Review: Our Land, Our Altar
by Kaleem Aftab
- The debut film by Portuguese director André Guiomar looks at the human stories that are lost when terms like gentrification are normalised
Appearing in the Rebellions strand of Sheffield Doc/Fest, Our Land, Our Altar, the feature debut by André Guiomar, is a documentary about the inhabitants of a social housing block in Aleixo, a poor neighbourhood in Porto. It's a film that plays in two halves: the first takes place in 2013, which is two years after it was announced that the building would be torn down, and the residents are still awaiting their eviction notices. The second half takes place six years later, and it's in making the jump between these two time periods that Our Land, Our Altar wields its power.
It's the poor fortune of the inhabitants that their estate sits on a beautiful hill, overlooking the river. Anyone who has looked at any famous European city over the past 20 years will not be surprised that developers, and politicians, want to move the low-income communities and workers out, and replace their homes with apartments for the middle class. "Oh no, not another gentrification documentary," say the flat-white brigade as they ride off on their bicycles. However, it's worth them squeezing the brakes, as Our Land, Our Altar manages to get across the stoicism of a community told that they will have to move and the psychological damage that's wreaked on people who do not know where they will be transferred to, and as one resident tells her daughter, there is no way of knowing if it will be better, even if the apartment blocks are nicer. She describes how someone committed suicide after being forced to leave their home – is this just a coincidence or, as she suspects, the result of the psychological damage that having no safety and no control over your own life can inflict?
That is probably the only on-the-nose moment in the whole film because, with his camera at a respectful distance, Guiomar prefers to observe the inhabitants of different flats, some of them at dinner. Keeping well out of frame, watching as a third party, the director is keen to witness the everyday. It's a place of washing lines, Hitchcockian stairwells, and domesticity. It might not be bliss, exactly, but it's home. They are not being moved out because of any problems with the buildings, but for someone else's capital gain.
Guiomar shows us the humanity of those living in a supposed crack den. The song that contains the title of the film is about Aleixo and describes a place you want to avoid, but where the reality is different. The director is careful not to romanticise these lives, as he still demonstrates the hardships of the underprivileged. Instead of helping them, the city wants to condemn them.
The six-year jump in time gives the film a certain poignancy. The building is finally torn down, eight years after the first announcement of its demise, and the last of the residents are moving out, taking whatever they might be able to vend. It's a far grimmer situation than that of the vinyl-listening Dona Clara, as played by Sônia Braga in Aquarius [+see also:
film profile]. There is an amazing scene when a child watches an apartment block in the complex dynamited out of existence on the television, like it's an action movie. The kid’s excitement vanishes as soon as the mother tells her that their home shall be next. It's not something to celebrate.
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