It seems fitting that this year’s London Film Festival hosted the world premiere of How We Used to Live: a gorgeous ode to the city’s past. The film is a collaboration between director Paul Kelly and indie band Saint Etienne, with a poetic mix of subtle pop music and old footage sourced from the BFI’s National Archive.
Central London is presented as an innocent stranger in images and short clips dating from the 1950s to the 1980s; the landmarks are recognisable, although the optimism is harder to find. A sparse voiceover by Ian McShane adds small subtext (including an amusing line about ignoring strangers on the Northern Line) but knows when not to intrude – the succession of nostalgia and harmonies is enough.
At no point did I feel the voices of Kelly or Saint Etienne overwhelming the subject matter of How We Used to Live. Rather than call it minimalist, I think selfless is a more accurate adjective of their approach. I’ve lived in London all my life and, due to age, was unable to recognise much of the city apart from the shapes of roads I frequently walk on.
It’s possible to write a lengthy essay about what the film is saying, although I sense that would be one’s unfair appropriation of the ego – for 70 minutes, the “truth” behind the archive footage allows the viewer to find their own interpretation. After all, Thatcher’s influence lurks like an unwelcome presence because of chronological progression, but there’s a strong city spirit underneath that survived the war and industrialisation.
The filmmakers previously worked on a trilogy of London tributes (Finisterre, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day and This is Tomorrow), and their experience is evident in the documentary’s natural flow. The structure of How We Used to Live sounds easier in practice, but is a technical skill in execution – one of pristine timing and artistry.
How We Used to Live made its world premiere as part of the London Film Festival’s “Sonic” strand. More information can be found here or at Heaven.