Constantine Gras: My Week: I documented Grenfell residents fighting for safety in their homes two years before the fire

·3-min read
 (Handout)
(Handout)

At the start of this week I’m on holiday, hugging an ancient yew tree. Swimming, or more accurately, floating as I can’t really swim. Driving a hired car for the first time in 20 years. And helping to host a Twenties jazz party in the West Sussex village of Coldwaltham — never having been to a jazz party before.

As a Londoner born and bred, I have escaped the tensions of the big smoke and am experiencing new rustic and exotic delights. But I have been waiting for a call. When I receive one it jolts me back to inner city reality. I might be needed in London for voiceover work on the final cut of Grenfell: The Untold Story.

I’ve always struggled to find the right words and to speak up for myself. Is this a common legacy for children of migrants trying to fit into British culture? I’ve reached mid-life now and have found my voice as a visual artist. I’m comfortable with looking at the world through the lens of a camera.

It was as a film maker that I documented the Grenfell Tower community two years before the fire. The footage captured residents fighting for safety in their home. I couldn’t release the footage before now because the police were using it as part of their investigation. So I have been waiting anxiously for the airing of the documentary that used this footage. It was a difficult decision to hand it over to the team at BBC Studios producing the film and trust that they would make a documentary which would do justice to the residents and expose the terrible neglect in the events leading up to the fateful fire.

I have also been reflecting on how I have changed since Grenfell. I have been working as an artist on Wornington Green estate near Grenfell Tower. It is 10 years into a 20-year regeneration and the voices of residents are still not being heeded over the felling of hundreds of trees. I have climbed several to save them from the tree cutters and taken petitions to Kensington town hall.

On the same day as the Grenfell documentary is released, Channel 4 is also platforming A Spell For Wornington Green. It’s a short film I directed that is told from the poetic perspective of estate resident and playwright Natasha Langridge as she calls on mystical powers to protect birds and trees from destruction.

The day after the screening of these two films, I was cycling along Golborne Road and met a fellow artist, Sophie Lodge. After the Grenfell Tower tragedy, she created Come Unity Heart. Sophie gives me a hug and tells me how poignant and powerful these films are for our community. It is being connected to friends in my neighbourhood that matters most to me.

At the end of this cathartic week I can now breathe and relax. But I am already thinking about another project that involves my late father, a Pole who settled in England after the Second World War. His life contained a dark secret that I recently unearthed in the Ministry of Defence archives. The stigma of those events 70years ago shaped his life. I want to bring his lonely and unique voice to cinematic life.

Grenfell: The Untold Story is on All4; A Spell for Wormington Green is on YouTube

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