Opening with scene of neighbours in a Toronto bar enjoying each others' company over cocktails and pints, Fredrik Gertten's documentary 'Push' follows Ottawa-based activist Leilani Farha, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, as she sets off on a journey around the world to hear the human stories of renters and buyers who are struggling to compete with the high cost of living in cities.
"It's deeper than gentrification," we are informed as Farha grills politicians about the housing issues happening on their patches, where the rapidly shifting patterns in the "financialisation" of housing means that homes and rental units have become the hottest commodities on the market. "As opposed to banks, finance is an extractive sector," observes sociologist Saskia Sassen. It's not unlike mining. "Once it has extracted what it needs," she explains, "it doesn't care what happens to the rest."
What's even less sexy is the high number of vacant dwellings, the slow death of communities and the increasing homeless population. Condos, townhouses, and apartments sit empty as neighbourhoods become ghost towns owned by anonymous foreign buyers who never set a toe in their luxury homes. One of Gertten's many interviewees is Joseph Stiglitz, an American economist and a professor at Columbia University, who remarks: "There is an actual disconnect between the people living the house and the people owning the house. Owning the house is only a means of making money."
Working with two female cinematographers, Iris Ng from Toronto and Janice d'Avila from São Paulo, Gertten follows Farha as she travels to Toronto, Valparaíso, Stockholm, Barcelona, Seoul, Berlin, London, and other cities. In each, she shows the audience the process by which affordable housing becomes a token for private equity firms, hedge funds, investors, and criminal networks to drive up their profits while forcing out ordinary citizens.
Roberto Saviano, the famed investigative journalist and author of the book 'Gomorrah', explains: "You buy things on the cheap with legal money... a restaurant, hotel or houses. Then you sell those properties to your company in a tax haven. Your offshore company buys those assets, bringing the money back to England, Italy or Germany. If you want to bring your dirty money back into your country, you must simply buy assets that you can sell to yourself at a much higher price than you paid. Companies don't want inexpensive real estate. They want to pay as much as possible, to be able to hide more money." He later quips: "What do Queen Elizabeth, Shakira and Apple have in common? They all have part of their capital in tax havens."
Condos, townhouses, and apartments sit empty as neighbourhoods become ghost towns owned by anonymous foreign buyers who never set a toe in their luxury homes.
Singled out for particular scorn is private equity firm Blackstone, one of the main biggest players in the global property business and worth more than twice (!) the world's total GDP. Unsurprisingly, Blackstone's head of real estate was unavailable to be interviewed for the documentary.
In Harlem, New York, Farha meets a man who spends 90 per cent of his income on a flat, but his tiny unit housing project has just been bought by a huge private equity fund and he may soon end up paying a sum he can't afford. There is a powerful interview with a man who escaped from his flat in Grenfell Tower who mentions that "watching the fire was like a physical representation of the displacement in a community". She also visits Seoul, where homeowners on one estate were violently kicked out of their homes to make way for an apartment scheme that never happened; and Berlin's trendy Kreuzberg, where locals are trying to buy up treasured buildings to protect them from demolition.
"Who is going to live in cities? Who are cities for?" Farha wonders a few minutes into the documentary. "What do we think people need to have in order to have a dignified life?" These are vitally important questions that we should all ask ourselves by the end of Fredrik Gertten's 'Push'.