There are few things more poignant than watching footage of a child playing who has since died. Little Mehdi, who must have been about six or seven, creating a huge mural outside his home with dinosaurs and aliens fighting for supremacy around his neighbourhood, is one such sequence. His neighbourhood was the relatively deprived district of North Kensington in London, only yards away from some of the most expensive real estate on the planet, and his home was Grenfell Tower. He did not survive.
His is one of the very many moments captured in Grenfell: The Untold Story (Channel 4) by Constantine Gras, a filmmaker who, just by chance, was working with the tower’s residents before the disaster. Well, not exactly by chance, as it happens, because he’d been appointed as artist-in-residence by the Grenfell Tower TMO (or Tenants’ Management Organisation, though the tenants played no part in it) a couple of years before the fire that took the lives of 72 people, 18 of them children such as Mehdi. The idea was that he would document the expectations and aspirations of the residents as their home was refurbished at a cost of £10m to Kensington and Chelsea Council. However, as Gras himself states, “maybe a part of it was what’s known as ‘artwashing’, papering over the cracks behind the refurbishment”.
It didn’t turn out that way. Gras did his artwashing, but also took his camera along to the various meetings held between residents of the genuine tenants’ association, the TMO and the constituency MP at the time, Victoria Borwick. We see the arguments grow ever more acrimonious, and the general impression (allowing for editing, admittedly) is that the residents were continually being given the runaround, and that their concerns, general and specific, were not being listened to. Borwick, it has to be said, didn’t do herself many favours by declaring that she was powerless to intervene on the residents’ behalf. They simply thought their elected parliamentarian, and part of the governing party at national and borough level, probably did have some informal power, though strictly speaking it was all up to the council.
In any case there was much bitterness about boilers, windows and lack of water, but nothing about what we now know about the fateful decisions being taken by the TMO and various contractors and consultants about the cladding and its fireworthiness. The reason why those conversations are “missing” is that the people in the tower weren’t consulted or informed about very much during the redevelopment. Even so, after a smaller fire in Shepherd’s Bush had highlighted the dangers to the London Fire Service and local authorities, and concerns had been raised in a residents’ blog entitled Playing With Fire, they were still ignored. And we know what happened next.
Before, during and long after the fire that engulfed them and changed their lives forever, the people who lived and died in that inferno were and are being ignored and disrespected. Only the other day a story was leaked to the papers (not covered in this film) about the tower being demolished, which was the first the survivors’ group heard of it. Had they been treated properly and told about the cladding materials, they would surely have objected, or asked questions, but the impression they had was that the council was just “putting lipstick on the tower”.
As is the habit, the architects and engineers and managers thought they knew best. But it was not they who had to listen on a mobile phone to their loved ones being cremated alive. The most important message from this remarkable film comes in the insistent words of another grief-stricken survivor, Willy, who says that the government need to “get off their arses, tear the cladding off every tower block, and let people sleep at night”.