Reviewed by: Sunil Chauhan

"Push skips along briskly, making light, incisive work of an area that’s all too often mystified, but it feels like a pilot, rather than a self-contained work." | Photo: Courtesy of Doc/Fest

“They are not intrinsically evil, they are intrinsically amoral,” says Nobel Laureate of economy Joseph Stiglitz on the grand wizards of finance. Painting financial institutions as villains might instil familiar feelings of helplessness, but Fredrik Gertten’s film finds new angles on a debate that seems set to rage on: who are cities for? And who will be able to live in them?

Whether in London, New York, Hong Kong or Berlin, the scenario of existing residents being manipulated out to make way for new, wealthier owners seems irreversible, but Push finds moral opposition in the form of Leilani Farha, a committed Canadian human rights lawyer acting as special rapporteur on adequate housing for the UN. Across the globe, she finds residents at the sharp end of property development – those being forced out through rent hikes, property neglect and threats of eviction – as well as academics and intellectuals who provide broader perspective. Farha believes the argument needs reframing, that housing must be attainable for all, not a financial asset, a mere plaything for the mega-rich. “There’s a huge difference between housing as a commodity and gold as a commodity” she says. “Gold is not a human right, housing is.”

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The film rejects the idea that homelessness, displacement and mistreatment of poorer residents can all be blamed on gentrification. Rather, it repositions it as a symptom of a deeper malaise in urban planning and an apathy towards financial regulation and reform of economic policies, stemming from the 2008 crisis where governments sided with banks over homeowners. “I don’t believe that capitalism itself is hugely problematic” says Farha. “Is unbridled capitalism in an area that is a human right problematic? Yes.”

One private equity firm, Blackstone, is used as a case study in how corporate shareholder capital can be amassed to conduct ruthless, large-scale property buy-outs. In Sweden, the firm is already the biggest private owner of low-income housing. Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano meanwhile connects underworld investors with those above board. “Companies don’t want inexpensive real estate,” he explains. “They want to pay as much as possible, to be able to hide more money.”

Elsewhere, an on-screen map detailing how many internationally-owned properties in London lie empty, affecting the viability of local businesses and lifeblood of communities, makes for gloomy viewing. As the film winds up, we learn of steps being taken in Berlin to retrieve land ownership from private owners, suggesting authorities could yet stem the tide of urban dismantling. It gives Push a patina of hope – perhaps not all authorities surrender to the world’s top-earners. But the film’s key moment is less buoyant. As Farha presents her findings to UN delegates – the human right to adequate housing being included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognised in international human rights law, despite virtually all UN member states breaching it – we realise the room is half empty, and that, as Gertten’s camera drops low, of those present, they seem more distracted by their mobile phones.

Push skips along briskly, making light, incisive work of an area that’s all too often mystified, but it feels like a pilot, rather than a self-contained work. With the global property business worth $217 trillion (£176 trillion) – twice the world’s total GDP – Gertten outlines many rabbit holes, but there’s just not enough time to sufficiently burrow into them.

Reviewed on: 28 Feb 2020
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An international look at the global housing crisis in our cities.

Director: Fredrik Gertten

Year: 2019

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: Sweden


Doc/Fest 2019

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