Poster for PUSH. Credit: WG Film ABI

By Josh Lalonde

PUSH is a 2019 documentary directed by Fredrik Gertten that covers the global housing crisis and, in particular, the displacement of low-income renters. It follows the Ottawa-based United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing Leilani Farha as she travels around the world and speaks with people threatened with displacement from their homes and neighbourhoods.

Between her meetings with residents of Toronto, New York, Barcelona, and other cities, we see portions of interviews with sociologist Saskia Sassen, economist Joseph Stiglitz, and journalist Roberto Saviano. They explain how housing displacement is connected to global finance, real-estate speculation, and organized crime.

The strength of the film is the way it puts a face to what can seem like abstract problems, such as gentrification or financialization.

The strength of the film is the way it puts a face to what can seem like abstract problems, such as gentrification or financialization. The residents facing displacement are given a chance to speak for themselves and explain why they want to stay in the neighbourhoods where they are being pushed out. The human cost of treating housing as an asset for speculation is clearly displayed.

When it comes to solutions, however, the film is noticeably lacking. The film concludes with Farha convening the inaugural meeting of a new organization called The Shift, dedicated to “[realizing] the fundamental human right to housing,” but does not make clear how this goal will be achieved.

The vagueness of this strategy is reflected in the composition of the meeting. It is certainly strange for a movement against housing displacement to include New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio – who championed a project to build Amazon’s second headquarters in New York, which was protested and ultimately defeated by local housing activists because of its potential to displace long-time residents.

The struggles of activists, like those who defeated the Amazon project, are mentioned only in passing in the film. In the Toronto segment, we hear from a resident on rent strike, but the film does not explore the strike or who is involved in it. Viewers could easily come away with the impression that this strike was simply an isolated act of desperation by the individual resident, rather than part of a widespread campaign that has organized a number of successful rent strikes across Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.

This disregard for political struggle in turn leaves the film without a clear sense of who the enemy is. While the victims of displacement are given a human face, its perpetrators are not. 

The film’s insistence on viewing everyone as a potential partner in the movement for adequate housing reaches comical proportions when we see Farha making a prolonged – but ultimately futile – attempt to arrange a meeting with a representative of Blackstone. Blackstone is one of the private equity companies buying up low-rent real estate around the world and displacing its residents. Farha insists that if she could only meet with him, she would be able to convince him to change the company’s ways.

So, on the whole, the film does an excellent job of exposing the forces pushing low-income renters out of their homes, but does not explore the many ways people have fought back. It is not by convincing mayors and hedge fund managers of the importance of adequate housing that poor and working people will save their homes and neighbourhoods. It is by concerted and organized collective struggle against them.

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