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Tuesday 21 April, 2020

This is a list of docs to watch online for all those people who, like us, have found themselves missing the thronging streets this week. Missing the youthful energy of London coming into bloom. Missing the crowded cinemas, the pubs, the restaurants and the bookshops - all filled with friends, ideas and languages from every corner of the globe.

We miss our London. We miss being able to explore its oddities without feeling guilty. And whilst our relationship with the city may not have always been healthy, we miss enjoying its (relatively) care-free, often extortionate joys.

So to cure our incurable hankering, we thought - as always - the only possible solution could be lots and lots of documentaries that focus on the metropolis we so know and love. This is that list. We hope it cures your “saudade.”

An image looking down London's Hoxton Street. In the middle of the road walks a street cleaner, wheeling his equipment. Off in the far distance you can see the high rises of the city looming at the end of this traditionally working-class street.

1. The Street (Dir. Zed Nelson)

If you’re in any way attached to London’s East End, and you miss the sense of its tightly-packed, close-knit community, then you have to watch this ode to Hoxton Street from artist-filmmaker Zed Nelson.

Himself a life-long Hackney resident, Nelson’s film captures perfectly the contradictions of a council estate that is slowly being encroached on by the gentrifying high-rises of the city. It’s a beautiful demonstration of just how complex Hoxton’s community now is.

This recommendation was emphatically seconded by Maya in our Social WhatsApp Group this week (see more below).

You can watch this film online on Curzon Home Cinema, and watch our Q&A with the director here.


A black and white photo of a group of white, working-class women of all ages, wearing cleaning uniforms. These are the "fluffer" cleaning ladies of the old Angel underground station.


2. 40 Minutes, Heart of the Angel (Dir. Molly Dineen)

Now a rightly celebrated episode from the BBC series 40 Minutes, this doc is BAFTA Award-winner Molly Dineen’s subterranean, observational snapshot of Angel underground station in 1989, three years before it underwent a desperately needed renovation.

Made up of footage filmed over 48 hours underground, this doc is a much-needed fix for those who are feeling a little nostalgic for the hustle and bustle.

If you’re a true aficionado for the happenchance, the humourous and the sometimes downright irascible exchanges that take place on the Tube, then this doc is for you!

This film is currently free to watch on BBC Iplayer.


An old image of a war memorial. The edges of the image are filled with two big, dark columns of a grand building. Out in front of us, we see a plinth with names on it, and on either side stands statues of soldiers facing outwards.


3. London (Dir. Patrick Keiller)

This classic of British psycho-geographic cinema sees filmmaker Patrick Keiller assumes the persona of a fictional urban flaneur by the name of Robinson - alluding to the famous castaway conceived of by fellow Londoner Daniel Defoe.

The result is a generous, softly spoken account of the capital in 1992, narrated by Paul Schofield. This essay film takes in everything from everyday life to some of the city’s older idiosyncrasies. It pays homage to the beauty of London’s forgotten historic fragments, and unblinkingly confronts more challenging recent events too.

This recommendation was seconded by Steven in our Social WhatsApp Group this week (see below). You can watch this film on BFIplayer.


A retro, atmospheric panoramic picture of the London skyline. The buildings stand like dark silhouettes on the horizon, with cranes in the distance. The sun reflects brightly off their roofs, and the sky is thick with hazy smog.


4. Finisterre (Dirs. Kieran Evans, Paul Kelly)

Trace the influences of the “big thriving beast” on the English indie pop band Saint Etienne. Originally from Croydon, the band rose to fame in the UK’s dance scene in the 1990s, and this is their co-created, kaleidoscopic love letter to the city that inspired them.

Featuring lots of famous London insiders, and influenced by films like Patrick Keiller’s London, this psycho-geographic journey from the fringes of the suburbs to the heart of the city, is a great companion piece, if you enjoyed the above.

You can watch this film on BFIplayer.


Against a building's plain white wall stands three men. On the left is a British Asian man, dressed in casual clothes. In the middle is a skinny, white man in a road sweeper's uniform, and he leans on a broom. On the right is a portly white man in a suit.


5. Men of the City (Dir. Mark Isaacs)

A hugely relevant look at the lives and perspectives of a variety of different male workers who practice very different trades in the financial hub of the City. 

Crossing multiple class and cultural lines, Isaac’s look at people’s working lives, from a high-end hedge fund manager to philosophical street sweeper, feels like mandatory viewing as society now re-evaluates what a “key worker” is.

Filmed during the wake of the 2008 credit crunch, this sensitive portrait of diverse individuals striving to retain their dignity and humanity in the midst of the crisis feels almost prescient.

You can watch this film on Docsville.


An abstract drawing of London, that has the buildings drawn in coloured blocks and squiggly lines for the Thames. The artwork is from the film's poster, and says 'London: The Modern Babylon' and 'A Film by Julien Temple' on it.


6. London, The Modern Babylon (Dir. Julien Temple)

If it’s the unforgettable, intoxicatingly global and multicultural flavour of London that you’re missing right now, then this doc by Julien Temple, himself a born-and-bred Londoner, is the electrifying filmic feast you need right now.

Released in the run up to the London 2012 Olympic Games, and supercharged by an infectious soundtrack of London’s greatest hits, this is a beautiful celebration of all the immigrants, bohemians and free-thinking newcomers who have changed the city forever.

Inspired by a quotation from Benjamin Disraeli, this time-travelling suitcase of archival snippets takes you right to the heart of London’s modern history by stitching together clips from a hundred years of both cinema and music.

This recommendation was seconded by Steven in our Social WhatsApp Group this week (see below). You can watch this film on BFIplayer.


A high-quality images of two Black British young men leaning against the railings of a London council estate. They stare intently into the camera. They are the main focus, and the background is blurry,


7. The Hard Stop (Dir. George Amponsah)

Not everything is always as it should be in our often troubled city, and as the police are given greater powers during the lockdown, this is some suggested viewing for those of you who feel ready to tackle a more lacerating topic.

Speaking directly to the traumatised friends and loved ones that Mark Duggan’s shooting left behind, George Amponsah’s hard-hitting doc is a powerful reminder of the tensions in our society, which that wrongful death revealed as it gradually ignited the London Riots in 2011.

Brilliantly and compassionately made, this doc is also a timely reminder: that those who are given powers to protect us sometimes need to be held to account for how they use them.

This recommendation was seconded by Sunil in our Social WhatsApp Group this week (see below). You can watch this film on BFIplayer.


A beautiful image of the structure of two red-painted cranes, towering high above London on a clear, sunny day.


8. The Solitary Life of Cranes (Dir. Eva Weber)

If you’re mildly drawn to the weirdly empty vibes that the lockdown is creating, and the sort of sense it generates of seeing London totally afresh (and in a way you might never see again), then this short doc is the pensive, poetic treat you need to heighten that awareness.

Shot entirely from cranes erected around London, this stunning birds-eye-view film reveals a new side to the city you thought you knew. Voiced over by the musings of the crane drivers who always keep a watchful eye over London, we promise this doc will make you see London’s urban sprawl differently.

You can watch this short on Disney+.


A panoramic CCTV camera installation from London's tallest building, The Shard. The sky is a bright, clear blue, and an eastward view of London bathes under the sun, far below.


9. London Live Streams

If you’re a die-hard non-fiction fanatic and nothing but the real stuff will do, why not glue your retinas to a series of webcam live streams from across some of London’s most iconic panoramas?

With viewpoints including The Shard, Westminster Bridge and Oxford Circus, this is the perfect way to remind yourself that you live in one of the world’s greatest cities. If you’re cooped up in a small flat, we highly recommend these indoor opportunities to take in the gorgeous, unseasonably summery views.

Or if you’re a committed digital curtain twitcher, and you can’t resist a good tut at all the folks who aren’t abiding the lockdown rules right now, this is pretty good for that too.

These are pretty readily available on Google. You can find some of these free streams here and here.


A retro images of a middle-aged white man in a 60s styled grey suit and wearing a flat cap to match. He stands between two buildings, where a small alleyway starts. A sign about him says 'Cardinal Cap Alley'.


10. The London Nobody Knows (Dir. Norman Cohen)

If it’s the flair of London’s swinging 1960s haydays that you really miss, then you should be sure to fill an evening with this trippy and fascinating time capsule from a bygone age before London’s extensive redevelopment in the late 60s.

Narrated by James Mason, this mid-length doc is a beautiful elegy that unearths many overlooked and more neglected undersides of London’s past.

You can watch this film on Amazon Prime.


An unusual image of a Black British man standing in 18th-century dress, with a long, bright white wig on; behind him is what looks like a modern council estate. He looks to one side, as if round the camera.


11. Estate, A Reverie (Dir. Andrea Luka Zimmerman)

This piece by the London-based artist filmmaker was nominated for the Grierson Awards’ ‘Best Newcomer Documentary’ in 2015, and is another brilliant exploration by the director of the space between documentary, collaborative filmmaking and performance.

Intimately and affectionately focusing on a dreamlike lost-world of misfits, outcasts and survivors, this documentary is a deeply moving portrait of a community struggling to survive in a boarded-up London public housing project.

Filled with the themes of survival, dignity, solidarity, it’s a very emotionally appropriate film for the current moment.

This recommendation came from our WhatsApp Social Group (see below). You can rent this video on Vimeo.


If you'd like to join our Social WhatsApp Group, to share documentary viewing recommendations with like-minded non-fiction enthusiasts, click on the following link (Please note: By clicking this link, your number will be made visible to other members in the group). Click here to join.