le Haine (1995) spring to mind). The former are often documentaries that have a role within activist campaigns taking place in the “here and now”, while the latter are usually examples of art-house or avant-garde cinema that may have something to say about the subject, but which are less immediately useful to people engaged in a fight to keep their homes.

A good example of overlap between these two areas is Flag Wars (Poitras, Goode-Byant 2003). Yet although this documentary is a sincere comment on how gentrification effects working class people, it displays the political limitations of the “camera-pen” style of filmmaking (which bars itself from direct involvement in its subject in an attempt to capture its unaffected “truth”). The films “objectivity” prohibits it from making a clear political statement, and it ends with a sentimental appeal the type of which is easily ignored or appropriated by capital.

Herein lies one of the central problems faced by filmmakers who are documenting gentrification: How is it possible to make films that incite resistance to capital and are more difficult for capital to assimilate within the “resistance market”. The point here is not to erect a dogmatically rigid and stultifying barrier between “capital” and “resistance”, but to understand “the game” of capitalism with more poise. For example, Simon Winlow and others have recently argued that neoliberal capitalism not only tolerates, but requires and assimilates cultural opposition in order to expand markets for “rebellious” lifestyles and present the appearance of a properly functioning democracy.

This is correct. Yet to make such a statement does not signal an Adornian lapse into nihilism. It is a point about awareness that invites further discussion of how to make films that play a role in countering gentrification without themselves becoming part of that process. An example of complete failure in this respect is A Moving Image (Shola Amoo 2016), a film that steers well clear of making any argument about its subject, while employing working-class stereotypes and an art-washed aesthetic that is conducive with the contemporary model of culture-led urban regeneration. It is the docu-drama equivalent of the Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert, which is essential viewing for anyone trying to understand how capital assimilates dissent.

What A Moving Image does highlight, however, are the limitations of “cultural resistance”, which in its worst form swaps engagement with the hard and often boring work of organising for an idea that capital can be overthrown through arts and cultural practices and parties. Such forms of “post-political activism” are extremely damaging if they occlude and replace work such as door-knocking and fighting evictions, especially in the context of a culture-led urban regeneration program that places “creativity” and “cultural difference” at the frontier of market expansion. The working class are the real Indians of this frontier, and they are often represented with as much wilful stupidity as the “Indians” of Hollywood (see Benefits Street as an example).

unnamedI recently curated a series of films for the Cultural Information Centre in Zagreb, Croatia, that were chosen on the basis of their awareness of these problems and the ways in which they actively contribute to ongoing struggles against gentrification. Some recent shorts from activist newsreel, Reel News, are the best examples. These films should be seen as practical, educational tools, the aim of which is to spur people toward direct action and local community organisation. They understand their place within a repertoire of activist practices that are often more laborious and time consuming than watching films. In other words, they understand the limitations of video activism and cultural resistance within the context of ongoing struggle.

For the past year or so Reel News have been documenting the efforts of various communities in the US to bring about a “just transition” from an economy based on fossil fuel production and consumption to one based on renewable energy and social solidarity. Crucially, Just Transition groups understand the relation between environmental sustainability and social justice, particularly insofar as the human and environmental consequences of fossil fuel production are mainly placed on the shoulders of working class and poor people. The central idea here is that environmental sustainability cannot be achieved so long as capitalist relations of dominance and exploitation (of both people and the environment) prevail.

In the Reel News short film, Co-operation Jackson: Building a social and solidarity economy, local activist, Kali Akuno, explains how historical racial and political tensions within Jackson, Mississippi, structure contemporary processes of gentrification. As the film shows, Co-operation Jackson is a network of co-operative organisations who work on different issues in the area, focussing particularly on community land ownership in order to create a physical bulwark against gentrification, as well as to improve the quality and sustainability of the local food supply. As one resident explains, Jackson is considered a “food desert”, meaning that the grocery stores in the area stock bad quality produce.

This is as much an environmental as it is a social issue because it highlights the impacts of unsustainable, globalised processes of food production on local communities. Again, the material-abstract dichotomy is broken down through the films address of localised solutions to problems that arise out of seemingly abstract processes of “growth”, including gentrification. As the camera follows Akuno around the streets of Mississippi, he explains how the community ownership of land is an essential part of thinking about how that land can serve purposes that are different to the destructive extraction of financial profit. Using the land in this way would “mean that the forces of gentrification have less of an incentive to come here”.

Gentrification, then, is neither a purely abstract, nor a purely material process. It is both, while at the same time being both a social and environmental issue. The best documentaries on the subject break down these dichotomies, while also providing insight, tactics and inspiration to those undertaking similar struggles in their own communities.

You can watch Co-operation Jackson here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Nt9Z2P7mPY&t=16s

The first episode of the Reel News American Climate Rebels films can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWxNDvJYC1M&list=PLqE_C7UkMK6ZGUClPg-DBoJB5E5UfIK3c

Anthony Killick is a research fellow at the University of Leeds and the centre for understanding sustainable prosperity.
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