Sighthill - The Estate
Out of sight
A new Channel 4 series of short films seeks to dispel the myths surrounding one of Glasgow’s most notorious housing estates. Kirstin Innes meets the director.
‘If you mention Sighthill to other local people living here in Glasgow, they will tell you: “That’s a rubbish place. All the crime. All the drugs.” But, let me be honest with you. I think Sighthill is the best place to be.’
So begins the first chapter of The Estate, a hugely ambitious, 16-part series of documentary shorts commissioned by Channel 4 for their 3 Minute Wonder slot, filmed entirely on location over a year at the Sighthill Estate in North Glasgow. It’s the first time a series of this size has been commissioned in this slot, or given to one director, and the production company are BAFTA-winners Clarity Productions, but that’s not what makes The Estate one of the most compelling, fascinating television programmes onscreen this year.
You’ve heard of Sighthill. The (now partially demolished) estate occasionally pops up in the headlines for a while, a brief, shocking shaft of visibility before disappearing again. In 2001 it even made the radar of the London-based national news, when a wave of racist violence sparked by the huge influx of asylum seekers to the estate seemingly led to the murder of Turkish Kurd Firsat Dag. Sighthill is only ever ‘notorious’.
‘When I told people I was going to be working on Sighthill for over a year, I got exactly the same sort of reaction the residents say they get when they tell people where they live,’ says Ruth Carslaw, the director and filmmaker behind the project.
‘Usually they give a sort of gasp! Oh my god! That must be terrible for you! And I think that’s a key point to make: people on the outside look into Sighthill and see what they’ve heard, and what they’ve heard is old negative stories. And in reality, what I experienced was this incredible, vibrant, really diverse wee community – there’s people from hundreds of countries there, living together. It’s a working community, and by that I mean it’s got structure, it’s a support, it’s a comfort to people. And the only hassle I got, in a year of working there every day, was people trying to make me cups of tea all the time.’
However, it’s also a dying community. The 19-storey tower blocks which at the area’s peak housed 7,500 people have been earmarked for demolition: the residents, whether home owners or dependent on social housing, are being evicted and dispersed across the rest of the country, and the first two blocks came down in July last year. Carslaw filmed in there between 2007 and 2008, and that first demolition ends the series. It’s a ferociously beautiful, almost apocalyptic climax to a series that finds visual and social beauty in an area where almost no-one else would think to look.
‘I wanted to show all these things people don’t associate with Sighthill,’ Carslaw says. ‘People keep positive because the community is so strong; this place has impacted on their lives, has given them chances. One of the women, Angela, from Rwanda, she took me to her window and showed me her “penthouse view”! She survives the Rwandan genocide, comes to Sighthill and finds penthouse views!’
Over the year she was there, Carslaw developed close friendships with many of her subjects (‘One of them sent me a text the other day saying “We’ve finally been rehoused! Come round and have dinner!”’ she says with a huge, delighted grin), and although her presence behind the camera is almost imperceptible, it’s clearly benevolent. She offers her subjects a space for their voices to be heard, but it’s clear she’s not interested in exploiting any pain into the sort of ‘misery-porn’ pieces we’d normally associate with this sort of subject matter.
The people featured in The Estate belong, almost exclusively, to demographics disregarded by society. The elderly residents like Nessie and Ann (none of the participants in the series use their surnames), not-quite coping with forcible eviction from the homes they’ve lived in all their adult lives, returning to the estate every day, if only to buy their scratch cards from their own, formerly local shop. The asylum seekers like Angela, and Zeinaba from Somalia, used to war zones, waiting anxiously for their Leave To Remain ‘papers’ while their children learn to speak fluent Glaswegian. Heather, a homeless, unemployed single mother, and her six children under 12, moved around between 11 ‘temporary homes’ in the last couple of years. John, 40 years old, with learning difficulties. Alec, disabled and homeless, unable to walk downstairs and yet placed on the top floor of a tower block where the lifts break often. These are people who generally only register to the population as statistics; headline fodder.
‘A lot of people talk about how Sighthill became a dumping ground – if somebody’s got a problem, let’s just put them in Sighthill. And they get swallowed up by the size of the estate. They become invisible. You can’t just leave somebody with problems like that,’ says Carslaw. ‘The people living there have to look out for each other – someone like John, looked after by his neighbours, by the residents. What I witnessed was care in the community: unpaid-for care in the community.’
What’s frightening about the series of stories told in The Estate, I tell her, is the way that all of the participants are subject to the orders of an unseen power. They are always waiting for papers, for letters, to be told where they’re going to be living in the next few months, if anywhere at all. This faceless authority doesn’t seem to have any connection to the day-to-day lives we watch it hold in limbo, unable to plan even a week into the future, as asylum seekers and residents wait to be rehoused, and Heather and her children carry on living in a deserted tower block for three weeks after the water has been switched off, waiting to hear where their next temporary house will be.
Carslaw agrees, vehemently. She was determined not to make these issues central to the films, but the depression of people kept in limbo seeps through the stories, and she is clearly, quietly, furious about it.
‘Some of these people bought their houses to live and die in. They told me there was such excitement when the buildings went up, in the 1960s. It was the first time many people had had an indoor toilet, and they couldn’t get over how shiny the lifts were. People were queuing up to live there. And then – what happened? Some of the older women said it was as though a cloud went over Sighthill, an air of neglect coming over the buildings. It became invisible. There are people like Syreta (who runs the local shop featured in Episode 15), you know, a businesswoman, who have actively come to the area and chosen to invest in it, but I don’t think that’s how the authorities see the place. They don’t seem to consider that Sighthill has been home to those people, is anything other than a site. And it is home. And people are actually proud to live there.’
The Estate will be screened on Channel 4, Mon–Thu from Mon 13 Jul at 7.55pm. Each short film lasts three minutes.