Watching this documentary just one week after the Grenfell Tower disaster which sent shockwaves rippling across the country and the rest of the world, it’s hard not to be struck by the sense of urgency the film engenders, and the critical need for governments, local authorities and councils up and down the country to tackle the burgeoning housing crisis.

Had it not been for the devastating events of last week’s fire that took the lives of so many Londoners, it might have been easier to dismiss the problems laid out in this film, much as so many governments and councils over the years have seemingly done.

Written, directed and produced by Paul Sng, Dispossession tackles the gentrification of the cities of the UK and the catalogue of errors and intransigence carried out by those with the powers to solve our underlying housing shortage. Narrated by Corbyn-supporter and feminist Maxine Peake, whose portrayal of a social worker in the disturbing BBC drama Three Girls was wholly captivating to say the least, the film opens with a historical background to social housing.

Beginning with Victorian slum clearance in response to private landlords running riot in unkempt properties where whole families were cramped in one room, and moving on to the post-war housing shortage, we are gradually introduced to the pioneers of social housing in the post-war period. Brutalist and Modernist architects such as Berthold Lubetkin and Erno Goldfinger were staunch socialists; council-backed, they set out to create the buildings that populated Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s dreams of a property owning democracy. His hopes came to fruition in the populist right to buy policy of Margaret Thatcher, now regarded as the cause of much of the present shortage of housing stock but at the time celebrated as a victory for neoliberalism. A policy extended by governments stretching up to the present day, no party is spared the critical eye of the filmmakers.

A host of notable faces make an appearance to comment on the crisis, from Guardian writer Dawn Foster to Green Party member and former Mayor of London contender Sian Berry who has long campaigned against demolition of social housing in Camden’s regeneration programme, the CIP. Political voices are provided by way of the joint leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas, and Nicola Sturgeon. Joining them are campaigners, professors and property experts. In equal part as striking are the voices of the absent, the housing developers and councils who we are told refused to be interviewed.
It’s not their words however which strike the hardest. The real driving force behind the film is the words of those residents who were turfed out of their homes in council blocks thanks to the much used and institutionalised misnomer of the ‘regeneration project’.

Regeneration is a relative term in the lives of the residents of the various case studies we are presented with, from the Elephant and Castle regeneration project in London, to Glasgow’s Red Road blocks and Nottingham’s equivalent. Regeneration need make way for the term ‘social cleansing’ according to those who have been forced out of their homes by the developing giants such as Saville. That company was brought in to advise the Housing and Planning Act 2016, and surprise, surprise advised that only private developers could provide the upfront capital to build more homes. The result? Unaffordable homes for overseas investors and the capital’s wealthiest. Locals need not apply.

Too often social housing is presented by television programmes like Channel 4’s Benefits Street that are in reality no better than the ‘slumming’ trips poverty tourists embarked upon in 1800s Whitechapel. Particularly stomach churning in the wake of last weeks events is the sense of community fostered in the high-rise and council built homes, where we’re told that everyone knows their neighbours, and they feel secure. As one resident tells us that “people are being swept aside by complete diregard,” another young girl shouts at a rally over a microphone, “they are tearing apart our community brick by brick.” Words that have new meaning now.

As a visual spectacle, this is a pared-back, bare-faced documentary, not the big-budget Netflix era cinematic effort recent years have brought us. But in a sense that makes it all the more powerful. It’s the words of the people who we meet and get to know, and the houses we see being toppled down that strike the heart, even more so than the shocking on-screen statistics which show the extortionate prices offered for new homes in place of the community of social housing that has been destroyed by developers and councils eager to spin a buck by selling off the land. Only today the Battersea development project has announced it is no longer financially viable to provide the number of affordable homes it originally promised.

The structuring of the film loops back cleanly via a series of case studies threaded together to bring us back to a vision of a world which is no more modern than the Victorian housing crisis of the 1880s with which the film began. Where council housing was once aspirational and better than private renting, the population of Govanhill in Glasgow face rats, bed bugs, rubbish and sewage in the street. At the moment of writing, on a stiflingly hot #DayOfRage according to Twitter, protesters are taking to the streets to protest against the government and call for #JusticeForGrenfell as our monarch delivers the Queen’s Speech. Their message is loud and clear; if you’re poor, you’re simply collateral in the quest for profit. Your lives aren’t worth the £2 a panel saved by choosing the non-fireretardant option.

Anyone who watched as the residents of Grenfell Tower threw their babies to the ground, anyone who read the newspapers on the tube or bus the following morning, anyone who took part, watched or commented on the protests which followed over the weekend should watch this documentary. And anyone who didn’t, must. A promotional poster for the documentary reads ‘how does a crisis turn into a tragedy?’ On a hot Tuesday night in June we sadly got our answer.

★★★★☆