Screening the Precarious Spaces of Home Across Europe

By: Anna Viola Sborgi

On September 19, 2022, a public screening entitled Espaços Precários da Habitação na Europa – Precarious Homes Across Europe took place at ICS-ULisboa. The screening showcased work of four emerging women filmmakers: Ayo Akingbade’s Dear Babylon (2019, United Kingdom), Leonor Teles’s Cães que Ladram aos Pássaros (2019, Portugal), Laura Kavanagh’s No Place (2019, Ireland and United Kingdom) and Margarida Leitão’s Gipsofila (Portugal, 2015). After watching the films, filmmaker Margarida Leitão and researchers Roberto Falanga and Mariana Liz joined me in an interdisciplinary conversation on cities, their inhabitants, gentrification and film. Members of the audience, which included participants in the Cinema e Ciências Sociais Summer School that was taking place at ICS-ULisboa in those very days, also asked questions and contributed to the discussion.

Figure 1: Margarida Leitão, Anna Viola Sborgi, Roberto Falanga and Mariana Liz in the post-screening discussion. Photo Credit: Inês Ponte.

The screening was the conclusive event of a six months’ visiting period when I had the privilege to be part of the lively research community of ICS-ULisboa, as part of my ongoing EU Horizon 2020-funded project MEDIAHOMES. In this two-year project, I investigate European film and media representations of housing precarity and their networks of production and circulation between the 2008 economic crisis and the COVID-19 emergency. I look at Ireland, Portugal and the UK, exploring representations of the home, housing precarity and homelessness, through an intersectional approach to the study of space, which aims to illuminate socioeconomic inequality across gender, race and class, on screen and beyond.

Addressing an increasingly globalised housing crisis, filmmakers in Europe have turned their attention to the precarity of home, generating a vast mediascape of activist documentaries, essay films, shorts and features. In the work of film collectives – Left Hand Rotation in Portugal; Push Pull in Ireland – and individual filmmakers – Andrea Luka Zimmermann, Ayo Akingbade, Nikita Wolfe, Leonor Teles, Margarida Lucas, to name just a few – home is much more than a simple setting. It is a space to reflect on housing as a wider representation of society and its increasingly shifting status from a human right and basic necessity to a real estate asset and commodity. This transformation has made access to a home increasingly difficult for a large number of people but, especially, for the most vulnerable in society. 

Thus, mediated homes not only become spaces to interrogate contemporary forms of housing precarity, but also produce counternarratives to dominant accounts of domesticity. Often produced in a tight interrelation between media and housing activism, these representations frequently circulate beyond theatrical exhibition in community centres, museum spaces, online platforms, and, in this respect, can be considered examples of what Haidee Wasson and Charles Ackland have called ‘useful cinema’.

Similarly to the crisis it originates from, this corpus of films is better understood within a transnational framework. Indeed, despite differences between national systems, global landscapes of housing are increasingly converging. The transformation of home into a real estate asset within complex and interconnected global economic flows, as noted by scholars like Raquel Rolnik, combines with gentrification and, especially in the case of Southern European countries, such as Portugal, touristification.

Geographical differences need to be taken into account when attending to questions of housing and displacement. Equally, a one-size-fit-all approach does not serve an in-depth analysis of film and media born in different contexts. A transnational approach, nevertheless, enables a more profound understanding of mediations of contemporary housing precarity’s entanglements beyond the national, in order to address the representation of domestic space as a place of systemic local, European and global crisis, precarity and socioeconomic inequality. Moreover, when approaching film and media, the inherently transnational nature of the media ecosystem needs to be considered. Very often, filmmakers who work on housing issues live and operate internationally – having moved to other countries in search of better resources, but also, crucially, having experienced housing precarity and participated in housing struggles – and their work is often internationally co-produced and later travels through international festivals, as well as through streaming and social media platforms.

Moreover, while some films tackle housing struggles upfront, others take the topic less literally, nevertheless providing a space of reflection on the home as a site of wider existential precarity. The films we screened – three shorts and a medium length feature – reflect these variations, as they merge observational, participatory methods with fictional elements and tease the boundaries of socially-engaged films beyond observational and expository formats.

Figure 2: Vicente, one of his brothers and friends at the beach in Cães Que Ladram Aos Pássaros. Source: Film Presskit, Uma Pedra no Sapato e Agência Curtas.

The home is in all these films represented as a space of struggle for different generations. Cães Que Ladram Aos Pássaros and Dear Babylon share a focus on young people who, living under uncertain conditions, seek forms of resistance as they take their future in their own hands. Akingbade’s film follows three London students, who, upon learning the fictional AC30 Housing Bill threatens the future of social housing, decide to shoot a protest film interviewing members of their community. In a gentrifying Porto brimming with tourists, Teles’s film captures the real-life experience of young Vicente’s family, facing eviction and searching for reciprocal forms of support. No Place, following mother of two Angela, instead, tackles more upfront the question of female homelessness and motherhood, a less visible theme in social debate which is nevertheless recurring in both documentaries and feature films transnationally. This particular struggle also features in Cães Que Ladram Aos Pássaros, where Vicente’s unemployed single mother struggles to find a new home for her kids also on the ground of gender discrimination. In a telling house visit scene, as Vicente explores the kitchen he overhears the mother being pressed by the real estate agent with a series of questions about her husband and her employment status. Housing precarity in these films also exists in a space of precarious labour at a time of crisis as evidenced by Vicente’s mother unemployment but also by Angela’s lost job shifts in No Place. These topics echo the subject of an earlier online screening and discussion we organised in April with Scotland-based Portuguese filmmaker Laura Carreira (see a recording of the event here).

At the centre of Gipsofila, which does not focus on the housing crisis itself, but on the space of the home in a wider sense, is the delicate relationship between the filmmaker and her grandmother, two women who both experience moments of existential crisis. As the former approaches her forties in a state of restlessness, the latter is afraid of dying. Home provides them both with a shelter and a space where different gendered expectations unfold and are somehow renegotiated.

Figure 3: Poster of the screening featuring Margarida on her grandmother’s balcony in Gipsofila. Image source: Portugal Film – Agência Internacional de Cinema Português.

As evidenced from the sample of films screened in this programme and from this brief survey, many of the filmmakers who focus on the spaces of housing precarity transnationally are women. Both subjects and producers of narratives of precarity, women have also a central role in the struggle for housing justice itself. Despite this crucial role, the work on women on this subject requires further in-depth exploration, especially in connection with wider inequality patterns observed by scholars in both the national industries of the countries involved – Portugal, Ireland, the United Kingdom – and the international film industry at large.

Programming is an integral part of film studies research. While films that speak and resonate with one another are shared with the audience to allow for discussion in the moment, they will hopefully spark productive conversations on the home as a transnational space of resistance beyond the contingency of the event. 

Anna Viola Sborgi is currently Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Department of Film and Screen Media, University College Cork Ireland. She was recently Visiting researcher at ICS-Lisboa. She has published on housing, documentary and film and architecture. She co-chairs the Society of Cinema and Media Studies Urbanism/Geography/Architecture Scholarly Interest Group.


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