THE GENTRIFICATION OF urban neighbourhoods – even in cities such as Johannesburg or Cape Town – was once seen as a panacea to all society’s ills; today it has turned into a proverbial four letter word. This is because of its moral promises and literal hypocrisies, in the face of human rights imperatives, and how it tends to push poorer people out of neighbourhoods deemed worthy by big investors. It’s the focus of Fredrik Gertten’s documentary-style film Push, which features on this year’s European Film Festival, which opens on November 29 in several South African venues.
But it’s an odd festival entry. When you go to a film festival to see its pickings, more often than not, you expect to watch a story. If it’s a story hinged on a real life situation, that’s one thing. If it’s a story hinged on fantasy, that’s another. You may expect to be entertained. You may also expect to learn something. What you don’t necessarily expect is as crude a chunk of advocacy writing as you will find in Push.
But don’t get me wrong. This is an important – if journalistically severely flawed and one-sided – piece of documentary research, which offers key insights into the contradiction we have come to know as ‘gentrification’. In a sense, had this tale been adapted creatively, using actors to portray activists, it may have been a stronger film. As it stands, it is a work which explores the inadequacies in balance between rich and poor, investigating how foreign investment is gobbling up property for the sake of money and not humanity. Unlike works of the calibre of the Wolfgang Fischer film Styx, also part of this festival’s programme, the work lacks poetry and while it asks a lot of questions, it is self-contained in its viewpoints and in how it implicitly feels those questions should be answered.
The palatable approach to the material is to its credit, and case studies from Chile to Italy, Canada to Sweden are cited as ammunition. It’s a film which paints the world’s giant investors of the ilk of Blackstone, as unequivocally the devil, as it is one which offers you deeply emotive examples of people who are victims of a cruel system.
The seeds of The Shift movement, which Canadian lawyer Leilani Farhi – the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to housing – tirelessly sowed in 2018, are explained here, as is her frustration in confronting this behemoth situation, where the rich undercut the poor and benefit from the pickings, leaving people homeless, beaten or even dead, because they can. In Push, there is no other voice. And while you may walk out of the auditorium feeling all gung-ho about the situation, as you roll up your sleeves to do something, you realise that that’s where the film stops.
There’s no voice for the guy caught between the obscenity of gentrification and the amorality of big money. If you do not know where the money of your pension fund is being invested, there’s nothing to tell you to renege on that annuity forthwith, and take to the streets in a cardboard box.
Admittedly, the piece looks at the contribution of Nobel-laureate economist Milton Friedman in terms of his free market advocacy, but this is a strand in a series of victims’ exposés that is touched on but left unfollowed. Push is an important but a disingenuously simple reflection on a highly relevant but very complicated scenario. It’s imminently watchable, and very aesthetically polished, edited and compiled, which makes you feel a little cheated, as it feels almost “gentrified” itself, as a filmic product. Above all, it’s not a film for a film festival, but rather one that should be distributed to audiences on the ground, where its message will have reverberations in the broken communities that are central to its focus.
- Push is directed by Fredrik Gertten and features a cast headed by Leila Bozony, Ada Colau, Leilani Farha, Frederik Jurdell, Michael Müller, Saskia Sassen, Roberto Saviano, Florian Schmidt, Joseph Stiglitz and Stig Westerdahl. It is written by Fredrik Gertten and produced by Margarete Jangård, it features creative input by Florencia Di Concilio (music), Janice D’Avila and Iris Ng (cinematography), Erik Bäfving (editing) and Martin Hennel (sound). It is part of the European Film Festival, screening in South Africa during November and December.