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Spotlighting an urgent local issue between the glitzy premieres at this year’s London Film Festival, A Moving Image is a low-budget, drama-doc hybrid about the contentious spread of gentrification in a city already notorious for its overpriced residential property. The setting is Brixton, a South London neighborhood renowned for its multicultural mix, particularly its large African-Caribbean community, but which is now under threat from bourgeois influx and rocketing real estate prices. Inevitably, this has impacted on the area’s racial and social diversity. As one character in the movie pointedly observes: “All we’ve got left is gourmet fried chicken shops and Bob Marley hats, but no black people.”
Writer-director Shola Amoo, himself a South London native, assembled this commendably ambitious feature debut with minimal resources, including around £4,800 (about $5,800) raised through crowdfunding. Stylistically, A Moving Image is clearly indebted to Spike Lee in its lively urban mash-up of fact and fiction, music and poetry, performance art and polemic. Amoo’s lofty aims ultimately prove grander than his abilities, because the end product is more noble failure than compelling yarn. Even so, the hot-button issues of race and gentrification will guarantee more festival play, even if theatrical interest is less assured.
Tanya Fear (Kick-Ass 2) stars as Nina, an actress and artist returning to her native Brixton after several years in the bohemian hipster enclaves of East London. Shocked at how much her old neighborhood has changed, largely due to moneyed white interlopers moving in and forcing up property prices, Nina embarks on a multimedia art project about Brixton’s gentrification. In the process she becomes entangled in a politically and racially fraught love triangle with Mickey (Alex Austin), a famous white actor who has just bought an apartment in the area, and Ayo (Aki Omoshaybi), an angry black performance artist whose conceptual protest shows mostly leave his tiny audiences baffled.
Adopting a more self-consciously “street” look, Nina’s newfound activism leads her to attend political demonstrations and conduct documentary interviews with Brixton’s immigrant population. But in the process, she is forced to question her own motives after seeing how the “social cleansing” of poor multiracial neighborhoods is a complex intersection of class, race, financial and cultural factors, not just skin color. “Don’t you have to be white to do that?” she protests before facing the discomfiting truth that more educated, privileged returnees like herself may be part of the problem rather than the solution.
The dramatic backdrop to A Moving Image may sound grimly earnest, but fortunately Amoo’s approach is lively, irreverent and formally adventurous. Blending drama and documentary elements, he incorporates songs, trippy fantasy sequences, straight-to-camera diatribes and even a dance-off between Nina and Mickey. He also breaks up the story’s London-centric focus with brief bulletins from Harlem, Brooklyn and Berlin’s Neukolln district, all areas transformed by the double-edged sword of gentrification in recent years.
As an engaging work of cinema, however, A Moving Image falls short of its title promise. Amoo’s slender budget, inexperienced cast and unpolished script consistently remind us that we are watching an amateurish labor of love. And while Fear displays charm and potential, the film’s ideas are much more interesting and nuanced than its flatly rendered characters. A topic this weighty really requires much more passion and punch. That said, Amoo’s well-meaning debut should strike a timely chord with anyone living in London, or any unaffordable big city. It also was heartening to see a rare British film with a largely black cast and crew screening at a festival that trumpeted racial diversity as a key theme.
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