This article is by LSE MSc student Evie Ioannidi, and covers a recent screening of On the Ground at Grenfell, as part of Polis’ Media and Communication in Action series.
On 14th June 2017, a fire started in a fourth floor flat at Grenfell Tower and spread through 23 floors, resulting in the greatest tragedy in London’s recent history.
Responses have taken various forms as people try to make sense of the needless devastation. One such response is On the Ground at Grenfell, a documentary looking at the members of the Grenfell community in the aftermath of the fire. Filmmakers and activists Samiah Anderson, Swarzy Macaly and Adrianne McKenzie came to Polis to screen and discuss their work.
The documentary provides sensitive and often tender insight into the lives of the people in and around Grenfell. It makes for harrowing viewing, structured around interviews with residents who were there on the night, as well as volunteers who came in to help in the days following. The emotion is raw, as interviewees remember seeing people they knew run back in to save their families; they describe the fear in the silence between the last phone call and the eventual emergence of loved ones.
As the fire occurred during Ramadan, Muslim members of the community were still awake, for the breaking of the fast, and were able to raise the alarm. Neighbours whose children went to the same school during the day were saving each other’s children during the night. Residents followed fire fighters back into the building, after they saw that even the professionals were “coming out crying.”
McKenzie described how the misrepresentation in the media was one of the key reasons behind director Nendie Pinto-Duschinksy creating the documentary. They failed to portray the individuality of those affected, their humanity. “They are people, not statistics,” Anderson urged. “The emphasis was on how people could donate but no one was asking how employers were dealing with absences.” On the Ground at Grenfell certainly shows that humanity. One resident mentions trying “to forgive as much as possible” – there is certainly a place for anger, but this documentary is not a polemic. It is a portrait of people connected by a building and by grief.
The narrative often goes that something positive can come from tragedy – the community comes together, human kindness surfaces in a capital often portrayed as jaded. If I took one thing from this documentary, it’s that that community strength had been there all along. This disaster is not responsible for anything positive, it’s the people. “Everyone would just look out for each other” was a phrase that was repeated in almost every interview. The tragedy of 14th June just televised that close-knit community, the care and support neighbours at Grenfell had shared every day, amplified in the face of unimaginable pain.
So what can we do, so many months on? “Keep talking about it” is the panellists’ response. Keep talking about these communities. If you’re part of such a community, document its life – don’t wait for tragedy to reveal its vibrancy and uniqueness.
Keep talking about the people who lost lives and loved ones at Grenfell. There is a silent march every month on the 14th which acts as a memorial and as a symbol of resistance to forgetfulness. Silent, not because there’s no anger, but because the overwhelming feeling is one of love – for those who died and those left behind. Love is at the heart of the Grenfell community’s drive for justice and, as Macaly reminded us as the talk closed, “justice without love is not justice at all.”
This article by LSE MSc student Evie Ioannidi.
For more information about the Polis Media and Communications in Action talks, please visit our website.