Thursday, 1 December 2016

No direction home: "Half Way"

Possibly the sole cultural advantage of our present political situation - with the Right, in all its forms, ascendant and the Left in wounded disarray - would be a return to a more politicised and oppositional art and cinema, the work of individuals and collectives inspired to fight their causes on a bigger canvas, with the goal of winning hearts and minds, and thereby effectuating some form of change. Ken Loach may have laid some of the foundations with I, Daniel Blake, his Tory-baiting take on life as it is on benefits and in the food banks; this week's Half Way, a documentary timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the homeless charity Shelter, takes up the rallying cry.

We open in summer 2013, with video diary footage of Beverly Hudson, a single mother from Essex, attending her eldest daughter Daisy-May's graduation in Manchester: a proud day in the sun, occasioning plentiful smiles and tears. Yet the footage - shot by Daisy-May herself - becomes tearier still when the family disembarks at Euston and is obliged to trudge back to the lowly halfway house they've been obliged to inhabit ever since their former landlords Tesco kicked them out of their Epping Forest home. Welcome to the real world, kid. (You can bet that university education wasn't cheap, either.) 

Over the course of a year, we'll see the Hudsons shuttled between waiting lists and makeshift hovels: single-room occupancies with no guaranteed lighting or curtains, where the tenants are expected to cough up a nominal fee to wash their clothes. "I was so excited," says Daisy-May, after one move proves especially disappointing. "I'm so sorry," is Beverly's only response. Her youngest, meanwhile, tearfully retreats under the covers on the evening of her fourteenth birthday, sobbing "to be honest, my birthday wasn't the best". They will be here until Christmas and beyond, and it doesn't get any easier.

Now, clearly this is far from a life on the streets, and sophists might argue that the film documents an extreme or unrepresentative case - one where the actions of a major corporation have had a direct impact on a housing market that has otherwise allowed many other good eggs and honest citizens to feather their nests two or three times over. The film's power derives from a sense this is what's happening day to day to even that aspirational lower-middle class our politicians used to court (and possibly care about) before they went doolally attempting to serve the quote-unquote will of the people.

Some of the bureaucratic snafus Hudson records help to corroborate what Daniel Blake was put through: the crucial letters sent to the wrong address (because of the endless moving), the long hours spent on the phone just to get a bulb changed (as Beverly points out, there's a joke in this, but it's a grim one), the template responses to heartfelt emails, the growing sensation this family has no choice but to grin and bear it. A system that just about functions for you and I is here shown to be of little-to-no help whatsoever to those in society who need it most. You've got a roof over your head (even though it sets your youngest's schooling arrangements entirely out of whack), what have you got to complain about?

As a film, Half Way should be depressing as all hell, yet it's shot with an eye for arresting, illuminating detail. (Daisy-May may yet find a career path out of this predicament.) A CCTV camera watches over the family from the corner of the room; we note the baseball bat Beverly keeps by her bed; the girls spend Christmas fashioning gingerbread houses, in the absence of the real thing. Being squashed into the tiniest spaces bonds this family together - as women, they support one another rather better than one suspects an all-male household might - but this in turn also creates its own tensions: they have no place to retreat to at the end of the bad days, and it turns out there are plenty of those.

There are omissions, doubtless to do with the director's relationship to her subjects: we never learn about Beverly's work situation, nor where the father of her children went - elements Daisy-May obviously takes as read, and doesn't feel the need to explain. Yet her gaze over what she actually shows us is honest and unflinching enough not to lessen the film's charge. As it is, we're left chewing over the telling and painful irony that a clan who evidently have money for laptops and flatscreens - luxuries beyond the means of a Daniel Blake - still can't get even a single foot up on the ladder. As a member of the so-called liberal elite who's frequently expressed howls of despair at London's housing situation, I found Hudson's film urgent and resonant - a work that may do for 2016 what Cathy Come Home did for 1966. The more the 1% take, the more the rest of us - middle-classes, lower-middle classes, working men and women, too - are going to have to suffer like this. At what point do we push back?

Half Way opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow. 

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