Joe Wilson’s film, Old Kent Road, is an intimate portrait of the road and those who call it home.

Old Kent Road is a historic and cultural hub, an ancient road that connected Roman Londinium to the wider empire. It remained semi-rural for centuries, its development a gradual response to the travel of drovers from Kent, who would drive their cattle into the heart of London via the road. The story of the drovers is remembered in a mural atop the old Kentish Drovers, a pub built to accommodate weary workers. Fragments of history, the multiple industrial uses that have shaped the road today, punctuate it along its 3-mile length. From the remnants of the Surrey Canal to the rusting gas holders, disused space sits alongside that of contemporary use.

By the latter part of the 20th century, the road appeared drab and dilapidated. The Victorian housing stock had become run-down, and the conception of the flyover contributed further to diminished living standards. It was evident that the Old Kent Road’s function was that of an artery, pumping traffic both into and out of the city.

The transitory nature of the road has seen it labelled as an ‘in-between’ space, separate from the neighbourhoods of Walworth, Peckham, Bermondsey and New Cross, where the community is less clearly defined. This is a notion that is challenged by the people who appear in ‘Old Kent Road’, by Joe Wilson.

The film opens with Wilson speaking to an inebriated local man who, evidenced in his words and by an enormous Millwall tattoo on his right arm, possesses a deep attachment to this area of North Peckham.

“One game I was good at in all my life was Monopoly, and the Old Kent Road was the cheapest thing on the Monopoly board…(be)cause there’s some good people here mate…but there’s some bad people ain’t there”.

Andrew, local resident and Millwall fan.

The people of Old Kent Road are honest and share their opinions matter-of-factly. Wilson instils an ease between himself and this diverse community, allowing them to freely share their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Wilson, as a practitioner, has a clear interest in comprehending the breadth of human experience.

WT: Could you explain your interest in the Old Kent Road, as well as your wider interests as a filmmaker? What do you find yourself drawn to and inspired by?

JW: "I wanted to start a project where all I had to do was leave my house with my camera and have no other barriers to the production. Old Kent Road is a place nearby that I’ve always basically lived or worked right next to, so it seemed like an obvious choice. It has the Monopoly connotations of cheapness, and being a poor area, but from my perspective, it seemed like a place full of nuance and stories. Also, around the time I shot the film, it felt like a lot of other places nearby were going through more conspicuous changes, whereas Old Kent Road felt like it maybe wasn’t receiving the same sort of regeneration and I thought it could be good to document it before those inevitable changes came.

I was watching a lot of Vox pop-style archive footage that was super simple and I wanted to try to make something of my own using a form that is stripped back, where you can’t hide behind crazy visuals or high production values.

My filmmaking practice in general is often centred around small pockets of British life. In the past, I’ve made films that focus on rave culture, service stations or the modified car scene, and a lot of my paid work looks to explore football and the culture around it. On top of this, I am drawn to the landscape of the UK and how you can use that to tell stories about people and communities. It all just fascinates me, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of just driving around and seeing what I can find."

The camera, for the most part, is held below head height. Its position in the centre of the body affords an uninterrupted view between Wilson and the subject, allowing for ‘regular’ conversation. A juxtaposition is created between these moments and those of the non-speaking portraits that punctuate the film. 

There’s a performative element to these interactions; you can sense the moment at which Wilson has eased the subject. The scepticism towards the camera dissipates and their comfort extends to them entering into conversation. The topics of conversation vary; a man provides a brief history of the road and another speaks of his long association with the area. Wilson speaks with others about life and death. Some begin to sing and others show their tattoos. We come to understand the profound struggles faced by some of these people.

Despite this ‘performance’, the film retains a truthful and honest tone, one that recognises and celebrates the collective identity of Old Kent Road and its people.

WT: Were there any considerations you had to think about before making this film, regarding filming within the community? How did you approach the interviewees for this film? 

JW: "I wanted to keep things small in terms of my footprint, so it was pretty much always just me on my own which puts you on a level playing field with who you are speaking to, as opposed to having a crew of multiple people bearing down on someone. I always spoke to people first to explain the project and ask if they were happy for me to film them. If so I would take my camera out of my bag. I kept everything in a public space and tried to keep things brief, often 20-30 minutes, to not intrude too much into someone’s life beyond the time and place we met. 

"For the most part, they were all fleeting interactions. I just walked around and started chatting to people. I liked the challenge of meeting strangers and getting them to try and open up in some way quite quickly. I would just have to judge if it was going to work or not and then run with it or move on." 

Joe Wilson

In my paid film work, almost everything has to be carefully planned due to the number of people working on something and the budgets involved, so by the time you get to the shoot, it is just putting that plan into place. Whereas for this, I essentially couldn’t plan any of it, aside from putting myself in a certain place at a certain time. Going out in the morning not knowing what I was going to come home with that evening was a blessing and a curse, but it is what gave me the buzz that is hard to replicate in commercial work."

WT: On that, did you have set questions that you asked people, or did those change across the filming days? What were the questions, and why did you choose these?

JW: "The general method I used was to start with a fairly easy, generic question about what they were up to and what their relationship to the road was. If that went well, I would throw a curveball in and see how they reacted, as what interested me was their deeper thoughts on life. I would ask their thoughts on religion or death, whether their life had turned out the way they thought it might, or if they thought they would spend the rest of their days living on the Old Kent Road and try to engage in conversations that way. 

This wouldn’t always be the case as sometimes conversations went a certain way and you just had to run with that and see where the journey went."

WT: The camera and its movement encourage playful and familiar responses from interviewees and you, as filmmaker, are heard conversing with the subjects being filmed. Even the least enthusiastic people you interviewed shared their thoughts and feelings. Why do you think this method of filmmaking proved to be so effective in opening people up to you?

JW: "There are probably a few reasons why it worked well. Firstly, I needed a simple filming setup that could be operated by one person and was close to the person speaking for sound quality purposes. I opted for a small handheld rig with a wide-angle lens. I love the look it creates but also it requires you to get close to the person you are speaking with. It wasn’t always easy operating at the same time as having a conversation but If I held it around chest height and trusted my hands a bit I could have proper eye-to-eye chats with people and I think maybe they sometimes forgot we were filming for a minute. 

Secondly, I was genuinely interested in what they would have to say and would try to be reactive with what I asked so it felt like a natural conversation, that flowed like an ordinary conversation does."

"You just have to try to read people a bit too. Someone might be giving quite blunt answers, but at the same time seem to be enjoying it too. That creates a unique dynamic; a slight push and pull-tension can be interesting."

Joe Wilson

The intimacy of these interviews, as well as the moving portraits (moments during which the subject is still, but Wilson moves from a full-body view to the close detail of their faces), is accompanied by a score that reflects the nature of the road; an all-consuming and oft-overwhelming space, that only the local people know how to contend with. These are the people who can escape the freneticism, they know of a quiet bench or shaded spot under a tree. 

WT: The score punctuates the film sparingly. At times we are left to the sounds of the area, its people and the environment within which they live, whilst in other moments music consumes. What inspired these choices?

JW: "I think at first I imagined I wouldn’t use much music given it was all about conversations with people. I didn’t think there would be much room for music within the edit. But as I got further into the editing process I started to see how it could be used as a way to allow breathing space between the talking sections. I didn’t feel the need to use loads of cutaways but I like the driving shots and the drone shots. They take you out of the intimate conversational world for a moment and offer a sense of place. A place that will survive beyond the people being there in one way or another. Pairing it with the otherworldly music resulted in a poignant counterpoint to the rest of the film, in my opinion.  

The music is made by long-term collaborators and friends, Lung Dart. They make very beautiful and unique music using a variety of instruments and methods. I was lucky enough to get access to a lot of stuff to try out and I experimented with what worked best. The slightly industrial-sounding, yet at times ethereal, tracks I chose felt like they sat just right with the tone of the piece."

Between the periods of discussion are moments of naturally occurring humour. Wilson exhibits a cognisance for the humanity of the road and its overlooked community. In his commitment to documenting the area, he wanders across the green, open space of Burgess Park, and ends up amongst the congregations of churchgoers and pub-dwellers.

WT: Old Kent Road, the film, is punctuated with a great deal of humour, such as the man falling from the borrowed electric skateboard, or the father practising his bamboo saxophone and failing to summon the birds as he has before. Why was it important to you to convey these moments? 

JW: "Aside from the conversations I wanted to try and get across some of the unique moments you would often see in a place like this.

"I think what I captured is just a tiny slice of the things you might see day-to-day in such a busy part of a big city, but it was nice to get some actuality into the film. Those moments that might just have happened that one time and never again." 

Joe Wilson

And, while there is sadness in some of the stories I heard, it would be way too one-dimensional to show just that. Life is also funny and random. The guy who came over and borrowed the skateboard just interrupted our conversation to try and show off. John who I was talking to kept telling him to take it easy but he wasn’t paying much attention so the fact he ended up on the floor felt a bit like John saying, 'I told you so'.

And Henry with the bamboo sax was playing this beautiful music under the trees. That the birds didn’t come was just a lighthearted moment - a sort of sod's law type feeling that when the camera was there they didn’t come out to play. The main takeaway I got from that was that it was someone just sitting in a park, aware that he wasn’t a virtuoso yet, but still able to enjoy the process and form this unique relationship with the world around him."

These moments are touching; they possess an inherent sentimentality. As viewer, you are posed with the question of what is next. The regeneration of the area has, thus far, been slow, but there is an expectation that the extension of the Bakerloo Line will transform Old Kent Road. If that does happen, Wilson’s film will become even more poignant.

WT: Is there a moment from the film, or an unseen conversation, that was particularly significant to you?

JW: "I think the most memorable learning I took from the film relates to confidence and daring to put myself in situations that could lead to something interesting. One of the first people I filmed that ended up in the film is John, who comes near the start and shows the camera the nunchucks and whip and monkey balls. It took a bit of psyching myself up to approach him, given he was throwing mad objects around and wearing a leather jacket with nothing underneath. The situation didn’t scream, ‘come and say hello to me’, if I’m being honest. But I’m really glad I did as despite having these weapons, he was the loveliest, most interesting guy, with so much to say. He loved the fact I had come over to chat with him. From then on, it gave me more confidence to approach people and the belief that it might be a worthwhile pursuit that could end up being a project with value. A lot of people would say no to filming, but that was the worst that could happen really. The potential of them saying yes was worth the ask."

Contributions

Joe Wilson (b. 1988) is a filmmaker from Leicester, now living and working in South London.

Old Kent Road is scored by long-time collaborators of Joe’s, Lung Dart.

London/Merseyside-based label and publishing house Crack Copies worked behind the scenes on creative production with Joe to help deliver the film to the world. The film was screened at All Saints Hatcham Community Centre in South London on 17th November 2023. A portion of all proceeds went towards the Old Kent Road food bank, Spring Community Hub.

It was filmed during 2017 and 2018.

You can watch the film here.

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