A new documentary called The 4th Act looks at the massive regeneration project that took place in Ballymun over 18 years. It will premiere at the Dublin International Film Festival this year. rabble sent Tomás Lynch to catch up with Ballymun native and film director Turlough Kelly to get the whole story.
What was it prompted you to make the film?
We got access to Plunkett Tower, which was the last remaining tower at that time. There was still two people living in it at that time. We initially planned to make fifteen short-films set within the tower, as a little portmanteau-type-film. It quickly became apparent it had to be a documentary, because the story hadn’t been told properly – someone had to tell it.
Can you run us through what the film is about?
It’s a non-linear history of the regeneration of Ballymun, and the ideological and social connotations of what happened there. It’s about the relationship between the state and local communities. Beyond that, it’s about how memory is affected by power relations, how people can begin to doubt or inwardly dispute their own memories, if their perception of those memories is changed by external actors, which is what happened in Ballymun.
So would you say the regeneration has been a success so far?
You can only answer that by looking at it from the different standpoints of the actors involved. From the standpoint of Ballymun Regeneration Ltd [BRL], it was a success. The overall objective was to rehouse everyone in Ballymun within the confines of the original community, while demolishing the high-rise landscape and leaving everyone in situ.
They’d argue that they’ve done that. They’d argue that a lot of what was perceived by people in the community as negative byproducts – the loss of community self-organization and of forms of social solidarity that had existed for decades – they’d see that as a maturing of the community, that shift from grand political narratives to atomised, individualized, personal concerns – this idea that you’d be liquidated as a self-organized community and reborn as rational consumers, homeowners and individuals.
How did the community take that?
People were aware that they were likely to lose a lot of the bonds of solidarity that were very hard-won over decades. But they were also being sold a vision that was quite seductive to them.
It’s similar to some of the processes that happened in Eastern Europe in the late 80s where people very willingly engaged in a process that they knew was designed to dissolve the social bonds that had formed around them throughout their lives because they thought they were gaining something else from it.
Whatever about Eastern Europe, in Ballymun people are now quite sceptical about a lot of those petit-bourgeois ideals that they were sold.
In the film one of the people you interview talks about ‘architectural solidarity.’ Can we speak about ‘an rrchitecture of the oppressed’ – an urban planning that would be liberating by design?
I don’t think it can be imposed. In Ballymun, as in other regeneration projects throughout the world, even in ones that were quite well-intentioned, which I don’t think Ballymun was, there was a realization that you couldn’t necessarily impose a modus vivendi on people. At every single juncture when local communities wishes came into conflict with the needs of the state and of developers, those won out every time.
That kind of project is never going to be hermetically sealed. It’s dependent on the social structures that exist beyond it, in order to be preserved and defended. Cities are notoriously resistant to planning, even to ‘Thatcherite neoliberal non-planning’ planning. They tend to demand more of planners than is dreamt of in their philosophy.
In the film one of the people interviewed mentioned that one of the problems in Ballymun was that there wasn’t enough of a social mix. But this never seems to be a problem in Dalkey. Why is it implied that working-class people can’t have a viable community if left by themselves?
That concept of ‘mixed tenure’ and ‘mixed communities’ actually came from the post-45 Labour government in the UK. It was quite a progressive concept to begin with. Nowadays it’s just a fairly transparent rationale for gentrification. But the idea then was that there would be an exchange in both directions – investment bankers would learn about the values of working-class people. Nowadays it’s the idea that middle-class petit-bourgeois values are superior.
At one point in the film the artist Jochen Gerz was talking about how Ballymun was going to look ‘a little bit like Vienna.’ Is this something Dublin working-class communities should be aiming for?
I don’t think so, but it’s very seductive to the people who make these decisions. You see it happening in Stoneybatter and Smithfield. It’s a superficial vision of what the good life is, and it’s all about consumption and play.
It’s not about examining the underlying social bonds and social tensions within a community. It’s all quite decorative. It’s visible and that’s what they like about it, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the reality of what’s happening in the community and what the people in the community actually want.
Ballymun gets a lot of cultural treatment, between your film and the radio play Snow Falls… by Alan O’Brien, and even before you have Adam & Paul and the RTÉ series Prosperity. You don’t see other working-class areas getting the same cultural treatment. Why is Ballymun such a huge thing in our collective psyche?
Ballymun was instantly recognizable. Right up until the last tower came down Love/Hate was filming out there. They shot their promo from the only vantage point where you could still have the tower in the background because the rest of it was gone. They were determined to still make use of that visual metaphor, which is what it was.
If you look at those films, none of them were explicitly set in Ballymun. It was completely denied its specificity. It was there to represent an entire stratum of working class life. There was never any serious cultural engagement. It was just the backdrop. What we’re trying to do is wrestle back a little of that specificity and a little of the genuine experiences of people who lived there, rather than just making use of it as an edgy mise-en-scene.
Do you think there was a conscious government policy of neglect of communities such as Ballymun?
The drugs issue and the portrayal of that is a very powerful way, if you’re going to go into a community and reshape it, of stigmatizing it from the outset. The drugs issue was massive, I grew up around it – but it was always portrayed in a very superficial way with very little focus on why this was happening here and not in Foxrock, say; and how the community had organized to combat it, often in a quite a compassionate way, not in the same confrontational way as Concerned Parents Against Drugs.
The decision not to support the community or provide services is an ideological decision that happens at the highest level. It wasn’t a grand plan to run the community down and then gentrify it, but that opportunity wasn’t lost on them. The conversation within the halls of power moved quickly to how can regeneration serve our ends, and not the community’s ends.
The only thing that was outside the confines of ‘social partnership’ was community organizations. They hadn’t been integrated into the state in the same way. Ballymun was one of the most militant of those communities. If you could form a template from Ballymun about how to defang community resistance, that was something that was going to be beneficial to the state.
The 4th Act will be showing as part of the Dublin International Film Festival on Sat 25th Feb at 6:15pm in Cineworld and on Sun 26th Feb at 4:30pm in the Lighthouse Cinema.