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Paradox City (1934)

British Film Institute

Main image of Paradox City (1934)
16mm, 846 feet, black & white, silent
Directed byGerald E. Belmont
 Leonard A. Day
ProducerNorth St. Pancras Group
Presented bySt. Pancras House Improvement Society

Living conditions in London's slums and the work of the St. Pancras House Improvement Society to replace some of the appalling housing with flats.

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Paradox City is striking for the forcefulness of its social critique. Its technique of juxtaposing shots of the opulent homes of the 'favoured few' with shots of slum dwellings is reminiscent of, and probably inspired by, the technique of montage used by influential Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s. The principle behind the editing was to put together disparate images and generate new meanings from the combination of the shots.

Made for the St. Pancras House Improvement Society, this is probably their only surviving film of little-known filmmakers Gerald Belmont and Leonard Day. It is inventively shot, particularly in the demolition and building scenes, as when the large black shadow of a pickaxe looms on a wall before the first blow of demolition falls.

Unusually for documentary films of the period, there are a number of interior shots, as there are in the later, better-known Housing Problems (d. Arthur Elton/Edgar Anstey, 1935). These shots are used to demonstrate the scale of the overcrowding and the immense struggle of family life in a one-room home.

The filmmakers take care to avert any criticism of the sometimes unhygienic practices of the people living in these conditions. When an old woman throws dirty water out of her top-floor window, intertitles puncture any disapproval the audience may feel by asking "Sanitary arrangements being totally inadequate, can you blame her for doing this?" The use of questions in the intertitles demands the audience's engagement with the film in what is an unusually direct style of filmmaking for the period.

In another surprising touch, the film draws attention to itself with intertitles such as: "Rooms are dark and dingy. Photography is therefore difficult; but the following scene gives some idea of existing squalor." There is no attempt to suspend the audience's disbelief, the dominant approach of fictional narrative films. Instead, an attempt is made to reinforce the authenticity of what is being shown, while also paradoxically expressing the inadequacy of photography to convey the full squalor.

Ros Cranston

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Video Clips
Complete film (22:34)
Housing Problems (1935)