Home Video: A Conversation on the Role of Video in Current Housing Struggles
Writer and filmmaker Ed Webb-Ingall speaks to researcher Caterina Sartori, artist and curator Dhelia Snoussi, and Hannan Majid from human rights enterprise Rainbow Collective.
The UK is experiencing a housing crisis, with entrenched issues such as overcrowding and insecure temporary accommodation exacerbated and made visible by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since January 2020, writer and filmmaker Ed Webb-Ingall has been working with parents and staff based at the Portman Early Childhood Centre, Serpentine Education, and housing charity Shelter, exploring the themes of home and housing. This research is part of Changing Play, an eight-year artist commission series developed by Serpentine Education.
Ed Webb-Ingall’s project, Like Coming Home, centres on the lived and everyday experiences of people who feel the impact of changes in housing policy and bureaucracy most acutely. Like Coming Home asks: Who is the housing system benefitting? Who makes the rules and decisions about the way we live? This conversation touches on the role of video in community formation, how it can be used to support a collective memory of a place, and the importance of storytelling.
Ed Webb-Ingall: Each of you has made campaign tapes in response to specific housing issues. Can you talk through some of the things your tapes have been about? I think it’s important to name some of the specific things that are happening in different neighbourhoods. In South London, people are spending too long in temporary accommodation, there’s not enough council housing, not enough three- and four-bedroom houses. Decanting is another really big issue.
Hannan Majid: On the Aylesbury Estate in London, the council and housing providers have been deliberately letting it go.
Dhelia Snoussi: Managed decline?
HM: Yes, deliberate managed decline. When you look at place like Aylesbury and other estates you can see what the council is doing.
Caterina Sartori: On Aylesbury, the problem’s with the heating, lack of hot water, and regular breakdowns year after year after year, a general letting go of maintenance. But also the decision to demolish instead of refurbishing council housing and public housing is obviously huge. And from a policy or legislative point of view, the total lack of protection that private tenants have produces so much housing insecurity.
DS: Yes, definitely. From a personal point of view, in my own life I’ve experienced temporary accommodation and homelessness. Most of my childhood was spent in private rental accommodation and we experienced discrimination from estate agents not accepting people on benefits. This was a massive problem from my perspective.
HM: That’s shocking, the whole DSS (Social Security) thing is just shocking, I find it really frustrating.
EW-I: And how much power landlords have is significant in how housing is understood in terms of market rather than in terms of people.
DS: Yes, I was just going to say that. I’m a member of the London Renter’s Union, but sometimes I feel like I can’t be as vocal as I’d like to be because of the lack of entitlement. You feel like you can’t negotiate rent, because there’s nobody who would give better accommodation. That’s how I feel as someone who’s not even the most vulnerable anymore.
EW-I: You’ve all used video extensively in your housing campaign work. Why video? What’s good about video as opposed to any other medium? What drew you to it?
DS: I don’t know if it was an interest in the form that first struck me necessarily, I think it was just access to certain technology. I was quite techie and often one of the youngest people involved in the campaigns I was part of. I had an interest in cameras, so video was something I gravitated towards. In a lot of the campaigns I’d been involved in, they didn’t have a comms presence necessarily. They didn’t have a Facebook page or an Instagram page. You couldn’t find out who was behind any of this stuff, unless you came to the meetings. It was all very face to face. I helped make videos so people not at the meetings would know what was going on. Now I’m much more interested in film and video as a medium, but before I wouldn’t say that was what drew me; it was just necessity.
CS: The thing I like about video is the fact that you can communicate in so many different ways. You obviously use the image, but let’s not forget about the sound, and you can use text and stills if you want to on the screen. One of the videos I made on Aylesbury was at night. It was really dark. The council workers had come to destroy the inside of empty homes so that they couldn’t be squatted in, so there was just this sound of smashing windows. The emotional impact of that, even if you can’t see much, is so strong that it communicates much more than a blog post or an article could do.
HM: Video is just what we’ve been trained in. When it came to housing, film was a necessity because of what was happening on our estate. We thought, ‘Okay how are we going to get people to know and talk about what’s happening on the Ledbury Estate, what’s happening with this block? How do we hold the council accountable and get them to engage in a conversation with us?’ We’d hold meetings or go to meetings and we found that when it came to our own estate, it was about ‘Okay, how do we get the residents’ voices out in a calm and collected way?’ We started using our skills as documentary filmmakers to make short little campaign videos, ranging from 90 seconds to just under 10 minutes. Together, we created videos and shared them via a WhatsApp group and on Twitter, through the Ledbury action group Twitter page. It just blew up. We were getting hundreds and thousands of shares and tweets and views. We took this to other estates and started making videos wherever else we thought we could go and give some sort of support.
EW-I: What did the campaign videos you made in response to these struggles look like and how did you share them?
HM: We did two types of videos: one that was informative, which not many people watched, but was targeted at people who might be change-makers. They might be somebody from the council, they might be a minister, they might be a politician – someone who might be able to use their voice to create some sort of change. And there was another type of video where anyone could get an understanding of what was going on. We made this 20-minute documentary called Cracks in the System, where we talked to residents about the history of Ronan Point, which was a 22-storey tower block in Canning Town in Newham, East London, that partly collapsed due to poor construction in 1968, only two months after it had opened. Then we talked about what happened after Ronan Point and how something like that can’t happen again. It was a really informative documentary that did the festival circuit, but also what was important about it was that it got all of the councillors and Southwark council to actually pay attention. We did a series of screenings at tenants Resident Associations and places like that around the borough and followed it up with a discussion with people talking about their housing issues and the things that they’d done. So it was a mixture of these two approaches and just putting loads of stuff out and targeting some of the councillors. Thankfully, that campaign worked, and we were able to get all of the council tenants into safer homes.
CS: One of the things I’ve been doing with some homeowners has been to follow the public enquiry around compulsory purchase orders (CPO), which allow a public authority to acquire land without the consent of the owner. With that video there was a whole struggle about being in the room with a camera. The videos haven’t even circulated very much, but just making a point of being there with a camera means that important public enquiries don’t happen behind closed doors.
DS: The shaming element is a really big part of why it’s important to record and share things. For the film I’m working on, we’re filming at planning committee meetings. They rely on very few people, or a certain group of people, turning up to these meetings people from outside who don’t really know what happens there. It’s important to broadcast what happens in that space to a wider audience, and social media is a way that we’ve done that.
EW-I: Can you talk a bit more about that? How do you understand broadcasting, and how do you understand an audience?
DS: It’s interesting because some of these politicians and councillors don’t care if local people think badly of them. It’s when people on Twitter or professionals see this stuff that they care. And that’s the effect that broadcasting can have: it’s not just local people from South Kilburn who’ll see it, it’s other people who’ll be horrified by what happens at these planning meetings. As an example, there was one meeting where Muhammed Butt, the leader of the council, just started shouting, just going mad during one of these planning committee meetings, and it was a really disproportionate response. So just publicising things like that is important. Part of the win is that it’s on record. Sometimes it’s like if you don’t record it, it never happened. So the next time you see this person, they’re very diplomatic, they shake your hand, because they know if it happens again, there’s a record of this pattern of behaviour. It’s a way of saying this did happen. It doesn’t necessarily have to go viral or anything like that, but just have that shaming element, when they know that eyes are on them and they’re accountable to people. Video can target specific people, not just a broad ‘the government’. When you record and call out specific people who are responsible for making certain decisions, you can ask for specific changes and specific action from them.
EW-I: Do you ever think about the aesthetics of your videos, what they look like? I think a lot about video-making as a form of articulation, rather than as a form of production. I’m not necessarily interested in what I end up making, but in the act of making as a means of understanding what’s possible.
DS: That’s such a good question, because I didn’t think about it originally, but I am starting to think more about how you can tell those campaigning stories in a different way, using animation, using scripted pieces of work, and whether that would be more compelling or speak to a different type of audience, rather than a documentary of a planning meeting.
EW-I: How does collectivity and solidarity impact what’s possible? What does it mean if you make something under the umbrella of a collective or a group?
DS: When you do things individually, the council can say ‘It’s just one person, they don’t represent the collective.’ You become singled out as the troublemaker and they can always find another resident who supports the other side of their argument. So it just becomes tit-for-tat rather than a collective movement. When you have that umbrella, that campaign, it’s harder for them to isolate residents and to do that.
CS: Anonymity can be important; it can be about staying under the radar and not just being me, but representing a wider struggle. It wasn’t important for me to be an author, to have my name on it, because it wasn’t about me, it was about the group and the residents, and the campaigners. But there’s also the fact that it’s really easy to be singled out, and that’s scary. When I lived on Aylesbury, I was subletting someone’s flat who was a tenant, which wasn’t really allowed, so I couldn’t be too visible. Other residents have other reasons not to expose themselves so much: many homeowners, leaseholders are negotiating their rebuys, and it does have an influence on whether they’re classed as troublemakers.
EW-I: The idea of the Damp Tapes recorded on the Pepys Estate in 1974 was that rather than one person going and complaining about a broken window or heater not working, by collecting all those together in one video, they could physically put the monitor and the playback machine in front of their councillor, and play them back as a compilation, so the councillor couldn’t deny the scale of it.
HM: I also love the rawness of it and the collective action, and how they used video as a method to talk about some of the issues that were happening on their estate. I thought it was interesting because I see these same issues some of them are living with, we see them on our estate. I thought how they came together was really great. I know of the Pepys Estate and it was good to see a bit of history about it. Nowadays, you’ll get really short clips of ‘Here’s mold in my house’ or something and that video clip will be attached to a tweet or a Facebook post, but not much commentary over it. What I liked about this video is everything had a bit of context to it.
CS: Because it was a community group or a collective putting their heads together to make this film, it really felt like a collective voice.
HM: I got the sense that the community took it as an opportunity to get their voices heard. It felt like lots of people there were wanting to take part and they believed in the people who were there, the crew that was making it. It didn’t feel like an ITV news report or a BBC news report. I thought that was really nice.
DS: There’s a point where they’re talking to this man and woman and this little baby, and then someone else comes to the camera and they all begin talking together. It feels organic. Depending on the relationships, I’m used to explaining consent, explaining where something will go, having a long conversation before I press record. But these guys are just recording, and they all seem to know each other really well. There’s so much suspicion of cameras now that I’m very much camera down. Before I get the camera out, I say, ‘This is what we’re doing. Do you have any questions? Do you feel comfortable?’ it’s a much more staggered process.
EW-I: I was wondering if we could try to list the ways we think video can be used to respond to housing struggles? I’ve written down ‘campaign videos’, ‘video as research’, as ‘a record of disrepair’, ‘documentaries’, ‘protest videos’, ‘records of meetings’. Is there anything else any of you want to add to this list I’m trying to make?
CS: I think maybe making archives. Those videos that you shared made me think of the value of having something you can watch 30 years down the line and get an idea of how things were and how they’ve changed or not changed.
DS: I feel like memory is really short, specifically in areas that have been regenerated. I work a lot in South Kilburn, which is an area that has been regenerated so heavily that a lot of the old residents don’t live there anymore. A lot of the new residents are migrant communities who were living in temporary accommodation there and might be housed elsewhere in the future. So in many cases they don’t see South Kilburn as their community. This means that memory of the area is quite slim, and it’s quite broken up. I feel that having those pieces of video that show you what the area used to look like is a good form of education, but also a record. It just helps to mend that collective memory.
Making a film with a campaigning group can help the group themselves work out what their demands are. I was editing a video for a group, and the video wasn’t turning out great. And the demands weren’t coming out very clearly. I was wondering, ‘Is it my editing? Am I not putting things together properly?’ And I found that in the end it was that no one could really articulate what the main demand was. And that was showing through the film. Sometimes the filmmaking and editing process can help even the campaigning aspect, because films and storytelling are about beginning, middle, end. And campaigning is a form of storytelling as well. Good, successful campaigns are about good stories. It’s about having a better story than the council or the developer. So it’s about having a good start, middle, end. And films can help strengthen campaigns because they can clarify ‘What is the end? Where are we going? What’s the story? How are we connecting human emotions?’ I think that’s essentially what can make the differentiation between successful campaigns and less successful campaigns.
Ed Webb-Ingall is a filmmaker and researcher working with archival materials and methodologies drawn from community video. He collaborates with groups to explore under-represented historical moments and their relationship to contemporary life, developing modes of self-representation specific to the subject or the experiences of the participants. In 2018, he completed a practice-based PhD at Royal Holloway University, where he carried out the first in-depth study of the history and practice of community video in the UK. He is a senior lecturer on the BA Film and Screen Studies at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London and runs the public programme for the London Community Video Archive. In 2020, Webb-Ingall commenced work on a book to be published by the BFI/Bloomsbury as part of their Screen Stories series, with the title ‘The Story of Video Activism’. A new work will feature in the 2022 Brent Biennial and he is currently looking into the history of AIDS activist video in the UK and developing video projects in response to housing struggles.
Rainbow Collective is a documentary production and training company formed by Hannan Majid and Richard York as a social enterprise focusing on issues of human and children’s rights. In addition to producing broadcast and cinematic documentaries, it is the goal of the Rainbow Collective to support, promote and facilitate national and international campaigns for social equality and the right to education. Rainbow Collective’s acclaimed and award-winning films have been seen by audiences around the world through broadcast and international festivals, and their students’ work has been screened at the United Nations, BFI, the House of Commons, Amnesty International and Odeon Cinemas. For the past five years, Rainbow Collective have devoted much of their time to producing films and campaign materials around the garment workers of Bangladesh. https://www.rainbowcollective.co.uk/
Dhelia Snoussi is an artist, researcher and curator with a background in arts education and youth work. She is currently Youth Culture Curator at the Museum of London, working on the museum’s contemporary collecting project, Curating London. Previously, she authored a report with the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies entitled ‘We Are Ghosts’: Race, Class & Institutional Prejudice, and co-developed transformative arts and political education programmes at Voices that Shake! Snoussi is also a Trustee at Granville Community Kitchen. https://www.dheliasnoussi.com/
Caterina Sartori is a PhD candidate in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths (University of London). Her work explores the ways in which homeowners on a London housing estate refuse the demolition of their homes. She is also Film Officer and Film Festival Director at the Royal Anthropological Institute.