A Swedish documentary which makes you sad, then angry then thoroughly frustrated, not least in the massive gap between the immensity of the problem that is shown and the mediocrity of the solution which is offered,
It starts well, though, with a whistle stop tour through a series of communities to see the devastation wreaked on real people by rampant gentrification. There’s the people of Toronto, who have seen their rents more than quadruple while wages have gone up by around 33%, white collar workers in Harlem paying 90% of their salaries on rents, and the Londoners who witnessed the fatal effects of gentrification in the Grenfell Tower disaster where 72 people burned to death because of slipshod safety precautions.
Some of the guilty are held to account (but rarely named), such as the foreign speculators who own large amount of empty properties in London because waiting for them to gain value is cheaper that offering them for rent. (I’m not sure why the British speculators are let off the hook, but what the hey).
And everywhere, we see the tentacles of Blackstone, a US-American real estate company, which makes money throughout the world by forcing people out of their houses, simultaneously destroying communities and racking up massive profits for their shareholders.
As the film progresses, Leilani Farha increasingly takes centre stage. She is a Canadian lawyer and newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing. And she is visibly appalled by what’s going on.
Farha goes from city to city, staying in a range of plush hotels, attending top flight meetings with business executives whom she tells how forced evictions are forbidden by the UN Charter. Occasionally they look up from their phones to listen. Yet Farha’s whole strategy is based on trying to convince these people to be a bit nicer. As she says, the problem is not capitalism, but the way capitalism has become unfettered (suggestions for how it can become fettered again are noticeable by their absence)
Fortunately, we occasionally see some talking heads like Joseph Stiglitz who patiently explain that although people like the Blackstone executives are not essentially evil, they are driven by the logic of profit (which, Stiglitz concedes, ends up with them making evil decisions).
But Farha seems to be in thrall to power. Watching a video of a Blackstone executive she says more than once that she would really love to speak to him, and when he cancels a meeting with her at short notice, she looks mortified. We don’t get a sense of what she would say to them if would meet, but he doesn’t reschedule because she can do nothing to help his business plan.
She does have a trick up her sleeve, though, as she forms The Shift, an organisation which she swears is definitely not an NGO, whose focus is to bring the Great and the Good together. Ada Colau is there – not because of her role in the mass movement against gentrification in Spain, but because she’s the mayor of Barcelona. On Farha’s side – and presumably equally important to the project – we see Michael Müller, the egregious mayor of Berlin, who does not share Colau’s history in the squatting movement.
We are told that The Shift is going to achieve great things, but the film remains vague about what these things might be. There is a great excitement when the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan signs on. And yet, 2 years after Grenfell, many of the people who lost their homes still have nowhere to live. Maybe Sadiq was too busy attending meetings of self-satisfied politicians to help out.
Meanwhile, the activists who have occasionally forced these politicians into large words and small actions are largely absent. Right at the beginning, we see some people occupying empty luxury properties in London, but then hear no more of them. And there are some people who were involved in a rent strike, but no discussion of how it was organised or whether it could be coordinated with similar international actions.
I spent much of the film expecting Farha to be the fall guy, who would learn from the emptiness of her platitudes. So, she bemoans the fact that Blackstone is now more powerful than most nation states, but is still upset when they have no interest in talking to her, and certainly offers no strategy of how to bring them to the table (or better still, expropriate the table and everything else they hold).
The thing is, for all her indignation about how speculation is callously ruining people’s lives, Farha is first and foremost a (presumably well-paid) employee of the UN, and is part of the system that is creating this misery.
In one of the final scenes, we see someone making a video message. She sounds excited that she may be able to rent (or possibly buy) a property which sounds way beyond the budget of most of the people shown in the first half of the film. I’m not sure what the point of this shot is, but it couldn’t be so crude as to say, see, things are under control because one person can now get a luxury apartment. Could it?