Filmmaker Zed Nelson tells story behind “The Street”
Boom and crisis in ‘hipster ground zero’
What was the idea behind this documentary – why here and why now?
I wanted to present, visually, the process of gentrification. Changes almost happen without us seeing them. I wanted to capture this on film. There are moments in filmmaking when you feel like you’re working in the dark, as if you’re not in control of the situation. Halfway through, Brexit happened, which threw a real curveball – in fact, it felt like a different documentary after that.
The story I’d been following didn’t fall into an easy narrative. [The London Borough of] Hackney had become trendy, hipster ground zero. On the one hand, this has raised the levels of schools and education, there’s better food available, new-wave cafés and so on. At the same time the speed of this development has caused property and rental prices to spiral.
There’s a serious lack of affordable housing and a growing sense of inequality. The demographic shift is huge. So it’s like there’s a boom and a crisis happening at the same time, and this creates a perfect storm for something like Brexit to happen.
People are forced out of their communities because they can’t afford to live there, pubs close, traditional cafés and services are swept aside. Hoxton Street felt like a kind of frontier, being pushed gradually further back as the mechanical diggers got to work. At the end of the street, a mile away, shimmering steel and glass had amassed on the horizon, a potent vision of what was to come.
The simple view would be that traditional is good and new is bad but it’s not that straightforward. People become less narrow-minded and racism is sidelined in a more multi-cultural community.
One of my interviewees was a black woman who ran a church. She reckoned that things were so much better now – before, somebody had smashed the church cross. And it’s easy to criticise the people behind the trendy café but they were genuinely nice – and it’s great to get a decent cappuccino.
It must be easier to make a documentary on your own doorstep, having grown up here?
No! If anything it’s harder. When you travel further afield it’s like you’re from another world. You’re seen as a curiosity, someone quaint and English, so locals tend to open up more.
Here it’s more of a challenge. People tend to treat you with suspicion, they’re always measuring you up, worrying about who you work for – are you from the council, maybe you’re a tax inspector snooping around… Market traders were particularly wary about being filmed.
Of course, in practical terms it was more accessible. I just had to jump on my bike and I was there in five minutes. That meant I could operate on a much smaller budget – I worked on my own a lot of the time, I didn’t need an extra cameraman or a sound assistant. This also allowed me to get to know people better, it was easier for them to be more natural. Rather than have a crew gathered around them, it was just me. The process became more inclusive, more ramshackle.
What you find as a filmmaker is that you spend just as much time trying to raise the money for your project as you do actually working on it. Without having to deal with all that, it was much more liberating, I wasn’t beholden to a commissioner breathing down my neck. The film was supported by ALCEA – a Swiss philanthropic foundation, who gave me complete editorial freedom.
I started in 2015 when there was huge a peak in property prices, I still have the graph here in front of me! After four years, I was literally buried in material. I spent a gruelling three months doing a rough edit on my own. This also reminded me of what I had to work with, and to start to create a structure, to boil the material down to its main characters.
I then hired a top film editor, Julian Rodd, and we worked together for seven weeks. This is always the hardest part, when you’re working elbow-to-elbow with someone, up against the clock, but for this I was very lucky. He had a real sensibility for the subject matter, he made the whole process enjoyable and the film just fell into place.
What has been the reaction to the film?
The first screening was at the London Film Festival, it was a Friday night, a full house, everyone was in a good mood and people just laughed out loud! I mean, almost too much, it was quite extraordinary because this is obviously a kind of bittersweet, tragic-comic documentary.
The next time it was shown in the middle of the day at lunchtime and there was a quieter, more sober reaction. I find it plays very differently to a different crowd.
One screening that was really daunting was at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, right where the film takes place. It was packed, two floors, both sold out, and there were rows of people behind me who had all appeared in the film… But they were very positive about it and seemed to enjoy it.
Of all the projects I’ve worked on this was the most focused on my own community and my own country. It had distribution in UK cinemas but obviously there are global echoes of this phenomenon all over the world. I’m not sure how a foreign audience will react to it.
I think it will be fascinating to look at this 20 years from now as a historical record. If you do it well then you should still capture people’s attention. I believe that if you stick with something and give it enough love and care, it will always work.