Three contrasting films prompt important questions about the nature of communities, past and present, rural and urban.
The word “community” is often invoked by planners and architects, but all too often with disregard for the realities. This week I have been to see three films that explore what communities are and how they function, while also raising important questions about the relation of film itself to communities. Not surprisingly, the films all have their origin in the 1970s, when locally-based action was contesting the power of governments and businesses over people’s lives. Akenfield focuses on a village in rural Suffolk over three generations. In contrast, Byker is about the people who lived in the terraced streets of that neighbouhood in Newcastle-upon-Tyne before slum clearance scattered them. Finally, Today I’m With You, released in 2010, was made by the same team returning to the now redeveloped and re-peopled Byker.
The rural routine
Akenfield was directed by Peter Hall, who at the time was Director of the National Theatre. The inspiration was a book of the same title by Robert Blythe. In some ways the village can be seen as a signifier for an idyllic rural England. The filming was spread over a year to capture the changing seasons, and many of the images are ravishing. Local residents of villages in the area, rather than actors, appeared in the film, their accents and mannerisms giving it an authenticity (a key value often associate with “community”). However, from the very start we are aware that rural labour in the first half of the 20th century was grindingly hard, and exploitative: the is mud as well as golden fields. “Old” Tom recounts how he signed up to join the forces as World War I loomed because that promised an easier life than he had on the farm. He put on weight and grew taller because he was able to rest in the army. Luckily he was one of the handful of men from his company to survive the horrors of the trenches, and able to return to his former work, where his chief job was looking after horses. This gave him the idea of moving to Newmarket to better his prospects, so he walked the 40 miles to the racing stables, only to find there were many more young men similarly minded. So Tom walked back the 40 miles, and never left Akenfield again.
The film focuses on the funeral of “Old” Tom, and is seen largely through the eyes of his grandson, “Young” Tom, who also aspires for more than Akenfield can offer him, and eventually heads to London. In between we see the communal labour in the fields being overtaken by mechanical technologies that no longer need so many hands. The school, a grim repressive place pre-1914 from which thirteen-year-old Tom escaped, becomes by the 1970s a more welcoming and child-friendly place. “Old” Tom’s funeral brings family and neighbours together to the church and to tea and sandwiches in a cramped cottage afterwards. The same old tales are told, and “Young” Tom senses what lies ahead for him if he does not make his move. The lives of the farm workers are ultimately controlled by the farmer, in whose tied cottages they reside.
The urban slum
At the same time as Hall was filming in Suffolk, a young Finnish photographer, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen was living in Newcastle’s East End, in the densely populated Byker neighbourhood. The physical contrast with Akenfield could scarcely be greater. Kontinnen was a street photographer, and building up a collection of photos that would eventually provide the basis for an exhibition and a book, and then for the film released in 1983. The film starts with the infamous and chilling quotation from Wilfred Burns’ 1963 book New Towns for Old: The Techniques of Urban Renewal: “The dwellers in a slum area are almost a separate race of people, with different values, aspirations and ways of living”. The quotation from the man who was Newcastle’s Chief Planner and would go on to head the Ministry in London continues with “the task, surely, is to break up such groupings, even though the people seem to be satisfied with their miserable environment.”
In a rich piece of social history, the film goes on to show the people of Byker did indeed enjoy what Burns described as “an extrovert social life in their own locality”. They sang in the pubs, kids played in the streets and on waste ground, women gossipped and had a fag at the wash-house,or posed for their photos while washing their front door steps. In this urban depiction of community, the street and the pub were the glue holding people together.
Community and diversity
By the time Konttinen returned to Byker 35 years later, the streets no longer existed. All memory of them had been expunged by the housing estate that was developed behind architect Ralph Erskine’s famous “Byker Wall”. Only 20% of the original residents had been rehoused there, but by the new millennium even fewer remained. Byker had become a home to diverse asylum-seeking families from the world’s trouble spots and disaster zones. Today I’m With You shows Konttinen, now a volunteer at a support centre, coaxing them to let her take portrait photos. Twenty-eight languages are spoken in the estate, but the streets are silent, and largely empty. Fear and privacy laws have drastically constrained the work of any street photographer. People still sing, but now mainly in their apartments. The opening sees the Photographer/Director struggling to locate flat 7 on one of the walkways, a scene reminiscent to the opening of the film Prefab’ Story about the development of the huge, anonymous Southern City housing estate in Prague.
Many of the people we meet in the new Byker have suffered traumas and live in fear of deportation back to the source of those experiences, even before the UK adopted a “hostile environment” policy. The shared experience of forced migration and seeking asylum builds bridges amongst people from very different cultures.Churches seem to play a more important role than in the old, more homgenous Byker in providing a place to come together and share life’s joys and pains.
Film making and making communities
All three films involved working with people in the places where they lived. In Today I’m With You, in particular, you feel that the photography project itself, and Konttinen’s empathy for its subjects, was indeed a factor in building ties between people living in the estate. The use of local people rather than actors in Akenfield provoked a row with the actors’s union at the time, but, like the photography project in Byker, was also part of a wider movement that believed in the capacity of working class people to articulate their history and make their own future.
In each case institutions had a vital role in connecting people. In Akenfield the farm was all encompassing; there was the shared experience of being denied work and pay in bad weather, or the communal joy released by getting the harvest in. It was a community that was closed to individual ambition: stay and your place and future was set. In 1960s-70s Byker, the street was the key institution. That was where generations met and presented themselves to each other. The destruction of streets was one, but not the only, cause of the fragmentation of a sense of community. The contrast between modern day Byker, and its predecessor (and also Akenfield) is most notable in terms of ethnicity. Today, communities are likely to be more diverse than they were in the past, and that very diversity can be the institution holding them together.
However, looking across the three films it is also clear that the harshness of absolute poverty, so much a part of the life of poor communities in the first half of the twentieth century, had been overcome. Children no longer had to go barefoot because the family could not afford shoes; people did not go hungry on a Thursday because the week’s wages had been spent. The rise of food banks postdates Today I’m With You.
Community planning and design
Like “sustainable”, “community” has become a flexible prefix often used to justify what people in power want to do. In Scotland we have had some 15 years of “community planning” amounting to little more than meetings between public sector professionals who agree on vague objectives for service delivery. These films show that the processes linking people into some sort of spatially defined shared identity can be complex and differentiated through time and between places. Byker is a reminder of why top-down, technocratic planning failed the people it was meant to benefit, with the arrogance of the professionals a key factor. All three films show how power relations, locally, nationally and now even internationally fashion relationships in a place.