Art

Grenfell by Steve McQueen review: A powerful and haunting reminder

Steve McQueen's art film Grenfell is a powerful and unflinching examination of the aftermath of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire.

Birds-eye shot overlooking the green pastures and misty blue sky in an opening shot for the Grenfell film by Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, Grenfell, 2019 (still)

Almost six years ago, on 14 June 2017, the country looked on in horror as a high-rise block of flats caught fire in North Kensington. The faulty cladding of Grenfell Tower may as well have been kindling for the aggressive fire that lasted for 60 hours, taking the lives of 72 residents. In the time since, Grenfell has taken on the status of a modern-day cautionary tale about injustice and imbalance in our society. The fire may have been six years ago, but the haunting feeling is ever-present. Opening this week at London’s Serpentine Gallery, filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen’s Grenfell is an intimate 24-minute art film that gives us a glimpse inside the flats of Grenfell in the months following the disaster.

The film features a single, unbroken shot captured from a helicopter, providing a unique perspective on the aftermath.

We open the familiar sounds of a busy world; the hum of traffic, birdsong, planes and police sirens. A striking wide shot of greenery and a creamy blue sky follows, as we hover over the outskirts of London. The camera’s slow, deliberate movement gradually pushes us closer into the heart of the capital, where the densely populated pulse of human life becomes increasingly evident. 

Rows of nondescript houses packed tightly together and a steady flow of traffic underscore the fact that despite the tragedy that occurred at Grenfell, life goes on. 

We’re waiting for Grenfell to be revealed. After several pregnant minutes of a god’s-eye view pushing ever closer to the tower, we feel suspense, even fear. 

The angle takes a sharp right-hand turn as we drift into the cluster of buildings and houses and see the misty, congested fog that hangs over the city. 

The sound is vacuumed, silence. Then there it is. A charcoaled block stands alone; dried and vacant.

We pan, 360 degrees, circling the tower. McQueen gives us a tenacious look into the emptied rooms, the bones of what 600 people once called home. 

Grenfell is meticulously aware of its viewer. You are the eyes, unflinchingly examining the destruction. Through prolonged observation, the building becomes humanised, its rusted cladding like scorched wounds, its scaffolding like the greyed skeleton that hangs the peeling panels that remain. Sunlight peers through the damage and highlights the shapes of what was inside the rooms. 

Steve McQueen © Photo James Stopforth

This burned framework is a reminder of the blaze that consumed lives and homes of impoverished families.

McQueen captured the film in December 2017, before the building was wrapped in plastic and hidden from view. “I knew that once the tower was covered up, it would start to leave people’s minds,” he says in the show notes, “I was determined that it would never be forgotten.”

Watching the film, you can’t help but feel like you’re bearing witness to murder. 

Steve McQueen is not shy when it comes to gazing into the ugly face of national shame. 12 Years a Slave delves into the brutality of the slave trade. Hunger explores the devastating impact of political violence on the human psyche, through the story of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Shame examines the depths of addiction. McQueen’s films are uncompromising in their portrayal of difficult subjects. This film is no exception, and while it may differ in theme and tone, the emotional impact is just as powerful.

McQueen visited Grenfell in the early nineties to see a friend who lived there. He also had family based in the surrounding area, and even ran a second-hand clothing stall at a market nearby. This community is close to home, McQueen says he was “in pain” when he heard about the fire.  

As the war against immigrants rages on, protests are being suppressed, and the wealth gap continues to widen, this film could not be more timely. Against a backdrop of growing public concern over abuses of power within institutions like the Met, the film’s themes strike a chord. 

Yet the detached, birds-eye perspective of the film, coupled with the sterile setting of the Serpentine, creates an emotional distance. Grenfell deserves a more intimate and community-focused venue, one where the audience could truly immerse themselves in the story. I couldn’t help but wonder if the film would reach the people who could truly connect with its message. And whether the people who should see it, would. 

Having said that, Grenfell has one clear intention: to remember that fateful event. The final shot clings onto the charred remains of the building, an unforgettable image that sears itself into our memories. 

The film offers a graceful tribute to the survivors and families of those who lost their lives with a promise that this story, this bleak tragedy will stand as a call to action for justice, equality and accountability. Grenfell is not just a film, it’s a statement, and the tower that watches over the ongoing traffic and passers-by is the mascot for change. 

Book your free tickets to see Grenfell by Steve McQueen at Serpentine South Gallery between April 7 – May 10

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