News From Prescient Yesterdays
A tripartite reflection on Londons social housing in Ayo Akingbades No News Today
In mid-April, Toronto’s Images Festival went fully online due to COVID-19. It was week five of self-isolation in Canada and I streamed several programs from an apartment where a generous friend-of-a-friend—well, more honestly, an acquaintance-of-an-editor—let me stay while visiting the city for some medical appointments. I mention my location and the kindness of a relative stranger, because Ayo Akingbade’s trilogy No News Today made me reconsider the ways in which living situations are deeply intertwined with various forms of wellness, a topic that has taken on increasing weight during pandemic times.
Akingbade, a British Nigerian practitioner of both experimental film and contemporary art, first presented Tower XYZ (2016) at Images in 2018. The rich, conceptually-dense short follows three teen girls roaming London’s rapidly gentrifying Hackney neighborhood and incorporates the insistent, looping voiceover, “Let’s get rid of the ghetto.” At one point, a voice—presumably Akingbade’s—reflects on London’s “dead culture” and how the city is “full of people fetishizing our culture, my culture.” During the Q and A that followed Tower XYZ’s Images’ debut, I remember the London-based artist describing her eagerness for new projects. It was exciting, then, to learn that she was back this year with two more shorts, Street 66 (2018) and Dear Babylon (2019).
Akingbade’s newer films build on the energetic, impressionistic framework of Tower XYZ, with Street 66 taking a more conventional documentary form and Dear Babylon blending fiction and documentary. In Street 66, Akingbade explores the redevelopment of Angell Town, a 1970s council estate (state-funded housing) in Brixton, an area of South London that has historically been home to a large Afro-Caribbean population. Street 66 features strikingly edited contemporary and archival footage of individuals discussing the impacts of the 1988 Housing Act, which allowed British landlords to charge higher fees with limited exceptions, and Dora Boatemah (1957–2001), a Ghanian-born housing activist who championed a tenant-led redevelopment of Angell Town.
Moving between coverage of the 1988 Housing Act and a profile of Boatemah is a promising documentary premise. However, imprecise contextual details and dropped storytelling arcs render the stakes of Street 66 somewhat unclear. The interviews with estate residents, activists, politicians, and social and architectural historians make clear the distinct consequences of the Housing Bill and Boatemah’s tireless campaigning. As viewers, though, we require more details in order to appreciate the nuances of the commentators’ perspectives. We also learn midway through the film that Boatemah died before being able to take up residence at the revived Angell Town, a bittersweet moment unmoored by a lack of information about the cause or lingering effects of her passing on the movement she inspired.
The blindspots of Street 66 find compelling ballast in Dear Babylon. At 21 minutes, it is the longest in Akingbade’s trilogy—all shot on 16mm converted to digital—and merges the fictive and documentary strengths of Tower XYZ and Street 66, respectively. Dear Babylon opens with riot footage; for a viewer unfamiliar with London’s history, the site and context are ambiguous, but shaky shots of police and protestors and a distant fire recall footage from the widely broadcast 2011 London Riots. The scene then quickly shifts to a fictionalized disco-lit party scene replete with a swirling soundtrack. Reminiscent of Cauleen Smith and A. Van Jordan’s I Want to See My Skirt (2006), a video series inspired by Malian photographer Malick Sidibé’s lively 1960s and ’70s portraits, three friends smoke on a balcony and discuss the—also fictionalized—”AC30 Housing Bill,” which would require housing association tenants to pay a flat £18,000 fee to continue tenancy.
In a gesture that nods both to countless coming-of-age films and to Akingbade’s own work chronicling London’s gentrification, a young man, Rooney, holds up a video camera and asks his companions to describe the present moment. The protagonist, Ada, replies: "We are celebrating the end of university and waiting for the big triumph of the AC30 bill not coming into existence ever.” Soon after, another party goer informs Ada and her friends that AC30 has passed with a majority vote. The group contemplate their options: starting a riot, staging a 10 Downing Street protest, or, as Ada suggests, “How about we make a film? . . . We’ll ask the residents to share their lives on camera and it can be like a living document of this estate, our area.”
The bulk of Dear Babylon follows Ada, Rooney, and their pal Jazz as they interview residents and local workers about the Hackney-adjacent Tower Hamlets and AC30, a bill not unlike several pieces of real legislation that have pushed working-class people out of London. Whereas Street 66 demonstrated, if sometimes obliquely, the success of 20th-century-women-led organizing, Dear Babylon presents us with a vivid rendering of what that organizing might look like. As we watch Ada, Rooney, and Jazz framed in a wide shot waiting outside of a Tower Hamlet door, hoping to find a resident willing to speak on camera, we witness the nervous uncertainty and righteous excitement of community organizing.
Near the beginning of Dear Babylon, Jazz asks: “But how is a film going to change public opinion?” Throughout the film, Akingbade appears to wrestle with this question herself. Though the filmmaker’s self-reflection is compelling, the most intimate moments of Dear Babylon arise from tenants discussing their own experiences of social housing. One resident shares: “I love living in a tower block. Tower blocks get bad press. Grenfell Tower happened and fed into everybody’s feeling [that]: ‘it’s bad,’ ‘it’s for the poor people,’ [but] it’s fantastic. I’m not saying everything is perfect, but it’s great… It’s changed my life.”
Though context and narrative could be more finely traced in Street 66 and Dear Babylon, the shimmering connective tissue between these two films and Tower XYZ reveal a filmmaker in touch with the immediate, historical, and meta-discourses surrounding housing and gentrification narratives—topics that sadly seem to be of evergreen relevance. One looks forward to Akingbade’s continued excavations of past and future, and her canny ability to concomitantly reflect on the filmmaker’s role in narrating home.