A newly released short film explores the highs and lows of life for travellers and van dwellers in Bristol caught between rents they cannot pay and a government that wants to criminalise their very way of life.
Home, released on January 22 and available to watch here, is ‘a political documentary about the effects of the housing crisis in the UK,’ said the film’s maker Laura Sanchez Diaz, a 24-year-old former UWE student of documentary screen production.
At just over eight minutes long, Home gives a snapshot of life for van dwellers and travellers as they respond to rocketing rents, a response which can bring freedom and a sense of community, but which also imposes vulnerability on those who choose this life.
Rental prices across the UK are rising faster than ever before, with Bristol leading the national trend – average monthly rents in Bristol now stand at £1,700. Van dwelling is a solution to which more and more people are turning.
Speaking to TBA, Laura explained the choice of subject matter was informed by her own experience of living in a caravan for a time as a consequence of sky-high rents when she lived in Bristol.
Attracted at first by the alternative lifestyle, Laura said she soon found that life in a van is not always idyllic, with ‘no electricity, no running water, the vulnerability of being exposed on the streets,’ all leading Laura to ask herself ‘had I made this choice freely, or was I forced into it?’
This same quandary is faced in the film by Viga, who has chosen life in a van to escape the status quo after eight years of struggling with rent increases. Sitting on top of his van to enjoy a cigarette as the sun sets, Viga personifies the independence and isolation of a life on the move.
Home segues from loneliness to the sense of community that alternative housing can create. To capture this Laura spent time at Rockaway Park, a collective community of artists and van dwellers south of Bristol where people excluded from mainstream housing have created their own homes together.
Laura said that she wanted to show van dwelling as ‘a slow paced life of quiet activism against rising prices, that isn’t necessarily for everyone, but is something that everyone should respect.’
Through the film Laura hopes to hold the government to account for the extent of homelessness in the UK, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. She also wants to challenge prevailing narratives in the media which she argues portray travellers as ‘antisocial, dirty, and often criminal.’
Over nine months, Laura spoke to dozens of people who live in vans or caravans, either because they can’t pay rent, have been evicted or have experienced homelessness before. She said: ‘It was challenging to encounter so many people with difficult life experiences, but it only strengthened my resolve to tell this story.’
The film comes at a time when van dwellers and travellers are facing the end of their very way of life courtesy of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently on its way through Parliament.
Part 4 of the Bill criminalises the former common law offence of trespass. This means that anyone residing or with intent to reside on a piece of land without the landowner’s permission or ‘reasonable excuse’ can be arrested, fined and have their vehicle seized. Given that travellers live in their vehicles, the implications of the new law are obvious.
The film opens with footage from the Glenfrome Road eviction in May last year, at which Laura was present with her camera. An estimated 75 people were evicted by a small army of bailiffs and police from a former gasworks site which had been empty for years.
Remembering what it was like to watch police and bailiffs remove the occupants of the site, Laura said the worst thing was seeing a community being broken apart. ‘These people had nowhere else to go. They were homeless now. This is the result after every eviction,’ she said
Speaking of the effect the Bill will have on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities Laura said that it will ‘have a huge impact on the mental health of these people. It would throw them into to jail [sic], poverty, or homelessness while tearing families apart.’ Adding: ‘If the government cared about the people in these unauthorised encampments, they could increase the number of places permitted for them to stop and reside legally.’
Laura adds that the Bill ‘will not only affect the GTR [Gypsy, Roma, Traveller] communities. The legal wording of the Bill is so open, which means trespassing could be just walking through a field. It could result in the loss of your right to freely explore the land in which you live.’
Looking ahead, Laura said she has only just scratched the surface of this subject and would consider returning to make a longer film in the future.
That this will be possible speaks to the harsh reality that the issues raised in Home are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. As Laura said, ‘with the direction the housing market is moving in, prices are only going to continue to rise, which means these problems are not going to go away, no matter how many laws the government passes.’
Home is a subtle and thoughtful insight into the impact of the housing crisis in the UK, showing how the rampant commercialisation of housing affects us not only financially but also in our very sense of identity and belonging.
Feature image: Laura Sanchez Diaz.