Crowds of screaming fans flank the 200-metre long red carpet leading up the steps to the Royal Albert Hall. Hordes of journalists clamour for a few words with the bejewelled, sparkling Kate Winslet. Some girl from Made in Chelsea (or is it one of Bernie Ecclestone’s daughters?) flashes leg for the pen-ful of paparazzi…
Anyway, enough about the Titanic 3D premiere. A week later, I’m attending the opening night of the inaugural Homeless Film Festival in the somewhat less glamorous environs of the London College of Communications in Elephant & Castle. Clearly, a tube trip down to South London’s least attractive roundabout on a chilly Monday evening has proved a harder sell to journalists than swanking it up with Winslet and co in South Ken. Consequently, I’m one among a relatively sparse audience filing into the Podium Lecture Theatre for the first London event of the month-long festival: a screening of Ken Loach’s classic TV drama, Cathy Come Home, followed by a Q&A with the producer Tony Garnett and Val Stevenson from The Pavement, a free monthly magazine for the homeless.
A landmark in television history, Cathy Come Home caused a public outcry when it was first screened on BBC1 on November 16, 1966. Filmed in documentary-style, with the innovative use of a hand-held camera, it told the story of a happy young couple, Cathy (played by Carol White) and Reg (Ray Brooks), whose lives go into a tailspin of poverty, eviction and institutionalisation when Reg gets injured and loses his job, ultimately leading to the breakdown of their relationship and their children being taken into care. Watched by 12 million — a quarter of the UK population at the time — it opened the general public’s eyes to the true causes and consequences of homelessness, unemployment and the rights of mothers to keep their own children, which had not previously been covered in any depth by the popular media.
This moving film inspired the formation of homeless charity Crisis the following year, but had little practical effect in reducing homelessness other than a change of rules allowing homeless fathers to stay with their wives in hostels.
Forty-six years on, with Britain in the grip of recession, unemployment climbing, under-funded hostels and refuges for vulnerable people facing closure, and rough sleeping up by 23 per cent in the past year, the film remains shockingly relevant.
“If someone had said then that the housing situation would be worse in 2012, I wouldn’t have believed it,” says Garnett in an impassioned post-film address. “The optimism of youth — in those days, we did feel the world was getting better. The scandal of it… I can hardly express how I feel about it.
“If someone had said then that the housing situation would be worse in 2012, I wouldn’t have believed it,” says Garnett in an impassioned post-film address.
“I volunteered for Crisis last Christmas. The number of people coming in just to get their Christmas dinner… good citizens who’ve been worn down, just like the couple in the film. This country never seems to learn.”
“The housing situation is barmy. As the cuts come in, all the experts tell me that the housing problem of homeless and inadequately housed is going to get worse and worse and worse. This recession, this depression, which is unlike any in my lifetime — and I’m 76 year old — this is going to be a long one, and they usually last ten years.
“It’s mind-boggling to me that we can live in a country as rich as this and not solve these problems. Labour’s record was abysmal, absolutely shameful. So shameful the Conservatives can build on it.
“I don’t believe it’s because politicians are evil — they don’t get up in the morning and think, ‘Let’s make more people homeless today’. I think it’s down to the worship of a false ideology which means that they cannot resolve the problems even if they wish to. The market is a very useful human invention, allocating resources through supply and demand, but it will not do the job [in this case]. It ought to be our servant, not our master.
“I don’t believe it’s because politicians are evil — they don’t get up in the morning and think, ‘Let’s make more people homeless today’. I think it’s down to the worship of a false ideology which means that they cannot resolve the problems even if they wish to.
“It seems we’re content to live in a society where we have hundreds of thousands of building workers on the dole, huge numbers of people with nowhere to live. And we don’t say, why don’t we put people to work and everybody will have somewhere to live.
“The housing tragedy, I’m afraid, under this way of organising ourselves, economically and politically, is going to continue. We need another ideology, another way of approaching the problem. We need a national reconstruction plan to finance these long-term investments properly. We need to put the construction industry to work to create social housing, paying people realistically. That’s all economically viable, just not through the market system.
During the Q&A session, Garnett make a persuasive case for a return to old-fashioned values in banking (“organised not for profit, but social need”) plus the introduction of a land tax which would better reflect the value added to land on which houses are built by taxpayer-funded amenities such as schools, public transport and roads.
“This was first proposed in the late nineteenth century and almost enacted in the first twenty years of the last century. The House of Lords wouldn’t allow it because they owned all the land! If they taxed land now, they’d raise a lot of money for everybody because the value of the land has been created by the public.
“My generation blew it, so don’t you,” he concludes.
Stevenson reels off “a tsunami of totally depressing statistics” which do nothing to raise hopes that our generation is doing any better, however. And in the absence of the systemic transformation required to address such entrenched problems, it is down to individuals and private initiatives such as Donkey Stone Films, the independent film-making collective which organised the Homeless Film Festival, to apply “sticking plasters” to the problem, as Garnett puts it, while agitate for fundamental change.
Stevenson reels off “a tsunami of totally depressing statistics” which do nothing to raise hopes that our generation is doing any better, however.
Donkey Stone began running a series of film-making workshops through which homeless participants could create short films, while learning employable skills. Now, the festival is providing a platform for homeless people from around the world to tell their stories through a series of high-quality short films and features with the aim of putting the issue of homelessness firmly back in the media spotlight.
The organisers have been working with homeless people over six months in Nottingham and Manchester, where they’ve been visiting a vulnerable women’s shelter. Both groups developed a script, took part in training on camera equipment, and the resulting short films, which were shot over three days across several locations, are being shown during the festival. Homeless people under the age of 25 are eligible to gain an Arts Award worth up to 40 UCAS points to help them to access further or higher education.
Alongside well-known films like Cathy Come Home, the festival will be premiering films made by homeless people from around the world including No Fixed Abode, a feature about a man who wakes up in a homeless shelter and tries to piece together this life, Red Card to Exclusion, a documentary about the Homeless World Cup 2011, Voices of Guerrero, by street kids in Mexico, and A Sisters Call, a documentary about a woman who finds her missing brother, after 18 years, suffering from mental illness, and tries to bring him back.
These films were selected from hundreds of submissions received from around the world, highlighting not only international scope of the homelessness problem but the creative potential tapped into by the festival.
“We will run the festival biannually and aim to implement the filmmaking workshops for homeless people in every participating city,” Jamie Rhodes, a writer at Donkey Stone Films and the festival’s project manager, tells me. “In doing this we can increase the number of homeless and vulnerable people who can benefit from meaningful engagement with creative filmmaking.
“We will run the festival biannually and aim to implement the filmmaking workshops for homeless people in every participating city,” Jamie Rhodes, a writer at Donkey Stone Films and the festival’s project manager, tells me.
“We also aim to increase our international presence, so are looking to link up with organisations to help us add more locations in other countries. Ultimately, we want to maximise the impact that the project has by bringing the issues surrounding homelessness into the public eye, and stirring up debate to try to effect change. We are dealing with a global issue, and so need to steadily increase the scale and reach of the project.”
Homeless Film Festival 2012 events continue throughout April in London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Derby, Belfast and Dublin. So, by all means, go see Titanic (to be fair, it is spectacular in 3D… ), but also try to get yourself along to the festival to watch thought-provoking films made by people at the sharp end of one of society’s most pressing problems, and to engage with informed people offering radical, practical solutions. Politicians (and national newspaper hacks) could certainly do a lot worse with their time.
For Homeless Film Festival 2012 listings, information and forthcoming downloadable video footage of Tony Garnett’s Q&A click here
The Pavement - the free monthly magazine for London’s homeless
Crisis - homeless charity
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