On 'No Place But Here'

Words by Madeleine Bazil

Welcome to Confluences, a column on art, kinship and life.

"I've learnt that community is about intentionality and the common good," says Dylan Valley, co-director of short documentary No Place But Here. "Sometimes it's hard work but it's about contributing to something bigger than yourself. Something that will hold you, too, when you need it."

As I consider our current magazine theme, community, I’m thinking about what it looks like to live and organise in community as an act of resistance. Cape Town, South Africa, where I live, is a city with a layered, complicated relationship to space and place. The spectre of apartheid-era city planning and forced removals continues to inform the spatial politics of the city today, with rapid gentrification and development further exacerbating uneven and inadequate access to affordable housing. Recently, I attended the opening of an exhibition on urban land justice hosted by local NGO Ndifuna Ukwazi, where I strapped on a VR headset to watch No Place But Here, a short virtual reality documentary on a housing occupation in Cape Town, in its first hometown screening after a successful run at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and elsewhere.

Co-directed by Valley and fellow filmmaker Annie Nisenson, No Place But Here centres on a housing occupation situated in an abandoned former hospital in Woodstock, Cape Town. In 2017, a women-led group of local citizens - pushed out of their homes by gentrification - took occupation of the building to transform it into housing for members of the community. In the years since, Cissie Gool House (CGH) has become home to over 1000 people - many of whom have, in their apartments along hospital corridors, replicated the social fabric of the neighbourhood they were forced out of.

It is clear that the politics and geographies of spatial and land justice are intertwined - and that community lies at the heart of it all.

As part of Reclaim the City, a movement of tenants and workers campaigning for affordable housing in well-located areas of Cape Town, the self-organising occupiers - who span race and religion - have enacted systems of internal governance, mutual aid and social support. In other words, they have built and sustained community. As Reclaim the City’s website puts it: “We are ordinary people who are forced to take extraordinary steps to live a decent and dignified life. We are young people looking for work. We are mothers with children working as cleaners and nurses. We are elderly people who have worked our whole lives in the city and now have nowhere to go.” The film focuses on five leaders in the occupation - Faghmeeda Ling, Karen Hendricks, Tsukie Bhalindela, Amanda Gericke and Quintin Moos - each bringing different perspectives and lived experience to the film. The filmmakers tell me that communicating the cross-cultural solidarity of the occupation was important to them - as well as the different day-to-day roles that individuals play in the movement. 

Not normally one to be easily enamoured by virtual reality, I’m struck by how much I appreciate the 360-degree view as a way to immerse myself in the tangible spaces of the occupation. With an observational technique of minimal intervention, a result of deep trust and collaborative relationship-building with the community, Nisenson and Valley ambiently record the day-to-day existence of the occupation in a way that offers the viewer a humanistic, intimate gaze at a community that is often vilified as criminal and targeted by politicians and police alike. As Valley explains: "We wanted people to have the feeling like they were visiting the occupation as opposed to watching a film about it." Nisenson expands on this, noting that many Capetonians "have heard of the occupation, but they've never gone inside or participated in any of the events. VR felt like a way to not only get to know the place better but also to partake in the occupation in some way." And where historical and political context, or talking head interviews are woven into the film, these elements are integrated - visually and narratively - into the immersive physicality of the occupation; the panorama effect means it’s possible to listen to an interview whilst also swiveling to look elsewhere at the locations being spoken about. The viewer is granted the space and autonomy to draw a cohesive picture of a community borne out of the collective desire to resist displacement and live with dignity. 

Reclaim the City’s slogan is “Land for people, not for profit,” and as No Place But Here demonstrates, living this motto requires consistent, communal effort from all involved. It is clear that the politics and geographies of spatial and land justice are intertwined - and that community lies at the heart of it all. Nisenson sums things up succinctly: "Being engaged with CGH and working on this film... has taught me that communities know what they need and have done imaginative work to show us a better, more equitable future." This occupation is, as she says, "more than a plan for a building, this is a future."

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Words by

Madeleine Bazil

Madeleine Bazil is a multidisciplinary artist and writer interested in memory, intimacy, and the ways we navigate worlds - real and imagined. She c… Learn more

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