Andrea Luka Zimmerman, director of the film ‘Estate: A Reverie’, speaks to the AR about her collaborative documentary on the last days of an East London housing estate
In the countries where it is most acute, the global housing crisis is eliciting increasingly organised responses: in Spain, for instance, indignada mayors have recently won power in both Barcelona and Madrid on radical housing tickets. In Britain, things haven’t quite got to that stage, but smaller groups, such as the young mothers of Focus E15, are gaining a public profile and are beginning to join forces with other local organisers to resist evictions and demolitions. One community that recently lost its home, the Haggerston Estate in east London, came together to make a film about its experience under the direction of a long-time resident, Andrea Luka Zimmerman. Zimmerman is an artist and filmmaker, and the result of their collaboration, Estate, a Reverie, is a moving and evocative self-portrait of a community clinging on in the face of extinction. I spoke to Zimmerman about the estate and its film, which has its UK premiere at the Open City Documentary Festival on 21 June.
Tom Wilkinson: How long did you live on the Haggerston Estate?
Andrea Luka Zimmerman: Seventeen years. When I first moved in I was told it would only be for a maximum of two years, as the estate would be demolished. Soon I found that people on the estate had been told this for years – in my neighbour’s case, for 30 years. So we lived in a kind of perpetual limbo, postponing painting the walls or fixing the shelves. The estate was in a bad state, with water coming through the roofs, broken windows, freezing in winter, and full of damp. But it was very beautiful and full of potential, and we wanted to get it repaired as it was still deemed structurally sound, and many people really loved the buildings. So, when I first moved in, an active residents’ group already existed, and I got involved a few years after moving there.
‘Film was the way in which I could, perhaps, capture some of this spirit of resilience, of survival with joy amid what is so often narrated as poverty’
TW: What made you choose film as a medium for telling the story of the estate?
ALZ: For me film is a kind of memory. Imagine, the new buildings that replaced the estate in 2013 are called ‘City Mills’, ‘London Mills’ etc, and in 20 years’ time researchers and archaeologists may go and look at the place and think ‘how lovely – the buildings are named after what was once there before, the mills and factories’. But no one would remember the Haggerston Estate, its brief life of just over 70 years. So when we found out that the estate would be definitely demolished, I started seeing it with different eyes. I discovered a hairdresser’s called Helen’s, her youngest client was in her 60s. There was the food co-op run by volunteers, and many different support networks, friendships, lives, elderly people, children, animals (there was a fox corner and a cat car, where people would put food in for the animals). People here came from all over the world, and were sharing this place, living with each other. It was my first home – I grew up in precarious circumstances, and moved about a lot. And this meant so much to me, that I had these neighbours who accepted me as I was, and made me feel very much at home. It was a very strange and beautifully spirited place. We had bonfires and shared food parties and it was a kind of moment that was possible when structures around you had left you behind. I wanted to document this sense, this condensing of time of our last years there together, and film was the way in which I could, perhaps, capture some of this spirit of resilience, of survival with joy amid what is so often narrated as poverty.
TW: How did it work as a collaborative project?
ALZ: Documentary is always a collaboration, whether this is acknowledged or not. I filmed over many years with people on a one-to-one basis. The process started with my friend Lasse Johansson; we lived together through the period of the estate’s change, and we made the I am Here project, where we installed large-scale photographs of former residents on the facade of Samuel House, as their flats were cleared. It documented our growing friendships with the other residents, the things we discovered, showing the food co-op, the community spirit, the hardships people faced. Then David Roberts, an architectural researcher based at University College London, proposed a historical analysis of the estate. I was very interested in the deep history of the estate, what was there before it was built, and how the past is always part of the present. David contributed the idea of exploring the names of the blocks, which were based on Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century novels, Pamela and Clarissa. So with a growing group of fellow residents we discovered the potential and literal and also lyrical meaning of these names. Lyrical in the sense that we then translated this strand into a semi-fictional strand in the film, with costumes – a bit ill-fitting, like the history of the estate.
TW: What kinds of problems did you encounter working as a group?
ALZ: People disagreed with some aspects of the history, so when we held workshops around the architecture of the estate, for instance, the meaning of the small kitchen, and gender politics, David had proposed that it was a patriarchal form of architecture, that women were cooking, the door was closed, and the man would sit in the living room. One of the participants on the workshops, Julia Vandermark, whose grandfather was the first resident in one of the blocks, and had herself been born in the 1940s on the estate, said that this was all rubbish: the cooking was always done on the range cooker in the living room, as it was convenient and more social, and so, with one strike, the academic history was proven to be out of kilter. We also developed questions about changes over time, and there was some conflict along the lines of ‘we always cleaned the landings’ … until other residents pointed out that they still do, and so the most basic clichés and assumptions were turned upside down, and it always ended up with a deeper understanding of each other, which was really important and part of my process of working with people. There has to be enough time to find each other, and to understand each others’ perspectives.
TW: I thought the film works beautifully as a way of foregrounding the residents and thereby de-reifying the word ‘decanting’. But as far as I understand, there is also a parallel story about the struggle to rehouse the tenants locally – which was eventually successful.
ALZ: When the housing association took over they rehoused people in the ‘local’ area. Local means within the London postcode E8, and E8 is massive, if you are truly local. We have many elderly people on the estate and also many children. The elderly faced losing their GP or having to travel too far, and the children faced the postcode war. So the tenants got organised and requested, alongside our housing advisors Neal Purvis and Lockhart Murdoch, that residents should move without having to change postcode or GP, unless they chose to go further afield. The housing association reacted positively and this was a really good result and should become a blueprint for other such schemes.
TW: Why didn’t you include this in the film?
ALZ: I could easily have made a more expository film with the material I shot, but in the end I wanted to focus on the human story: the spirited community amid absolute adversity, when there was, for many, not even recourse to social services or any structures that could have made life more bearable, especially for the disabled and elderly, for whom it was tough to say the least. In this way, the film became more about showing people who are not often seen, heard, or even noticed, because they are hidden away in their homes, unable to get out of the door. And even then, among all that, how their community of neighbours included them in activities, watched out for them, and cared for them, and each other. I think this is a true story of resilience, and the more activist struggles are all around us, we will see them more easily. This was why the film focuses on the lives, with the housing as a backdrop, to show what policies do to people, while they are in limbo, for decades, in inadequate housing and structures. This will only get worse now with the increased cuts. More people will be forgotten in their homes. We had a neighbour, Teddy, who lay dead in his home for several weeks before he was found. When his body was found – that was when I made the decision that the lives of people must be at the core of the film.
TW: The demolition of the Haggerston Estate is being repeated across London – are there any lessons that the film can offer to ongoing struggles?
ALZ: I hope the film will allow people to see, feel and perhaps understand some of the human cost of the policies the government imposes on people who are struggling to keep afloat, for whatever reason, including the low pay of most jobs in London. This of course includes a variety of circumstances. On the old Haggerston Estate we had people with many different backgrounds, from recovering addicts to university graduates, and yet we were all tarred with the brush of ‘abjection’. Abject housing means a failed people. Estates as places to be feared, where horror festers. But when you scratch the surface it is the media that perpetuate these myths; I collected a variety of films about the Haggerston Estate, from the 1970s onwards, and they include two BBC documentaries, one of which I included in the film. These portray the estate as a place for the rejects of society. I lived there so long, and I certainly do not recognise myself in this image, nor did anyone else. So, in making film, and watching all these materials, discussing the effects of policies on living conditions, such as removal of caretakers and outsourcing cleaning and maintenance, we came together in understanding how formative these policies can be. We learnt from other struggles, such as the Heygate Estate’s ‘decanting’ which led to the displacement of families across vast distances, and I hope, now the film is out, it will allow for a recognition and also acknowledgement of the collective reality of those of us facing similar situations. Housing is one of the most pressing issues in London now, and I hope the film will contribute to the debate by showing the human story behind the structures and policies. A home is not just four walls (especially not temporary or insecure ones).
TW: The film ends before people are rehoused but of course (most) of their lives continue, in the new housing association buildings in Haggerston. What do people think about their new homes?
ALZ: People like their new homes for most part. I no longer have to wear a hat inside in winter. But the old blocks, repaired, would have made people happy too. The buildings were neglected for decades, and people could not take it any more. We never really had heating that worked, and it was damp. But people also say the new architecture is less favourable for meeting people. The old estate was a ‘Neo-Georgian flatted dwelling’, basically a red-brick estate, with open access landings. Even if you didn’t speak to anyone, you knew each other by sight, since the estate faced inner courtyards. Now we have several security doors to navigate. Some of the elderly people don’t understand the entry system. Some people find it makes them lonely, since they cannot sit on the porch any more and have casual encounters. It will take some time to see what this new kind of architecture means. I personally do not think gates aid security much; people gather regardless of gates, and we need to find ways of living with each other, not locking each other out and being suspicious of each other, as Anna Minton so aptly writes about in Ground Control.