It was a powerful exchange, which I hope it is going to be just the start of a series of collaborations and common fights. These spaces of encounter are possible only via mixing academic and activist work in ways that are not dictated by the scholars involved, but are aligned with the grassroot politics at play in the context of action.
Several activist groups and communities concerned with the right to housing in Italy have organised screening of my documentary A inceput ploaia/It started raining in the peninsula. One of the aim of this film is precisely that of being used as a ‘excuse’ to allow for genuine discussion around eviction, displacement and the fight for the right to housing to take place in various locales across Europe. After similar screenings in Romania, Hungary, Croatia, the UK, Austria and more, I am particularly happy that this is happening, now also in my native country. From the 15 to the 19 of January 2018, screenings will take place in Rome (two times), Naples, Florence, and more will be organised in Milan and Turin.
16th January, Rome – From 6pm at the Squat Metropoliz
Starting from 6pm, we will meet at the squat Metropoliz (which host also the self-managed MAAM). After an aperitivo we will screen the film for the inhabitants of the squat, and in particular for the Roma people living in there (who moved there after having being evicted from a Roma camp some years ago). The idea is to stimulate a debate around the living conditions of Roma people in Rome but also to allow for the Roma of Metropoliz to express their sentiments about the occupation and other political strategies of resistance.
Thanks to my friend and excellent photographer Valerio Muscella for organising the event.
17th January, Rome – From 9pm at the Cultural Centre Apollo Undici (via Bixio, 80/A) (Info on Facebook)
Always in Rome, this time at the ‘Centro aggregativo’ and cultural centre Apollo Undici, for a screening that will be followed by a debate featuring the most active, grassroots, voices fighting for housing in the Italian capital. Thanks to the organising efforts of Sandra Annunziata, of EtiCity, a number of incredibly interesting people will take part to the discussion following the film. These includes: the evicted inhabitants of via Curtatone, activists for the ‘Coordinamento di Lotta per la Casa, activists of Action and of Spin Time, representatives from the Sportello di Lotta per la Casa of Magliana, of the anti-eviction network, and of the ‘Comitato Abitanti Milano Sansiro e Asia Milano’.
Thanks to Sandra Annunziata for the organisation, to Giacomo Ravesi for allowing this to happen in the spaces of the Apollo, and to my friend Claudia Meschiari for her original idea and continous support.
18th January, Florence – from 6pm at Complesso le Murate (via dell’Agnolo)
This will be a screening and a debate organised for PhD students, focused on participatory visual methods. Giovanni Attili (who worked extensively on visual and participatory methods with Leonie Sandercock) will act as discussant.
Thanks to Francesco Chiodelli and the GSSI for the invitation and sponsorship.
19th January, Naples – From 1pm in Scampia and then screening and debate from 6pm at the Ex Asilo Filangieri (Info on Facebook)
This time in Naples, one of my favourite city par excellence, for a full day of talks, debates, screening and food. The screening has been organised at a time of political tension in the city in relation to the housing need of its Roma people. In particular, the aim of this screening is to boost the debate around the conditions of two communities or Roma living in the areas of Scampia and Gianturco. The first, in particular, have faced evictions and relocations, and are now living in very precarious conditions (like many other Roma in the city). To the full day of activities – including a walk in Scampia, meetings with the community and a large debate in the evening – have been invited key figures of this struggle, from local activist to representatives of the affected communities. Below the detailed flier of the event.
Huge thanks to Emiliano Esposito (GSSI) for the idea and effort, to Emma Ferulano for the excellent organisation, to Fabio Amato and to all the other friends from Naples for the energy, time and effort put into this event.
As part of a European campaign promoted by the European Action Coalition aimed at raising awareness around the financialisation of housing, the Frontul Comun Pentru Drept la Locuire (of which I am part) has organised two days of activities on the 5th and 6th of October in Bucharest, Romania. These includes the launch of a national coalition for the right to housing and the city (on the 5th) as well as a public protest (on the 6th) and a three-hours workshop that I will run (always on the 6th).
The workshop is entitled ‘Visual Ethnography for Radical Action‘. In it, I will critically illustrate the making of ‘A inceput ploaia‘, a 72 minutes documentary around the fight for housing in Bucharest, in order to provide an introduction to the use of visual ethnography as a tool for radical action. In the first part of the workshop, issues of positionality, methodology and co-production of knowledge will be illustrated and discussed. In the second part, I will offer an overview of the main challenges associated with visual anthropology, both theoretically and practically. Groups will be organised and participants will be asked to perform a series of exercises around the making of visual analysis and the production of alternative visual representation of marginalised groups. Lastly, the third part of the workshop will consist in group works revolving around the opportunities of visual methods as a tool for radical action in Bucharest and elsewhere in Romania.
To take part in it, please send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Clicking on the image below you can download a flyer summarising the content of this workshop. All welcome!
In what follows I want to offer my perspective on how I came about making a 72 minutes film on forced evictions in Bucharest, Romania, which is called ‘A început ploaia’ (‘It started raining’). The film is about evictions and displacement in the Romanian capital and, in particular, about the story of a community of Roma people that fought against their displacement with uncanny and inspiring endurance. I have written about the interrelation of housing, race and capital in a short piece in Open Democracy and, more recently, I have reasoned around the possibility of sustaining grass-roots forms of resistance like the one represented in the film in a paper published in the pages of Society and Space (Revitalising the uncanny: Challenging inertia in the struggle against forced evictions).
This text is a more personal and auto-ethnographical narrative of how I encountered Bucharest, its people, struggles and forms of resistance. This text is an attempt at showing the fragility of urban ethnography; at rendering visible the possibilities of active engagement; and at giving justice to the wonderful people that made the film and many other things possible, starting of course with the community of Vulturilor 50, from which I learned – and I am still learning – a very good deal.
Since my first visit to the country – in 2003, for my Erasmus – I have always had a special attraction to Romania and to Bucharest in particular. The city is simply alive in a sense that many other cities are not – full of its contradictions, grey blocks, broken sidewalks but also beautiful mingling in open and closed markets, vast public parks, improbable decadent restaurant serving you amazing mamaliga, salata de vinete, caşcaval pane si murături & more. This is possibly why, when I was writing a post-doc application while living in Sydney (Australia), I decided to make it about Bucharest and its ‘margins’. Although Sydney and UTS were a rewarding break from my previous work around homelessness in Turin, Italy (see for instance this, this and that), at the time I also felt the need to come back to Europe and to embark, once again, in a long-term ethnographic project. Luckily enough the people at the Urban Studies Foundation(USF) believed in that project, financed it, and allowed for my return to the UK (where I ended up working in Cambridge with my PhD supervisor, mentor and source of constant inspiration, Ash Amin). This was the beginning of 2014. Six months later I was in Bucharest, ready to start my fieldwork around a ‘problematic’ neighbourhood in the city, Ferentari. That fieldwork never took place, at least not in the way I was expecting it to.
Accordingly to my Post-Doc project – which I probably wrote in one of those moments of over-enthusiasm about life, possibility and strength – I was aiming at doing three case studies, in three different cities: Rome, London and Bucharest. The case studies had to be of extreme marginalisation in specific areas of those cities, with the aim to construct alternative forms of understanding and knowledge about (and with) those spaces and people. In the end, I became entangled with Bucharest so much that I never moved from there, continuously living in the city for a year, and constantly coming back thereafter. During this time I changed research project a dozen times, opening up and closing down possibilities and ideas, while receiving an incredible support from Ash and Chris Philo, head of the USF, without whom this work wouldn’t have been possible.
During the year in Bucharest my main ethnographic work was focused on street level drug use and services for users across the city, with particular reference to a couple of streets in Ferentari and the underground canals of Gara de Nord (on the latter, look at the wonderful work of my friend Massimo Branca, now published in a book with an intro by myself). Eventually, I will publish about that research and I will try to give it the justice it deserves. The reason why I wasn’t able to do so until now (mid-2017) it’s simply that, in September 2014, only after a month living in Bucharest, I received a phone call by another good friend – who at the time was just a name in my list of people to contact: Marian Ursan, head of a local NGO called Carusel. The conversation was more or less as follows.
Me: Hi Marian, it’s Michele, the researcher….
Marian: Hi Michele. Yes. I know. We have to meet. Where are you now?
Me: At Unirii, near the main library… why?
Marian: Bine. Come in Vulturilor. I am going there. An eviction took place and I am going there, people are all over the place.
Me: But are you sure, what if…
Marian: I’ll see you there in half an hour, pa!
At the time I didn’t even know where Vulturilor was and I had no idea of what Marian was talking about. I turned my GPS on, looked at the map and, seeing that the place wasn’t too far from where I was… I decided to give it a go.
That day of September 2014 I stumbled across the aftermath of a massive eviction in which 20 families (around 100 individuals) had been thrown out onto the street after having lived for many years — for some up to 20 — in the house they were now only able to see from the pavement. The first thing I did was to help people moving stuff, to hold this-and-pass-that, to play for a few second with a kid before turning and starting to do something else. In those first moments I was lost: I did not know anyone there and no-one knew me. I had no purpose and no understanding of what was going on. Almost as an instinct, without knowing what else I could have possibly done, I picked up my camera and I started taking stills of those moments. I wasn’t the only one. Journalists and photographers were a constant presence during those first days, alongside a number of activists, NGOs’ staff and volunteers, as well as the occasional politicians. Most of them were gone after a few days. The people of Vulturilor however kept, for the most part, on staying on the street. They did not want to move, unless the Primarie (municipality) was able to offer them a viable alternative to their eviction and consequential homelessness.
Without entering into details, which are instead explored in the film, it is worth stating that those people were (and still are!) entitled to social housing by Romanian legislation. The provision of social housing is, however, almost completely absent in Romania, counting for less than 1.5% of the total housing stock. Moreover, as it has been well documented, the allocation of this stock follows corrupted paths, which for the most do not include Roma ethnics like the people of Vulturilor (for an overview of this, read Irina Zamfirescu’s excellent paper or look for the works of Liviu Chelcea. A provocative but truthful account of housing racisms in Romania, which I wrote for Open Democracy, can be also found here.
The evicted people of Vulturilor – about 70 in the first few months after the eviction – decided to dwell on the street to protest against forced displacement and to fight for their housing right. This came as a surprise to many, including long-term activists and experienced social workers, as the general understanding was that, in Romania, Roma people simply do not protest with such virulence and visibility. Although, as confirmed by Amnesty International, they are ‘disproportionately affected’ when it comes to forced evictions, Roma ethnics tend to find alternative accommodations within their extended families and friends. They are, after all, used to be displaced and to being pushed at the margins in Romania (but also everywhere else in Europe). The case of Vulturilor was, however, different: the evicted, perhaps strong of their number, decided to stay, protest, and make their voice heard. The power of such a choice affected a number of activists – such as the one belonging to the Frontul Comun Pentru Drept la Locuire (FCDL – Common Front for Housing Rights) – and NGOs – such as Carusel: a community of solidarity was immediately created. Tents were built, food cooked and distributed, clothes collected and donated, and moral support given around the camp’s fire every night.
During those days (from September to mid-October 2014) I still had no idea of why I was going to Vulturilor. I simply kept going there, every late afternoon, accompanying Marian and the other amazing people from Carusel (like Ana, Cristina, Andreea, Iolanda, Ion, Roxana and my brother Bogdan), helping them with the distribution of food or second hand clothes. I felt, in a sense, that I was there as an activists… but of a strange kind. I was looking up to some of the powerful local activists (like Veda, Ioana, Victor or Irina) carrying on the burden of helping people with concrete actions – such as completing the dossier for social housing – and I was finding myself almost out-of-place. I was attracted to the people of Vulturilor, their story and most of all, to their uncanny resistance. But why was I there? Why keep on going there? In the end, no one really needed me or my camera, for what mattered.
It was a Saturday, the 25th October 2014. I remember that I woke up in my flat in the Southern part of Bucharest thinking, shit!Rich and fluffy snowflakes were falling outside my window, for the joy of kids and the discomfort of many others including, in particular of course, the ones living in the provisional tents on the sidewalks of Vulturilor. I dressed, took my bag and rushed into a taxi to get there as soon as possible. I still remember that in the journey to Vulturilor I asked myself: and now, what would I do? Why am I going? What can I offer? When I arrived, the people were standing around the fire, trying to warm themselves up, while the tents were for the most part collapsed, leaving everything inside cold, wet and unusable.
Despite all that mess, the community was calm, and so were the activists. They had, in a sense, nothing left to worry about beside their own body. Without having much else to offer, I provided accommodation at my flat to whom needed it until the weather turned better (the owner of the flat, a Roma himself, eventually forced me out of the property because of this action, arguing that I wasn’t supposed to host ‘such people’). It was decided that I would take care of a family with a substantial number of minors – four. Two taxis brought us back home, things were arranged, and while the parents rested and the younger kids played, myself and their older sister cooked an Italian pasta that – to say the truth – it wasn’t very well received: matter of taste!
From that moment on, my relationship with the community became tighter and more sophisticated. In a sense, I guess, they were now able to locate me as someone caring about them, not only because of my daily bodily presence around the camp, but also because of small, concrete acts of care. Beside hosting some of them when needed, this ‘caring about’ was made of simple gestures, including chatting, offering a word of support, printing and distributing pictures, or simply hanging around and make everyone laugh with my broken Romanian. It was through those small acts and gestures, those bodily transpositions and assemblages, that I became increasingly entangled with the everyday life of people in Vulturilor. Even if I was going there mostly in the evenings only – since during the day I was still researching about drugs in other areas of the city – the assemblage of that street, those people, the fire, shacks, documents, wood planks, cigarettes, coffees and my body… gradually became a quintessential part of my life in Bucharest.
That assemblage was however still lacking a clear political scope. There was, of course, a micropolitics of care going on… But just that, I believe, wouldn’t have been enough for me to carry on my involvement with the community. Fortunately, one day of November 2014 something powerful happened. Nicoleta, a young working mother among the most vocal against the eviction, approached me and said she wanted to talk. I can’t honestly remember why… but we ended up talking in the back of her father’s taxi, while her brother was driving it to bring something to their cousin, somewhere else in the city (serendipitous Bucharest!). More or less, this is what she told me.
Nicoleta: You took many pictures, from the beginning, right?
Me: Yes, I have a lot!
Nicoleta: And you have also video as well?
Me: Some, but I can make more.
Nicoleta: Here things are not moving. All it’s the same. And we need people to know. We need the media to know. We need to create some noise, or nothing will change!
Me: I agree. What do you have in mind Nico?
Nicoleta: I don’t know. Why don’t you put this pictures online? Why don’t you send them to the media, the TV?
Me: Because they won’t publish them. They are not interested in this stuff.
Nicoleta: So let’s do a Facebook page! Let’s do a page where we write about life here and you put your pictures, and we’ll tell everyone how we are living!
Me: This is a great idea! Let’s do a blog.
Nicoleta: Un jurnal?
Me: Da, un jurnal!
The first blog post was published just a few days later at www.jurnaldinvulturilor50.org, where it can still be read. Thanks to that idea, Nicoleta gave to my presence and my activism a scope that I wasn’t able to find on my own. In a sense, she made me politically relevant. From that moment on we worked together, up to the very end of 2015, producing more than a year and an half of posts featuring Nicoleta’s writing, which was representative of the community’s experiences of resistance and frustration toward the authorities. It is because of the blog that, in the end, I became more systematic in my recollection of visual material. Parts of what later entered into the film was indeed originally purposely created for that platform, like this clip showing the indifference of the Major of Vulturilor’s sector, Mr Robert Negoiță, to the situation.
I kept on going to Vulturilor almost daily, up to the time in which I had to leave Romania and move back to the UK (June 2015). During those months I made numerous recordings, which for the most part did not make their cut into the documentary (in total, about 700 short clips). Before leaving I organised all the video that were published on the blog on a timeline, burned that into a number of DVDs, and distributed those to the community members, which at the time counted about 40-50 individuals, still living on the same sidewalk where I found them almost a year before.
Leaving wasn’t easy. Although I had nice memories and lots of new friends, in June 2015 I left Bucharest exhausted – by its streets, buildings, cigarettes, food. I couldn’t bear Ferentari anymore, nor the harm reduction centre where I had spent ten consecutive months; I couldn’t afford to think, even remotely, at the underground canals of Gara de Nord; and I wasn’t motivated at all to keep on going to Vulturilor. Toward the end my visits became shorter, less meaningful, almost out of a sense of duty more than care. Although my friends made me feel good, throwing good parties and telling me that they were going to miss me, I knew that I hadn’t achieved enough during those months. What I was leaving behind? What kind of impact did I have in the live of the people I encountered?
During the summer, back in my shared flat in London, I reviewed some of the videos but I soon realised that I did not have the strength to approach them systematically. As it always happens to me after a long fieldwork, I was tired, demotivated and fundamentally depressed about what I had been doing in Romania for all that time. During that summer only my partner’s advice kept me from deleting everything and trowing all that ‘garbage’ – this is how I was referring to my videos and pictures at the time – away. It is mainly thanks to Eleonora – and her cinematic experience – if later on, during the Autumn, I started to reconsider that video material as something interesting and potentially meaningful.
While trying to organise them into a coherent database (something that, by the way, never happened!) the idea of the documentary came about. It seemed to me that those videos, if properly arranged, could have spoken back to Nicoleta’s original request: to let others hear their story; to give to the community’s fight for housing an even stronger voice. In other words, those videos could become a way to translate the experience of all those months in Vulturilor into something meaningful and relevant not only for me, but also for the people I encountered and spent time with. This is a peculiar kind of translation which an academic paper cannot achieve. As my experience of writing an ethnographic novel for my homeless friends in Turin back in 2011 taught me, creative methods can allow for empowering experiences and impact (I wrote about that experience in here). That is why, in the end, I convinced myself that a documentary was needed.
In November 2015 I went back to Bucharest and I conducted, in four days, a number of interviews with a number of key experts on the country’s housing history and related struggles (thanks in particular to Liviu, Mircea, Petre and Mihaela for their time!). These interviews allowed me to complete the material I already had and to move a step closer to the production of the film.
I started editing the film in the first days of May 2016, roughly six months later than I was expecting to do. This was mainly related to the fact that in that time I had to pass through the laborious process of securing a permanent academic job – something of which I will eventually say something elsewhere! Without having any previous experience of editing – but also without having the proper hardware – I ended up largely under-estimating the task. The first cut of the film took almost three very hard full weeks of work, including weekends and most of the evenings.
At the end of May 2016 the first cut was ready but I didn’t do anything with it. Only in mid-June I decided to export everything, to go back to Bucharest and to organise a workshop with as many community members as possible in order to receive insights and feedbacks from them. Irina – a scholar-activist working at Active Watch – and Veda – a key activist from the FCDL – helped in the organisation of the workshop, which took place in Macaz, a social centre in Bucharest in mid June 2016.
The workshop was a powerful experience. There was a good number of community members (about three of the remaining five families still living on the street at the time) as well as a number of activists and scholars. I was terribly stressed, not knowing if the extreme low quality of my cut and of the video would have been good enough for the audience to enjoy. Most of all, I wasn’t entirely sure about the film as a whole: did I produce something representative of the community’s struggle? Did I get the nuanced Romanian housing history right? Did I allow for complex issues to breathe or did I over-impose my own Western perspective on them?
The discussion that followed radically re-shaped the structure and, to a certain extent, the content of the film. If ‘A început ploaia’ is what it is today – a feature documentary of 72 minutes, with a coherent beginning and an hopefully meaningful end – it is also because of the feedback that I received that day in Bucharest. People from the community asked me to cut things, to move scenes and to allow for their experience to be more represented in the film; activists challenged me on the framing I gave to the documentary, providing a strong post-colonial critique of some of my choices (for which I deeply thank Veda); while scholars allowed me to better understand some aspects that I had over-simplified. Everyone agreed, moreover, that I had to present myself in the documentary – something that I did not do in the first cut, which however became an important feature of the final version (for this comment, I thank Charlotte, Alina, Robert and Irina Z. in particular).
In the end, I left Bucharest energized but also scared: now I had to make the changes and I had to finish the project. I created an expectation that I had to meet.
The post-production of a film is a huge endeavour, especially if one has no budget and all work has to be done either in-house or through friends. The post-production of ‘A început ploaia’, which involved editing, colour grading, sound mixing and creating the animations featured in the documentary, started in mid-November 2016 and it was over by the beginning of February 2017. A lot of work was put into its making, in particular by a bunch of amazing individuals: my partner Eleonora (which edited the whole thing, animated the content and collaborated at the colour grading), my friend Vong (who did an amazing work in creating the graphics, the website and the poster of the film), and my two old pals Francesco (who cared about music licensing) and Alessandro (who mixed the audio). All of these people virtually worked for free, just believing in the project. A lot of help was also given by three Romanian friends: Alina (who translated everything in English), Irina Z. (who provided constant support and was able to record Nicoleta’s last contribution to the film) and Irina G. (who was of incredible help for the music). Eleonora, in particular, deserves further appraisal, for being able to cope with an academic-husband who is also, at least momentarily, a director: the worse combination ever. The film taught us a lot and I am grateful for having had her on-board.
‘A început ploaia’ is the product of all of these people as much as it is mine. I take responsibility for it, but they should take the credit for making it possible.
‘A început ploaia’ was presented officially at the One World Film Festival in Bucharest, 13-19 March 2017 (with a preview in London on the 24th of February, 2017, at UCL thanks to Pushpa Arabindoo and Claire Dwyer). The film was well received by the general public, with interviews and the likes featured in a number of outlets in Romania (see for instance here, while more are under production and will come in the second half of the year).
Most importantly, the key moment for me was a private screening and party organised by Veda and the activist of FCDL at Macaz, for the people of Vulturilor, Rahova Uranus and the ones involved in the resistance of those community against evictions and displacement. The speech that Nicoleta gave that day after the screening; the tears of her father; the vivid attention of other members of the community and the engagement, at all level, of members of the public (activists, scholars, artists and more)… The fact that people came to me telling me that they felt represented by it and also proud of how it was, of how they were represented in it… That atmosphere of solidarity was the best return I could ever get from this film and the best moment in its making.
What is yet to come
The future of this project is still, for the most part, unknown. I hope for it to become an active testament of the fight for housing in Bucharest – one that will be used by activists, evicted people and researchers to strengthen their resistance to displacement and to fight continuous harassment. In order to work toward this direction, I would like for the film to be seen by three kind of audiences. Firstly, I am organising screenings for activists in different European cities. The idea is to travel with Veda and Nicoleta to discuss the film and its story of resistance across the continent, in order to create new solidarities or strengthen existing ones (for instance the ones already in place through the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and to the City). Groups in Barcelona, Berlin, Budapest, Rome and more are responding and activities will be organise throughout the summer and fall 2017.
Secondly, I want the film to travel in Film Festivals to engage with a community of professionals who may be interested in co-producing similar works in the future. In this regard, I have submitted the film to a number of international Festivals and I hope for it to be screened in a number of venues across the whole 2017. Similarly, I would also like for it to be broadcast on TV, especially in Romania, to stimulate a debate around the racialisation of housing and the right to the city that is much needed in the country. Giving the political nature of the documentary this may be very hard to achieve.
Lastly, I would like for my fellow colleagues in the academy to watch the documentary and to discuss its activist visual-methodology. Some colleagues have been incredibly supportive (like the one sittings in EPD’s board, or the friend in the Relational-Poverty Network in the US); others have been scornful of the possibilities of being an ethnographer, a scholar and also a film-maker. In any case, screenings have been organised in a number of international conferences (AAG 2017, RGS-IBG 2017 and RC21 2017) and I am always open to the possibility of seminars and workshops. The film is, to me, an open tool to be used, debated and mobilised in order to work toward its original inspiration, which came from the people of Vulturilor in Bucharest: to fight against displacement and for the right to housing for everyone, in every city.
Dates and locations of future screening will be publicised on Facebook and on the film’s website. If you are interested in organising an activist screening and/or a debate, an academic seminar, or if you simply have ideas and projects to share, please contact us at email@example.com.
In the summer 2018 we have been awarded the Antipode Scholar-Activist award, which will allow us to continue the work with Nicoleta and the community. We will produce a book and a guide against forced evictions in Romanian and English. All info here.
Social and Cultural Geography has recently published a paper that took me many years to write and to think upon — it is called The ethnographic novel as activist mode of existence: translating the field with homeless people and beyond. The paper is about the way in which I ‘translated’ my fieldwork with homeless people in Turin into something more powerful than ‘bare’ academic research — namely, a composite book called ‘Il numero 1’ made of a full-length ethnographic novel, a participant introduction, 21 illustration by Eleonora Mignoli and a political essay at the end. The book was oriented toward an activist interventions that I call, following Latour, ‘mode of existence’: a way of doing and living research that exceeds the boundaries of canonical forms of knowledge production and engagement.
I hope this paper will inspire people to experiment with creative methodologies in ways able to de-centre ourselves (as researcher) and re-centre the meaning of what we do in empowering ways. The abstract is below and the paper can be downloaded on S&CG’s website or, for free, on this website or on Academia.edu.
The ethnographic novel as activist mode of existence: translating the field with homeless people and beyond
The paper argues in favor of creative methodologies as tool for relevant academic praxis. It provides the analysis of a concrete case in which a non-academic text – a composite book made of a participant’s introduction, an ethnographic novel, 21 graphic illustrations and a political essay – allowed for a meaningful re-appropriation of a fieldwork with homeless people in Italy. Such re-appropriation is understood and theorized as a research-activist ‘mode of existence’, namely as a way to use creative methodologies to pursue active and emancipatory engagement with vulnerable groups. The paper analyses this ‘mode of existence’ as a process made of several ‘translations’, or orientation toward the same interests, and it clearly shows the role of non-human agencies in their unfolding. Through its more-than-human narrative, the paper provided an innovative contribution to debates on research-activism and a new reflection on how to engage meaningfully with vulnerable groups. The conclusion highlights areas of improvement to further strengthen the activist-research mode of existence presented in the paper.
Tomorrow I will be at the School of Urban Studies and Planning, The University of Sheffield (RJ Room Geography and Urban Studies Building – 17.00 – 18.30). I will deliver a seminar around my work with evicted people in Bucharest, Romania, and I will also spend some time talking about the role of visual ethnography in pursuing research-activist goals.
‘Eviction, Enactment and Entanglement: ‘Inertia Creep’ and Committed Positioning at the Urban Margins.’
The paper investigates the case of 100 Roma people evicted from their homes in early September 2014, near the centre of Bucharest, Romania. Soon after the eviction, a wide range of NGOs and grass-roots activists (including the author) mobilised to support them. Their effort included assistance in building provisional shelters on the near-by side-walks, where families and individuals eventually dwell for more than one year in order to demonstrate their dissent. Following the unfolding of this story, and via the presentation of extensive visual-ethnographic material, the paper provides a unique account of the interplay between eviction (from one’s own house), enactment (of a prolonged protest in public space) and entanglement (with the everyday doing of homelessness). The major contribution of this work consists in showing and analysing the role played by an apparently irrelevant power — inertia — in determining the logic of eviction; in moulding the everyday doing of entanglement; and, consequentially, in affecting the political capacities enacted in the protest.
The paper in this sense contributes to academic and non-academic debates on occupation, displacement and urban activism, with the aim to strengthen our capacity to imagine alternative strategies of resistance. Moreover, offering some evidence from other ethnographic work carried by the author, the presentation will also reflects upon the intersection between academia and activism arguing in favour of a ‘committed’ form of positioning.
Open Democracy has published the piece I wrote on Eviction and Housing Racism in Bucharest. The piece narrates the story of the Vulturilor community, which has been living on the street since 1 year following their eviction on the 15th of September 2014.
(The text below is a reasoning about the above video, which can be also watched here)
Today I woke up at 3am in order to get my flight back to Romania. I obviously was very tired tonight, having being around all day, but I decided to go to Vulturilor anyway. Good choice. Otherwise I would have missed the encounter with a very respectable Romanian politician: Mr Robert Sorin Negoiță.
Negoiță is the Major of Bucharest’s Sector 3, where the Vulturilor st – and thus the Vulturilor case – belong to. Besides tired people, ruined tents, cold, and a provisional fire (things that belong to the realm of the usual in Vulturilor), one of the first thing that I noticed tonight was a flyer, posted on the iron fences separating people from their old houses. The flyer was calling people to take part to a public meeting, to be hosted in a public space (a park), attended by a public figure: our endearing Robert Sorin.
And so I went, together with one of Vulturilor’s family, which we will call ‘A’ family: mother, father and three beautifully noisy copii (kids). One thing should be said loudly and clear: Negoiță, as any respectable politician would do, was perfectly on time. Seven he stated on the flyer, and at seven he was smilingly taking off his SUV to be embraced by people. By his people. I mean, not the supporters: the bodyguards. A bunch of muscular bodies surrounding him from the very start, of which I will say in a minute.
So Robert Sorin the Great takes off his SUV and is surrounded by people, and family ‘A’ is on the front line. They greet Mr Negoiță, they smile too, and here language is important: when they start talking to him they are very polite – so polite that for a moment I though ‘What the hell is wrong with them?’, ‘Why they do not jump on his head with more anger, having being in the street for almost 60 days?’. But no. Mother ‘A’ and father ‘A’ are just polite citizens inquiring their Major about their own situation: an eviction, which the Major and his predecessors have done nothing to avoid, which put them in the street beaten and dispossessed. So they ask. And it is their right to do so: it is a public meeting, public figure, etc. So mother ‘A’ says (more or less, but the meaning is there): ‘Mister Negoiță, find me a house, since I am on the street since two month, and I have four kids, please [the Romanian-polite version of ‘please’, ‘ve rog eu frumos’)
And Negoiță replies: ‘Are you from Vulturilor?’
Mother ‘A’: ‘Vulturilor 50’
Negoiță: ‘Why don’t you accept … [Pause]… What I have proposed you?’
Here we should recall what Negoiță has proposed to the Vulturilor people: a financial help to rent on the private market. Great, one could say. But one could say so only ignoring some simple facts: that the help is given only for 6 months; that it is not clear if the help is given per person or per family (a quite relevant detail, if you consider that many of these families are quite numerous); that for many of these people will be hard to find a place to rent, since they are Roma, full of kids, and with precarious working conditions; and that, in the end, to tackle a long-term structural problem (the lack of housing) with a short-term financial help is like curing cancer with paracetamol. In this sense, Negoiță’s offer is the classical political manoeuvre: it does not seek to solve the problem (a long-term solution for the evicted people) but only to claim that something has been done, or at least proposed. By refusing the offer, in the eyes of the public the evicted people end up refusing an act of benevolence, of help, and are immediately guilty of ingratitude. (Which is the most common plague for the ‘poor’: they are never satisfied, they are never happy, they want always more).
Father ‘A’ wants something more – more than being an evicted homeless guy. There is a passage in which he clearly states who he is and who he wants to be. He simply states: ‘We work. We pay’.
And here Negoiță replies, brilliantly: ‘Since you work and pay you should rent a flat!’
Father ‘A’: ‘But where?’
Negoiță: ‘The city is full of those!’
Father ‘A’: ‘The city is full… Where?’
The city is full of flat to be rented: Negoiță is right. But he is not portraying the full picture here. Let’s take the following, hypothetical case, as example. You are a researcher coming from the UK and you want to rent a flat in Bucharest. Easily 50% of the housing market is too expensive for you – you with an average income that is at least 5 times that of a Romanian researcher. So you turn your attention to the other 50%. Within this 50%, after many days spent looking around, making phone calls, and many useless appointment, you find a place that could work. In order to rent it, you have however to pay for the first month in advance, to give a deposit equivalent to one month, and to pay a lump-sump to the agent that has brought you to the place. This is a lot of money, even if you are a researcher coming from the UK. Now let’s take the same situation changing characters. Instead of the researcher you have ‘A’ family, composed by two adults having a provisional informal job, and three kids that make noise like a bunch of drunker in an open-air discotheque. Moreover, ‘A’ family does not come from the UK, but belong to the most neglected ethnic minority of the country (and possibly of Europe). Finally, they do not have the luxury of looking for an house while living in a hotel, surfing the web sipping a cold beer – but they have to do so while living in a tent, pissing in an empty parking lot, wearing the same clothes for days, etc. Indeed, Negoiță is right. The city is full of flats to be rent. But there are not enough ‘right’ people that could eventually rent them.
However, this is just part of the story. The reason why I am so glad that I went to this public meeting is not because I finally saw Negoiță’s smile (all my pleasure, really), but because I felt, bodily felt, the violence of a State, of a City and of a Town Hall that do not care about their people, do not care about dialogue, but simply try to harass and control; to appear and to hide; to go straight without ever turning back. I invite you to look closely at the short video posted above. Beside the bare fact that Negoiță run away as soon as ‘A’ family started questioning him – therefore reducing his public meeting to a matter of minutes – there are other interesting details to highlight. Have you noticed the numerous shoulders and harms that appeared in front of my camera as soon as I started filming the exchange? Did you pay attention to the flashes fired directly into my camera’s objective, in order to disrupt the filming? Did you see the guy stretching his harm in front of me, tactically impeding me to film? Or have you paid attention to the cohort of three-four guys whom, like a human wall, impede me to follow Negoiță’s escape? What surely you could not notice from the video are the numerous kicks, the bumps on my backpack, the two tackles I received from the back, the people suddenly crossing my path thus impeding me to move, and the overall bodily pressure ‘to stay back’, to do not advance, to be in place. A place, that of ‘A’ family and I, which obviously should not be the same as Negoiță’s.
But there is one more thing that is impossible to get from the video: this is the overall affective atmosphere of the place. For a moment I felt in danger – the eyes, the hands, the kicks, the muffled words. I felt in danger for ‘A’ family, which courageous exposed themselves in that meeting, and for the kid I was carrying by hand during the all duration of the video. What could have happened if I would have run toward Mr Robert Sorin Negoiță? Would have his bodyguards – who were dressed in civil clothes, such that one could not distinguish them from the crowd – allowed me and the kid to safely arrive at destination? Would have this man, this Major, this public figure, accepted a civil questioning? I did not had the chance to prove him, since he surrounded himself with men purposely trained to safeguard him from such endeavour.
What happened tonight is sad. I wish more cameras and more people were there, to catch the details of an only namely ‘public’ machine that does not allow its own citizens to peacefully question their Major. What happened tonight is sad because one should not fear such public events.
In Italy, when I was younger, I attended many public protest against the extreme rights and other fascist movements. At the time it was easier to see the enemy, to tackle it, and to defend oneself. Tonight I felt that the enemy here – in the Vulturilor case and possibly not only – is subtler, less evident, but still ready to let its violence (being that verbal or physical) to be discharged. I invite Mr Negoiță to prove me wrong: let’s have a true public meeting, one in which we can discuss the point listed above, without the need for someone’s body to intrude, to stop, to control. I do not know if this is going to happen. What I know is that tonight was a short, sad, night but also one that charged me with hope. Look at what ‘A’ family can do. I felt in danger, but is Negoiță the one who run away. And this is only thanks to ‘A’ family. One of the many families struggling against the madness of eviction and the nonsense of a privatize public realm.