Content note: this review contains minor spoilers
I’ve always found watching a movie, especially in the cinema, to be an act of psychological – albeit synthetic – transport. Being taken to a space different than the one I inhabit, engaging with new people, perspectives, and locations that I would never otherwise encounter.
However, one of the personal thrills to come from Shola Amoo‘s debut feature film, A Moving Image is that it doesn’t transport me somewhere new, but somewhere I’m already familiar with. I felt a childish jolt of ALL CAPS glee thinking to myself; “IT’S BRIXTON HIGH STREET! ON A CINEMA SCREEN, FAM! AND THERE’S THE KFC! I THINK I GOT DRUNK IN THAT BAR! AND THAT ONE! I DEFINITELY GOT DRUNK IN THAT ONE!”
But you don’t need to have spent more time than is healthy frequenting Brixton to appreciate this film. Using fictional characters, while augmented by performance art and documentary footage from 2015’s Reclaim Brixton protests, A Moving Image addresses the topic of gentrification.
Tanya Fear stars as Nina, an artist – and former Brixton resident – who has returned to the town to make a film tackling this issue. She soon realises that while her aim is laudable, it’s attenuated by a lack of clarity in how to tell her story, exacerbated by the fact that she may herself have unwittingly contributed to gentrification’s mould-like spread.
Challenging discussions arise with activists in how best to serve the local community. Some view Nina as a dilettante, thinking her attempts to fix Brixton with a film naive, and expect her commitment to waver as soon as things get difficult. They also question the utility of the arts in these circumstances.
This is one example of the movie’s meta-storytelling. Amoo’s exploration of artists is not only woven into the narrative, but may also be a comment on their (and his?) struggle to meld quixotic whimsy with tangible virtue. Can art transcend its inherent self-indulgence to be a benison to others?
One of the story’s best sidebars is how its various artists are all hyper-sensitive to criticism, certain that their respective projects are Important Works Of Genius, and don’t appreciate anyone trying to pop that bubble of solipsism. Similar to Dear White People, the characters here are capable of calling out everyone else’s bullshit, yet are unable to call out their own. Nina comes to learn that while telling a story is an intellectual exercise, it can only spring to life once she emotionally engages with it. Otherwise, how can she expect her audience to follow suit?
At its best, the film is fluent in snark, with its funniest moment coming when Amoo takes a page from Alfred Hitchcock, and makes a brief appearance, which in terms of director cameos, is one of the best I’ve seen in years.
At its worst, the dialogue is the movie’s weakest aspect. The documentary segments contain non-actors talking about the specifics of gentrification, so it makes for an uneasy transition between that and the fictional story when the actors do the same. It felt like belabouring a point that was already made.
Amoo’s real strength is in his use of imagery. This will be of no surprise to anyone who’s seen his splendid short films, Touch, and Dear Mr. Shakespeare. The low budget – which was partly crowdfunded – doesn’t prevent him from delivering shots with real purpose. There’s nothing kitchen-sink about this film.
My favourite scene came in a flirtatious dance-off between Nina and, potential love interest, Mickey (Alex Austin). No words are spoken, but the palpable chemistry between the two gives the sequence a resonance that in lesser hands would have been painfully corny. If Amoo ends up making romantic comedies in the future, I’ll be first in line to buy a ticket.
Despite its serious subject matter, A Moving Image has a breezy feel to it, for which Tanya Fear deserves plenty of praise. Her natural screen presence is redolent of a Georgina Campbell, a Tamara Lawrance, or an Anjli Mohindra. Amoo is clearly cognizant that Fear has star quality, as he – ably assisted by cinematographer, Felix Schmilinsky – frames and lights her accordingly.
Amoo stated his intention was to make Brixton feel like a character in itself, and this is best embodied by Yinka Oyewole’s performance as Big Ben, who armed with a megaphone, is the corporeal manifestation of the town; its beating heart and conscience, similar to Samuel L. Jackson’s Love Daddy in Do the Right Thing.
A lesser-spoken aspect of gentrification is its effect on one’s mental health, and Nina’s journey is as much about her trying to find peace of mind as it is interrogating the mechanisms of present-day Brixton. Untethered and rootless, her personal precarity mirrors the precarity felt by those who are being squeezed out of Brixton, and other areas like it.
London was recently described by Barney Ronay as a place where “every hectare of concrete and dirt is costed and coveted, where money wears everything thin.” Gentrification isn’t an act of altruism, bestowing gifts on a formerly ignored populace. It has alarming echoes of settler colonialism, as it doesn’t only replace a location’s fixtures, but also the people; leaving its denizens as real-world versions of the Mr. Krabs meme. Like the workings of a black hole, capital has an insatiable imperative to expand.
One of the fatuous complaints Spike Lee received in the aftermath of Do the Right Thing was that it didn’t offer a remedy for racism. It would be equally fatuous if similar laments were aimed at A Moving Image for delivering no clear degentrifying tools. Good art posits questions, rather than provides answers. What A Moving Image does is pose urgent questions that as communities we need to find answers to.
And if the upcoming General Election gives us the result I both expect and dread, we’ll need community more than ever.
A Moving Image is currently showing in London, but will be showing in other cities from the 16th May.
 – It appears this wasn’t lost on Amoo, as he has requested submissions from people across the globe, disclosing their real life experiences with gentrification.
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