The programs Acre After Acre: Mile After Mile and The Southall Shift at this year’s London Short Film Festival presented visions of two ostensibly very different parts of the city. 

The first focused on the Isle of Dogs, including Portrait of Queenie (Dir. Michael Orrom, 1964), a musical quasi-documentary about local entertainer and Ironbridge Tavern owner Queenie Watts, Ask (Dir. Derek Jarman, 1986), a Smiths video in which rule-Britannia garbed dancers cavort around the docks as Morrissey ruminates on the drawbacks of shyness, and Jaunt (Dir. Andrew Kötting, 1995), a 90s super 8 humourous day trip from the mouth of the Thames to Tower Bridge. The Southall Shift screened a community on the other end of London’s vast East to West axis. Southall: A Town Under Siege (Dir. Colin Prescod, 1982) and Bussing (Dir. Asia Ahmed, 2021) showed Southall’s majority Black, Indian and Pakistani residents fighting racist neighbours and governmental neglect during the 1970s and early 80s, while A Foreign Feeling (Dir. Muskaan Ghai, 2024) provided an intimate picture of the suburb’s flourishing high street today.
Despite their differences (east vs. west, river vs. road, multiracial radicalism vs. notorious white-nationalism), there are meaningful similarities between the versions of Southall and the Isle of Dogs shown on screen. For starters, both are islands. In Portrait of Queenie, the formidable entertainer wanders through drab and often deserted scenes of cranes, slow-moving bridges and derelict buildings as she sings
“Well it's raining on the Isle of Dogs,
The Isle of Dogs is the smell of tar
It’s a granite lover, weathered veins of steel
And loving it don’t get you far”
Queenie was singing the blues, and one could forgive the inhabitants of this peninsula formed by a tear-drop bend in the Thames for feeling that they were more than a little damned. The island (as it’s affectionately known by the locals) either got its name from a satirical 16th century play, the pirates gibbeted and hung in chains around its riverine hook, or as a spot where monarchs would banish their howling dogs. Buffeted by bruising winds and cyclical floodings, it was always isolated and could be reached only by foot or ferry until the mid 19th Century. Samuel Pepys, having just missed a boat in 1665, wrote “so we were fain to stay there in the unlucky Isle of Doggs, in a chill place, the morning cool, and wind fresh.” Its history is one of constant yet doomed reclamation. A dam is forged, drowned, and stubbornly built again.
The Island’s development took off with the completion of the West India Docks in 1802, which transformed a swampy marshland suited mainly for grazing and milling into a commercial hub of the British Empire. Engineering, trade and shipbuilding brought working class docking and labouring jobs and fierce sense of local pride, while boom and bust economic cycles led to unemployment and persistent social deprivation. Portrait of Queenie is also a window into the island’s eventual post-WWII industrial decline. 
As bigger container ships rendered the area’s wharves largely useless, its land was once again reclaimed, this time by the London Docklands Development Corporation to build new centres for finance and accommodation. Long known for its physical and cultural separation from the rest of the city, the Isle was now at the heart of Thatcherite deregulation. Talking to locals on Acre After Acre’s walking tour led by Nigel Smith, it’s clear that this remains an affront.
The island’s combination of strength and suffering forged through isolation was reflected, albeit in a distorted way, in The Southall Shift. If the Isle was separated from mainstream London through a maze of waterways, bridges and unreliable buses (at least until the DLR opened in 1987), Southall was designated as separate because of its immigrant Indian and Pakistani residents. 
A 1961 Guardian article wrote that “While the Indians have been peacefully accepted by the people of Southall they have not yet been integrated into the community. The Indian community goes its own way, has its own social functions, and mixes with its own members.”
Southall: A Town Under Siege shows that the barriers to integration came not from an unwillingness on the part of the area’s new arrivals, but willful attempts to isolate and endanger them from the local white population and police. Mothers speak of the beatings their children endure at bus-stops, where Indian children are bussed out of the community in an intentional effort to keep local schools majority-white. National Front members are shown marching through Southall under police escort, and activists like Pragna Patel, a founding member of Southall Black Sisters, speak of challenging racism in schools, public services and standing up to violent skinhead mobs. Southall, like the Isle of Dogs, drew workers through manufacturing jobs and had a history of labour militancy. 
Unlike on the island however, this militancy was deliberately conscious of both race and class while the Isle of Dogs became synonymous during the 1970s and 80s for racial intolerance, particularly against its South Asian Bangladeshi community.
Watching both Acre after Acre and The Southall Shift alongside each other, it’s tempting to conclude that their two Londons are united only by violence, neglect, economic suffering and racial hatred. National Front mobs march through Southall, beating and intimidating the local Indian and Pakistani population. The Isle of Dogs, plagued throughout its history by cycles of floods, fumes and isolation, is a playground of abandoned lots and unemployed workers.
Natalie Cubides-Brady’s The Veiled City (2023) draws on the Great Smog of 1952 to reinforce this feeling on screen, interpreting archival footage of a ghostlike city shrouded in suffocating fumes to envision the roots of London’s future apocalypse. Men and women struggle through smoggy streets unable to breathe, covering their mouths as they pass overturned buses on Waterloo Bridge. Blind, they plunge into the Thames, thankful for the water that now fills their lungs. 
You can almost see Queenie Watts covering her mouth as she hustles over a drawbridge humming The Isle of Dogs is the smell of tar. In this telling, London plays the role of a doomed city, fighting for air as its own divisions tear it apart.
But the films ask you to go beyond this feeling of inevitable disappearance and mutual destruction. The Southall Shift’s master narrative is one of resilience. Southall’s residents fight efforts to remove and intimidate them, forging a flourishing community on the western reaches of the city. The High Street swells with street vendors selling kottu and samosa. Its residents never want to leave. While Queenie wanders Cuba Street and Thermopylae Gate, empty roads with names evoking the shadows of empire, her pub brings life through laughter, song and sweet martinis. Queenie knows the island won’t get you very far, “and yet I’ll love it ‘til I die.” 
Kötting’s Jaunt treats the financial revitalisation of London’s riverfront with a similarly ironic eye, pairing a granny eating her thriftily packed sandwich with the looming behemoth of Canary Wharf. 
As you coast down the gleaming Thames you’re told with a grin that that a particularly ugly new-build made of dark glass “might be a training course for window cleaners or something like that.” The Smiths’ video makes light of 80s Cold War doomerism, its performers carelessly chucking around a physical bomb as the sun beams down on sailboats bobbing in the docks. The granite lover ambles along. 
Both islands, whose histories swell and fall at the odds and ends of empire, narrating London’s triumphs and fatal flaws, remain in full voice. And as Queenie Watts says, “when I’m not singing I’m not alive.”