As the preparations for the 2012 Olympics build up steam, local film makers Daniele Rugo and Abi Weaver examine the ramifications of the event for the people of the East End.
We meet, appropriately, in the Docklands. The murky Thames laps below and the office lights of Canary Wharf twinkle above; not long ago this area was a barren wasteland populated by rats and rudderless dockers made unemployed by the decline of the shipping trade. Even this is a story that, according to Rugo, is not always told in the right way: “The shipping industry did no so much decline as it did respond the political will to deregulate the job market.”
This side point illustrates the goal of London Last Days – to examine the human stories behind momentous political decisions and social phenomena, in this case the Olympics.
Weaver and Rugo are keen to stress that this is not a film about the Olympics alone, rather an attempt to explore an area which has been the crucible of such rapid waves of transformation unparalleled anywhere else in the country. “We cannot afford to take the Olympics uncritically. Our aim is to provide a visual imagery which is not simply driven by computerised projections and press releases from those that stand to gain from this event.”
For Weaver, the documentary was borne out of the search for her own genealogical story. Her parents were born and bred in the area and she vividly remembers tales of the East told in the ‘oral tradition.’ She now feels that it is her turn to carry this torch through the medium of documentary. Her father, Dennis Weaver, features in the film as a kind of prodigal son whom we follow around as he recalls the street corners and back alleys of the Kingsmead Estate where he used to loiter as a young Mod tearaway.
As for Rugo, he is interested in the area from an immigrant point of view. Originally from Sicily, he moved to London six years ago to study. “I was fascinated to find so many coexisting layers of immigration stretching from the Huguenots to the Bengalis to the Somalis. The mosque on Brick Lane was originally church and then a synagogue, for example. I am part of the generation that moved to the area not out of need but out of desire, we recognised something unique here.”
“So now we have found our own story,” says Weaver, “we searched for the stories of others.”
Other notable characters of the piece include the ‘psychogeographical’ writer Ian Sinclair who also narrates; Mark Hunter, who made the quite improbable journey from an East Ham upbringing, sailing in the River Lea to winning the gold at Beijing last year only to come full circle and lead the British rowing team in 2012; Philip Blond, the ‘red Tory’ who runs the think tank ResPublica and was one of the chief minds behind the ‘Big Society’ ideas which are now so loudly trumpeted by the government; the ‘pie and mash maestro’ Joe Cooke, scion of the Cooke family who set up their first pie and mash shop on Sclater Street in 1862 and serves as an authority on the importance of the market; Susie McKenna, creative director at the Hackney Empire, who appears to give her views on the area’s rich history of performance.
The film is also punctuated by an estate agent who pops up holding the price tags of houses both 50 years ago and now, illustrating the intense gentrification and obsession of the East End postcode as status symbol.
London Last Days, which looks to sift through the ruins and legacies left by the characters of the area will have the honour of leaving a legacy itself – the final product will be archived in the Whitechapel Gallery. Its resident archivist Gary Haines features heavily in the film, including a great account from the 1920s of an international confectionary exhibition turned upside down. The archives hold a letter written in apologetic faltering French to the kind donors of an impressive sweet sculpture explaining that its return is not likely due to a predictable ransacking of the sugary celebration by hungry local kids.
The gallery is over 100 years old – a fact that often escapes those who imagine that the venue is a brat of the nineties Brit Art explosion. This serves to show how the documentary strives to distance itself from the ubiquitous clichés of the area. “People are more inclined to remember that the Krays lived here rather than, say, Lenin, Stalin or Ghandi,” notes Rugo.
Those expecting a parade of pearly kings and queens and prolific prostitute murderers should look elsewhere. “We want to move away from the image of gangsterism and petty thievery that people have cultivated over time. Who are the people that live here and what is their story?” asks Weaver.
“The film is not just composed of interviews and data. It calls on people to imagine something there that is not there any more and something that is not there yet. It will be the work of individual imagination. There will always be an element of fiction in peoples stories, beyond what you can simply record with a camera.” And on that note, although over six hours worth of footage has already been shot, the filmmakers are eager for more people to come forward with their stories and recollections.
To assume that the tone of the piece is that of somber lament for a bygone era would be misguided. Although pressures both economical and existential continue to assail the East End boroughs, it has always been thus. However, considering the considerable influence the Olympics will have on the area, how will this type of film avoid taking a position? Certainly the recent treatment of the area – recently deemed too unsightly to appear on camera, the first time in recent memory that the opening Olympics race will not culminate in the host stadium – must raise eyebrows about how committed the policymakers are to the East End.
Rugo explains: “This is not a judgement pro/con the Olympics but rather a judgement against the propaganda. We are trying to challenge the vague, optimistic claims that this event will make everything better and that it is entirely imbued with sport, fraternity and tolerance. This is a very top down mantra which is rammed down our throats and is dismissive of the existing diversity that it intends to claim.”
“There are issues that need to be addressed,” says Weaver, “such as, how permanent are these new jobs that the Olympics will supposedly create and how many people have lost and will lose their jobs as a result?” Despite this, the project will ultimately be a product of the people and thus avoid striking a regretful note.
Weaver sums up: “You cannot escape the exuberant personalities of East Londoners, always fighting and always taking things with a pinch of salt. The cultural legacy will not be created by the Olympics, it has always been there and we hope to document it before it gets branded as a legacy. The area has been a constant Olympic celebration of its own; the difference is that it takes place on the streets and in the back of pubs!”
Principal photography will take place during the summer and the release is planned for early 2012.
Those wishing to contribute their ideas, stories (and money) can follow the progress of the documentary at www.londonlastdays.com.