Songs for the River (2021) Open City Documentary Festival Review

Songs for the River (2021) Open City Documentary Festival Review

Songs for the River (2021)
Director: Charlotte Ginsborg

Like many world-changing disasters, the Coronavirus pandemic has already inspired some great art, from Cold War Steve’s satirical collages on Twitter to Rob Savage’s Zoom horror Host and Kevin Macdonald’s crowd-sourced documentary sequel Life in a Day 2020. Charlotte Ginsborg’s documentary Songs for the River is another important work, a document of life during Covid, focusing on the experience of the residents of Brandrams Wharf riverside social housing co-operative in central London.

Ginsborg’s film is sure to highlight from the beginning that these tenants are lucky to be equal shareholders in their properties with no private landlord above them, that their home lives shared with their neighbours saved them in previously unimaginably difficult times, as “Capitalism can’t handle a pandemic – you need a different system”. It is in many ways a little utopia.

Filmed between April 2020 and January 2021, we follow the Brandrams Wharf community and how they cope with lockdown life and the developing Coronavirus pandemic, in particular highlighting their daily singalongs to lift their spirits and stay connected with each other.

The singing kicks off with an acapella solo of “Jolene”, and throughout the film we’re treated to, among others, an atonal but passionate group rendition of “Ring of Fire” and a genuinely lovely version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.

One resident cheerfully states that “It doesn’t matter if the tune matches the original intended by the artist, we just sing it loudly!” It’s very tempting to join in and sing along yourself, looking back on living through a pandemic and thinking of all the the things you tried for the first time, or picked up again for the first time in years, in order to stay sane.

Another woman comments on locked-down life: “What it’s made us do is slow down… time seems to move fast but you’ve slowed down”. Living in a normally hectic metropolis like London is almost unrecognisable when “The river’s quiet and the city’s quiet and the air is clear and beautiful and shining”.

One of the NHS workers living in the co-op voices her immediate concerns at the beginning of the pandemic, and this certainly hits harder now knowing the precarious state of Health and Social Care in the UK then and especially now: “I don’t know how long we can sustain just the staffing level if we have to continue at this pace the whole time”. Paintings, pictures and messages of love and togetherness were left in windows throughout 2020 for passers by and particularly key workers to see, which alongside the nice but futile weekly gesture of clapping for the NHS and carers was all really for nothing without the country’s vital lifelines receiving meaningful support from their government.

Boris Johnson’s early most-repeated government slogan/soundbite “Stay at home, protect our NHS, save lives” is a monument to his government’s botched policy-making and incompetent handling of the pandemic, and this takes a real and thoroughly deserved kicking throughout the documentary through perfectly selected clips from news coverage. Johnson blaming care home staff for the rise in infections versus the response from charity Community Integrated Care, “We’re almost entering a Kafkaesque alternative reality where the government set the rules, we follow them, they don’t like the results, then then deny setting the rules and blame the people who are trying to do their best”. The “tired, superficial exercise” of the daily briefings at the pandemic’s height is shown to be the nonsense it was.

This is a very tightly focused document of pandemic life, the experiences of one community, so it can’t tell the whole story. This is a micro rather than a macro story and it is certain that others were better and worse off than the people we follow in this documentary during the year of Covid. You have the joy and the love of the residents of Brandrams Wharf sticking together, talking and singing. You hear plenty of their comments on the disastrous loss of life and the Tory Government’s ineffectual response to it over a year: “There’s incompetence on one hand, but there’s an arrogance on the other, and as a combination they’re just really dangerous”, “We’ve been led by donkeys and it’s been embarrassing… the lack of humility, that you can’t admit you’ve made mistakes”.

Coming back time and again to lingering shots of accusatory stares straight into the camera from the documentary’s interviewees say it all really, their palpable anger standing in for so much of the British population’s similar feelings. If you’re going to leave with a positive after watching Charlotte Ginsborg’s Songs for the River, it’s that taking joint responsibility as a community, showing empathy for everyone and being there for those who need you is possible, and is more likely to happen on a mass scale after living through such a nightmarish experience such as the Coronavirus pandemic. “Real changes are happening here and now, with your neighbours, your street, inside you, and if enough people do that then we are the many and they are the few… that is where the real change is happening”.


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