Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Estate, a Reverie, 2015. All rights reserved.Against the backdrop of the capital’s housing crisis, spiralling rents, the gentrification of ‘real’ London and the fierce political battle being waged between the landlords and residents of this city, Estate, a Reverie presents us with a moving, personal documentation of what the gentrification of London really means to the people who are affected by it. The film immerses its viewer in the world of the final days of the condemned Haggerston Estate in Hackney, east London, and its tenants.
In April 2007, Hackney Homes began to cover the windows of the empty flats with orange boards. The residents were balloted on a stock transfer to the housing association L&Q, pending the demolition of the estate and their rehousing elsewhere. Having fruitlessly campaigned for the estate’s basic maintenance for 30 years, the Haggerston tenants were more or less forced to vote in favour of the demolition of their estate, with a 71 percent vote in favour. Demolition began in 2010, and reached Samuel House, the last block left on the estate, in 2014. By October of that year the building was gone. In its place now stands The City Mills development, where a privately owned top floor, two-bedroom flat will set you back 820,000 pounds.
Andrea Zimmerman, the director of the documentary, was herself a tenant of the Haggerston Estate for 17 years, having moved into Samuel House in 1997. By 2004, the building had officially stopped accepting new occupants. Zimmerman offers a brief, dreamlike snapshot of life for those tenants who remained on the estate during its final days.
As an ex-resident, Zimmerman’s portrayal of the estate and its last inhabitants is, unsurprisingly, tender and full of real affection and compassion for the people and the place. She artfully guides us through a myriad of lives and stories, allowing the viewer to enter the world of these people who are about to lose their homes, and indeed for some, their entire way of life. The focus is clear throughout the documentary – the people are the story of the estate and, as we realise, of London as a whole.
It would have been easy for the film to become a political attack on the gentrification of Hackney, focusing on the anger of the tenants through the drawn-out process used by the council to evict them (to all intents and purposes) and the campaign they ran to save their estate. Instead the film just touches upon these issues, not allowing them to spoil the human story.
Estate, a Reverie opens with the phrase “time to go”: such a gentle phrase, so unassuming, so unlike what actually happened to the tenants, that we cannot guess the final outcome.
The film leaves one with a sense of sadness and loss. The estate is portrayed as a dreamlike place, a place in transition, inhabiting a state of limbo. In one scene a resident paints the stairwell by her flat in bright colours. It seems fun. A sort of ‘community project’, yet we know that she is only able to do this because the council no longer cares and that the estate will be demolished. The tenants were left to their own devices and Zimmerman shows us how, instead of allowing their homes to rot, the residents turned the place into a kind of Utopia (as best they could) by painting it, planting flowers and holding community events.
Zimmerman hints at this ‘dreamlike’ state from the very opening of her film via surreal imagery, a not quite true portrayal of the estate which the director achieves by filming it in perpetual sunlight, with birdsong in the background and farm animals (borrowed from the local Hackney City Farm) wandering around it – the dream world, the “reverie” referred to in the title.
Estate, a Reverie introduces us to a number of characters, each one from a different background with a different story to tell, and yet all sharing one thing: a community, the estate. Zimmerman does a beautiful job of pulling together all these personalities, allowing us a brief snapshot of their lives. Some are touching, others amusing. We are introduced to Bruce, a tenant of Samuel House, who painstakingly lowers a cable from the balcony of his second floor flat to charge his mobility scooter parked on the ground floor.
We see the day-to-day lives of real people who might be our own local neighbours. There are no affectations here: we see how these people live, with their stories of hardship, loss and love, often filmed in the most intimate of settings. We see borderline poverty and the meshing of the young tenants’ lives with those of the older generation.
Zimmerman does touch briefly on the pushing out of ‘normal’ people for the much resented ‘hipsters’ of east London. The documentary does not, however, attack these incomers or quasi-tourists and there is little or no mention of the scandalous way that many believe the council forced residents out. The film simply seeks to show the estate as the director sees it: a dreamlike lost world.
Let us not be overly sentimental, however. We all know the bad reputation of many housing estates and Haggerston estate certainly had one of the worst, being labelled the ‘heroin capital of Europe’ in the 1990s with high rates of crime and poverty. Zimmerman’s film, however, bears witness to a social transformation affecting real lives in the here and now.
As a native of London, living on the border between Hackney and Islington, Estate, a Reverie left me feeling sad, and, dare I say it, a little ashamed. Whilst there is an undeniably ugly side to estate life, the encapsulated, community feeling that Zimmerman captures – children playing on bikes in the sunshine, everyone knowing everyone else and always having a neighbour or family member to call on, is not a made-up one. That is the true spirit of the estate, perhaps bearing some of the last vestiges of the old post-war East End.
The film does not focus heavily on the estate’s back story of residents campaigning, fighting, and eventually accepting that it is ‘time to go’ in the face of the council and big money investors, but the viewer must reflect on it. Many Londoners will be left with a residual feeling of regret that more is not being done to protect the colourful character of London. Today, more than ever, this character survives on estates because they are no longer the melting pots of only ‘poor’ people and ‘criminals’, but rather provide a home to a wide range of people from different classes and backgrounds, as Zimmerman so aptly shows. Estate, a Reverie illustrates how this diversity is being pushed out in favour of one class and one type of person.
Even the ‘hipsters’, who are named and shamed as the scourge of Hackney, can no longer afford to live there, as they have been priced out of the area. London should be a patchwork. The erosion of that patchwork, as shown so artfully by Zimmerman, is a loss we should all feel keenly.
Estate, a Reverie has its UK premiere at the Open City Documentary Festival on 21 June 2015.