Under the Cranes is a film-poem exploring how we experience “place”—how where we end up living has an impact on us, and how we have an impact on it.
Its script is based on a play by poet Michael Rosen called Hackney Voices. Rosen lives in Hackney, east London, where the film was shot.
It has a intriguing cast of characters, all with a Hackney connection.
They include William Shakespeare, Black Beauty author Anna Sewell and poet Anna Barbauld. There is also a Jamaican builder, a Bangladeshi restaurant owner, a Turkish barber and the Jewish 43 Group that took on the fascist Oswald Mosley after the Second World War.
The film mixes documentary and drama, and asks the audience to participate. We shouldn’t watch passively, but should engage with the questions—why are these buildings built or knocked down and not others? How do we live in the city?
Director Emma-Louise Williams has dug up some rare and fascinating archive footage which is interspersed throughout. It ranges from shots of the unbelievably decaying slums of the 1920s, to footage from the 1950s showing the replacement yellow-brick council maisonettes.
Turbaned women stand in doorways and hang out of windows on the new estates as they watch their children—dressed almost like mini adults except for the bows in the girls’ hair.
Rosen wants us to interrogate the word “regeneration”. He asks the question how many lies are told in the name of regeneration?
He goes through the shenanigans that Hackney council were involved in during the building of the new overground railway, reopened in 2010, as an example.
Hussain ran a tandoori restaurant in the heart of Hackney.
He recounts how for years he negotiated with the council about buying it.
Eventually they told him to go along to a property auction to get it. He went, only to see it bought by an offshore property developer as part of a massive job lot which the council had organised.
The site is now part of the massive Dalston Square flats being developed by Barretts.
Over shots of these flats (the cheapest is a quarter of a million pounds), Rosen recites an ode to the speculators over the images:
'They dream of childless towers
Of one-bed, two-bed apartments
No need for swings or slides
No need for the visiting nurse
They dream of weekday workers
Heading home at weekends
They dream of childless towers.'
Some of the most riveting and moving footage is an anti-fascist demo heavily surrounded by police in Ridley Road market. On the other side of the road Oswald Mosley and his fascists hold a rally with the slogan “Britain for the British”.
A voiceover tells the personal tale of how the fascists cornered a small group of Jewish people and beat them unconscious. But in 1945 Jewish ex‑servicemen organised the 43 Group which managed to break up 15 outdoor fascist meetings.
Ridley Road market is shown through the years. Butchers’ stalls of the 1950s have price tickets showing that the meat originated from Aberdeen, Argentina—and Empire!
Modern footage shows the market at night. The camera tracks down the whole road and the different cries of street traders ring in our ears.
The film weaves together the history of one small part of London in a wonderfully impressionistic way.
It features some really beautiful paintings. Particularly magical is Tower with Gardens by James Mackinnon. One minute you see the actual tower block on film, then it dissolves into a dreamlike painting of the same block.
There are wide sweeping aerial shots—row upon row of Victorian stock houses surrounded by trees—and then those gigantic cranes hovering on the skyline waiting to pounce.
But in the end the film is optimistic, because it is filled with the raised voices of Hackney people.
Despite David Cameron’s declarations, this multicultural area has a lot to say through its resourcefulness and resilience.
Go to underthecranes.blogspot.com
Michael Rosen will introduce Under the Cranes at the Marxism 2011 festival in central London on Sunday 3 July. Go to