The term “experimental documentary” is often one to strike fear into the soul but Here for Life manages to be engaging, informative, entertaining and uplifting and is a good reminder that if you get the basics right, the rest will follow.
Number one basic is engage your audience. In an early scene a couple of geezers meet before day has broken outside Billingsgate Fish Market in London’s East End. It’s right in the shadow of the massive Canary Wharf financial district full of JP Morgan and CitiBank glass and concrete. Old London and new.
In they go, this trio, and are soon engaging the wholesale fishmongers in the usual documentary-style to-and-fro. One of the threesome asks for the biggest salmon available, £40 worth. But before money has changed hands he’s run off with it. This is not your usual documentary. Who are these people? Are they making a documentary about the fish market or not?
Not, appears to be the answer, because the next sequence is of a couple of the same (?) guys trying to steal a bicycle by hammering the lock of it in broad daylight, while keeping up a running commentary about what they’re doing to passers-by. The police arrive.
Suddenly a woman’s face fills the screen. She’s reading out a poem.
A guy with dreadlocks called Richard talks about his aspirations to be a rapper. He’s not in his first flush of youth or his second, so it seems like a fanciful notion.
Another guy, Patrick, talks about his involvment with gangsters and how he lost £25K in counterfeit money to a geezer so scary he needed to source a gun to even think about asking for it back.
Here for Life is a collaboration, between London-based film-maker Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Adrian Jackson, founder of Cardboard Citizens, a theatre group by and for homeless people, and this is the result of that collaboration, a mix of real-life stories and situationist dramatic creation.
Jackson’s work is based on the Theatre of the Oppressed of Brazilian Augusto Boal, and the base of operations for this offshoot is the Nomadic Community Gardens, a scrappy space between two railway lines in the East End of London that’s become an allotment, rehearsal space and performance area.
They’re a racially, socially mixed group of people, united in not having an awful lot of money (which seems to have had the effect of keeping their minds fizzing, though that might also be the cameras) and to some extent are the usual suspects – children of immigrants, people with mental health issues, drug problems, fantasists, boozers, gamblers, the fly – with a noticeable lack of the middle-class-slumming-it contingent. And the longer you’re with them, the more you get to know them, the more you’re rooting for them, especially as the unusual mix of agit-prop, personal testimony, rehearsed content and even the odd song gives way to the film’s final third, and a “proper” performance to an audience.
The focus on the individual as a way of accessing social issues is reminiscent of the work of other film-makers, like Marc Isaacs, particularly his 2012 documentary The Road: A Story of Life and Death, and like that film Here for Life is an explicit reminder that confession is a powerful basis for a lot of standard fictional drama (how many films based on the teenage life of the film-maker?).
The collective stifles individual expression, we’re often told. Try telling that to this bunch of out-and-out mavericks. The sum total of all the individual stories leads to the group performance, in the Gardens, where the audience – following Augusto Boal’s notion of the “spect-actor” – is also encouraged to join in. There’s a nice synergy here, between Jackson’s declamatory stage work and Zimmerman’s sensitive roving camera, which picks up the obvious joy on the faces of the audience and the exhilaration of all the performers.
By the end, not much has changed maybe, but we have met people we enjoyed spending time with, have been entertained (and laughed at that dog jumping into Jono’s bath while he carried on as if nothing had happened) and we’ve heard some questions asked, some cosmic (“Does the universe provide?”) others more practical (“Is there such a thing as ethical theft?”)
Issues, issues, issue – yes. But human connection too, and that makes all the difference in the world. Here for Life could be called Walk a Mile in My Shoes.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021