A Moving Image, feature debut by South London film-maker Shola Amoo, provides a picture of gentrification in Brixton through the fictional alter-ego artist of Nina. This once diverse working-class community has been rapidly transformed beyond all recognition in the intervening years since Nina (hipster-ish, twenty-something) lived there long ago. Having been deeply struck by these changes, Nina sets on a project for a new film, hoping to objectively represent the grievances of the “real people” of Brixton and use her art to make a genuine change for the better.
Gentrification is a charged and controversial subject right now, and often entangles other discussions about race and class within its grasp. It refers to previously undesirable areas, often with a large ethnic population and cheap house prices, being transformed by the takeover of wealthy property developers, big business, and middle-class hipsters. Areas like Brixton are in a sense ‘rejuvenated’, but only at the expense of increasing property values and displacing the native population that grew up there.
A number of the colourful characters that appear in the film have been ripped straight from real life, and others are invented. This is because Amoo innovatively blends the forms of documentary, fiction and even performance art. A middle-aged man, protesting at the Reclaim Brixton demonstration in 2015, wearing multi-coloured clothes, begins a rant at what he perceives is tearing away the soul of places like Brixton: “The real people of this community are being forced out. The developers don’t give a flying fuck; they don’t have a social conscience … I’m from Peckham … they’re saying its going to become trendy like Brixton has become. Peckham has got the largest Nigerian community in London. What you see is what you get. There’s no Costa fucking Coffee … Please don’t make Peckham trendy.”
Rather than big business, A Moving Image takes the idea of ‘trendiness’, and particularly the complicity of the artist in this, as its focal point. The film realises that the takeover of big business and property developers is always a late stage of gentrification, a process which rather has its roots with arty young people like Nina, who need somewhere cheap to live and are attracted to a particular kind of diverse, and slightly rough, urban environment like that of Brixton. Artists attract more artists and they congregate together. With enough time the area becomes ‘trendy’, and prepares its bunkers for the oncoming “hipster apocalypse” of “gourmet fried chicken shops” and “Bob Marley hats but no black people.” The multi-cultural aspects of Brixton become a kind of commodity in these conditions, an idealised liberal image of diversity and creativity, which can be sold at a high price.
Rather than a film about Brixton it becomes a film about Nina. Difficult questions about the role of the artist in gentrification are posed to the audience, without forcing any particular answer onto us. Can art truly represent its subjects? Does it change things for the better? Art can suspend others lives and allow us to see beyond our narrow perspective, but perhaps this is only an inauthentic image created by the artist, and which only serves the artist. Nina wants to represent the “real people” of Brixton, but goes through an existential crisis about whether her art is merely a self-aggrandising act that ultimately feeds the bourgeois elites. The title A Moving Image is a play-on-words, meaning both the image of a changing community, and film itself, being an image in motion. The film is not simply a piece of social realism, but an exploration of the boundary between art and life.
The film is a confident debut on a controversial topic ripe with interest, but it is occasionally let down by its execution. Although the blend of documentary and fiction is new and gives the film a light, vibrant feel, I felt that I was getting a diluted version of both. The narrative parts felt too heavy-handedly theoretical, too much like a documentary, to be truly compelling. The best films about social issues usually have a human story at their centre, with everything else as background, and through that human story come to a deeper understanding of society. Voicing the themes too strongly created dialogue that was too on-the-nose, as if these characters were mouth-pieces for relevant talking points rather than genuine individuals. I recall at one point Nina’s friend saying to her “you are gentrification.” Rather than be told this so plainly, can’t an audience work it out for themselves?
A Moving Image is interesting but flawed. Shola Amoo has created a film about gentrification that is non-threatening and occasionally funny, and which throws out enough questions to keep us engaged. But what is so good about non-threatening? I would like a film to bring me intimately into the lives of its characters and make them suffer beyond what they can bear, and make me suffer with them. But the anger of Brixton, and the existential worries of Nina, felt oddly inconsequential and remote. Despite this, if you want to have an understanding of the thorny issue of gentrification and its relation to art and class, then A Moving Image is worth a watch.
Dir: Shola Amoo
Scr: Shola Amoo
Cast: Tanya Fear, Hussina Raja, Aki Omoshaybi, Yinka Oyewole, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Alex Austin, Joe Layton
Prd: Shola Amoo, Rienkje Attoh
DOP: Felix Schmilinsky
Music: Segun Akinola
Run Time: 1h 14min
A Moving Image is available to watch now at https://www.amovingimagefilm.com/watch-now/