Paul Sng tackles dispossession.
"Images and words can inspire change, but they can't achieve it."

David G. Hughes talks to Paul Sng about his documentary Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, how to resolve the housing crisis, and how film can serve an ideological purpose.

Dispossesion: The Great Social Housing Swindle (2017) has been released at a moment in which social housing is at the centre of British social discourse. Having come off making a documentary about East Midlands music band Sleaford Mods, a tale of working-class creativity and subversion in austerity-era Britain, director Paul Sng turned to the crisis in housing that currently hinders the nation.

We spoke to Paul Sng about his film, touching on topics such as Grenfell Tower, the power and limitations of documentary cinema, and the wider political zeitgeist.

electric ghost: What attracted you to the subject of British social housing?

Paul Sng: My family lived on the Aylesbury Estate in London for years and I have many fond memories of the place. When I found out what was happening with the planned demolition, I wanted to do something to help save it. The film seemed a good way of helping raise awareness about the Aylesbury as well as other estates under threat of demolition.

Your film tackles the destructive aftershock to social housing after the implementation of Thatcher’s “right to buy” policy. Indeed, there seems to be an obsession in Britain with homeownership, and in this pursuit that views homeownership as a right, it’s become the case, paradoxically, that it deprives people of homes, because there is no longer any social housing. Following your investigations, what do you think the answer to this dilemma is?

Ending or suspending the Right to Buy would be a good start. More importantly, councils and housing associations need to engage with their residents more effectively and listen to their wishes. Demolishing estates and replacing social homes with luxury apartments is driven by greed and needs to stop. There also needs to be proper maintenance in estates so that they don’t fall into disrepair and decline. A percentage of service charges and tenants’ rent is ring-fenced for this purpose, so there’s no excuse not to spend this money on keeping buildings in decent condition.

The narrative around social housing has dramatically shifted. Whereas they were originally seen as aspirational in the post-war years, they have become demonised symbols of decrepitude and criminality. Dispossession is a counter-narrative to this that undermines this perception. Was that something you consciously sought to do?

Yes. I was fed up of seeing poverty porn on TV that denigrates the people who live in social housing. It’s a false and misleading narrative that has come to be used as a stick with which to beat the people who live on estates and make them appear as worthless and no good. We set out to present the truth about estates and the people who live on them.

“Documentaries are rarely neutral, though the medium itself is malleable and adaptable to any ideology.”

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle (Paul Sng, 2017, UK).

We’ve seen a surge of Leftist documentary films like The Spirit of ’45 [2013], Tony Benn: Will and Testament [2014], A Moving Image [2016], and an upcoming documentary about Labour MP Dennis Skinner, Nature of the Beast (2017). Why does documentary lend itself well to the traditions of the British Left in your view? And why now has there been this surge?

John Grierson once wrote that “above all, documentary must reflect the problems and realities of the present.” The current political climate in Britain may be shifting towards policies traditionally seen as left-wing, as the resurgence of the Labour Party in the recent election may indicate, but I don’t think documentary lends itself better to one end of the political spectrum more than the other. Documentaries are rarely neutral, though the medium itself is malleable and adaptable to any ideology. Look at Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will [1935]; technically, a brilliant film, though its message is clearly abhorrent.

There does seem to be a revival of the explicitly political Left in our culture, not just in cinema with the aforementioned documentaries but, of course, in music; Glastonbury was hugely political this year. Do you see your documentary as part of a broader social movement?

I haven’t really thought of it that way, but I suppose it could be. Once you release a film, it’s no longer yours—it belongs to the audience, so it’s up to them how they see it and use it.

Do you feel a sense of protective ownership over your film, or are you happy to give it to the people, so to speak, now it’s in the public domain?

I do feel incredibly protective over it, yes. But there’s very little you can do once it’s out there. I’m happy for people to use the film to help protect and defend their homes from demolition, or as a tool to explain the social housing crisis.

Dispossession has hit the zeitgeist in a manner I suspect you could never have anticipated, with the Grenfell Tower deaths putting the debate around social housing at the centre of British discourse. I attended the screening at Genesis Cinema and I was pleased to hear you talk about how, although Grenfell makes the situation more relevant and gives your film a hearing in a way it may not have necessarily had, it isn’t right to capitalise on that. I think you’ve struck a tasteful and respectful balance, making it about the issues and the cause rather than shameless plugging. Similar to how the Tories have been accusing Labour of exploiting the deaths for political gain, do you worry about accusations of capitalising on a disaster?

I would much rather the people who died in Grenfell Tower were still alive and there wasn’t the level of interest in the film resulting from what happened. We have to listen to the people from that community—I want to hear their voices for as long as they have the strength to talk about what happened and the dreadful treatment they have received and continue to receive at the hands of the local council. I care what the Grenfell community thinks about the film, so if they had concerns about it I would listen to them and act upon their wishes.

Actor Michael Sheen hosts a Q&A following a screening of Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle (Paul Sng, 2017, UK).

Grenfell Tower has become more than just a disaster, it’s become a cynosure for many of the issues that people feel is wrong with contemporary Britain—class warfare, austerity, gentrification, the housing crisis, and neoliberalism gone rampant. I feel like your film succinctly crystallises, in images, what has otherwise been abstract feelings, thing’s we know but sometimes struggle to articulate, and all various intellectual discourses surrounding Britain today. Do you see a power in images to achieve change?

To a certain extent, yes, though change must ultimately come from people. Images and words can inspire change, but they can’t achieve it. I suppose the film can serve as a signpost to highlight what’s going on with the mismanagement and neglect of social housing, but ultimately it will be down to the people affected who live on the estates to force change.

Talking more specifically about the filmmaking side, you have a nice collection of talking heads in the film, including residents, journalists and politicians such as Nicola Sturgeon and Caroline Lucas. However, the number of right-wing contributors is far less. Was this simply a case of them being less inclined to be interviewed?

Yes. We asked a number of Tory MPs, but none of them were up for it.

Was there anyone from any socio-political spectrum you attempted to secure an interview with but to no avail?

We asked Gavin Barwell, the previous Housing Minister, for an interview, and he declined. As did John Healey, the Shadow Housing Minister, which was surprising. Corybn’s office were contacted, but we never heard back from them.

Did you worry about how you would amalgamate all of this information into a captivating narrative? What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Yes, and we cut several bit of info due to difficulties in explaining the complexity of the information. The biggest challenge was the budget. The film cost £35,000, which is peanuts for a documentary of its quality and scope. I haven’t taken a fee and neither did several of the people who worked on it.

Why did you want Maxine Peake to perform the voice-over?

I wanted a voice that the audience would trust, and also someone who is authentic and from a working-class background. I also thought the film needed a narrator who was northern, as there are a lot of southern accents in the film.

In terms of filmmaking, who do you look to for creative inspiration? Which films have inspired you as a director?

Patrick Keiller’s Robinson Trilogy is a massive inspiration for my work. Also, Julien Temple’s The Filth and the Fury [2000]. In terms of feature films, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, and Ken Loach are three of my favourite directors.

Alongside your first documentary, ‘Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain’, this is a film that speaks for the underdog, for the working-class. Whose story are you keen to tell next?

Ploy Styrene, the X-Ray Spex legend and feminist icon.