Priory Court in the act

Priory Court residents Gillian Jacobs and Cassie and Frankie White (credit Dave O'Neill)
Priory Court residents Gillian Jacobs and Cassie and Frankie White (credit Dave O’Neill)

Filmmaker Kate Hampel has helped make a musical documentary about life in lockdown for a Walthamstow estate

When myself and composer Rex Horan were commissioned to collaborate on a musical documentary about how the Covid-19 lockdown was affecting people at Priory Court Estate in Walthamstow, we had no idea what it would entail.

All the usual modes of communication that we rely on to write and research stories for film and songwriting, particularly in challenging situations, were unavailable to us. As Rex put it: “It was an entirely new and unfamiliar experience for me as a collaborative songwriter. So many of the communication cues that I rely upon – body language, eye contact and the nuance of language – were harder to grasp.”

We wanted to get to grips with what people in the community were individually facing during the pandemic, but instead of being able to rely on an informal friendly face-to-face chat over a cuppa, our relationships were built painstakingly over text messages and video calls.

Having put a little faith in us, the residents began to share their stories. Older people, often living alone, were suddenly thrust into near total isolation. Others had to grapple with caring and schooling for many children in a small space with only a phone between them. The children themselves were scared and a bit mystified by a danger outside they couldn’t see.

Suddenly it became important to celebrate the positives. One child, Camron, mentioned that he loved reggae, which gave us a style to work with. The chorus followed, becoming a celebration of all the things the children loved and missed. The rhyming verses recited by residents were written around their phrasing and experiences, whether that be about missing a “hug from mum and dad” or a once-fragmented estate coming together over the crisis. Louise, a volunteer at Priory Court Community Centre, offered her husband’s talents as a musician; he later casually revealed he was the lead guitarist of the hit Britpop band The Bluetones!

We now had the musical ingredients to make a song. Zoom isn’t great for making beautiful films, but it gave us an intimate connection to the voices and faces of our subjects, which was what we wanted. Then came the challenge of how to unify all these voices visually. Luckily the tower blocks of Priory Court Estate have blank walls on each end, like blank canvasses. Dave O’Neill, our editor, wanted to experiment with 3D-tracking, and we found a way to almost organically integrate the residents’ faces with the buildings.

We are delighted with the film and the feedback it’s got, but the best thing has been building a connection with the community. I hope this is the start of bigger things with Priory Court.

Kate Hampel is creative director of The Digital Story Company CIC. Priory Court in the Act was commissioned by Waltham Forest Council as part of its new ‘Waltham Forest Virtual Culture’ programme, funded by the Great Place Scheme, William Morris Big Local, and The Digital Story Company. Watch the film: