Algorithm Cinema – “The Wet House” (2000)

This is a series of articles I have written regarding the many bizarre, often intriguing, full length films the YouTube algorithm recommends to me.

These films are interesting in that they are often overlooked even outside of the YouTube space, and experience a kind of rebirth on the platform. As more people are more likely to click a thumbnail with a strange image, than to book a seat at film festival and dedicate a full day screening unknown content.

I mention this, because of a line from Penny Woolcock’s blog, who directed this film:

“(The Wet House) was chucked out (on Channel 4) with no previews at 11.30pm but still managed to gather massive viewing figures and scored very high with young audiences… there is still a prevailing belief among schedulers that young people only want to watch other scantily clad young people cavorting around. They don’t.”

There is no place where young viewers (which I assume means viewers aged 18-25) are more concentrated than on YouTube. So if there was ever a place where a film like this would garner almost 500,000 views, twenty years after its release, it’s here.

But what is it that people are watching this film for? And why do I suppose the YouTube algorithm has picked it for viewing?

Shot on 16mm, the film follows the residence of a “Wet House” in Bethnal Green, London. A Wet house being a kind of hostel, where you aren’t rejected for being drunk, and can live with some support for roughly £20 a week. This first aspect of these hostels forms a large part of what makes a wet house different to any other accommodation for the homeless, since the inhabitants aren’t actively prevented from drinking.

It makes for pretty hard hitting viewing, with openly intoxicated addicts singing, shouting and smoking in the wet house’s social space. Penny Woolcock herself, talks about the editing process changing the tone of what she originally envisaged the film to be:

“We started off with some of the quieter, moving scenes but it was unwatchable and depressing…. Brand (Thumim, editor for the film) suggested we start with a cheerfully chaotic scene, less shocking than my first visit to the Wet House but still with a voyeuristic allure, a kind of car crash.

And once we had reeled in the audience, lured them in with disaster porn, we were able to humanize those they were gawping at.”

Woolcock’s choice of words here seems pretty suspect, until you watch the film yourself. As “car crash” becomes quite befitting of the chaotic and disordered energy of the wet house.

In the UK, “disaster porn” as she describes the more shocking aspects of poverty, homelessness and addiction on film, would morph into a bigger aspect of British film and TV. It would even coin it’s own phrase: “Poverty Porn”.

This describes a voyeuristic urge within this country’s middle and upper classes to view the results of terrible economic hardships brought on by government incompetency, through the lens of reality TV or documentary films.

The Tory party’s ten year campaign of austerity would result in film, television and newspaper articles featuring the poor and homeless, always shown to be the downtrodden and outcasts they’re perceived to be by the home viewers.

“Poverty porn” existed to exploit the most vulnerable for a emotional response from viewers, and began questions about the ethics of broadcasting the worst days of someone’s lives for educational or entertainment purposes.

“The Wet House” as a part of the movement to film these hardships, proves itself capable of showing moments of tenderness, humility and humanity between the residence, but still features the grotesqueness of poverty porn.

However, it’s understandable that when documenting a place like the wet house, it is impossible not to show the relationship between these two modes of human behaviour. It’s just what the place was like.

Woolcock really did care about the people who lived there, and tried her best to record a moment in time before it was forgotten forever. To her credit, she’s also incredibly open about the damage her film did to some of the people in it:

“We left Annette on a high note, sober and shiny but years later I was told that when she watched the film she fell off the wagon, went back to the booze and died… If it was the film that destroyed her, what was it about seeing herself as chaotic as she had been that drew her back? There is a stone in my heart. And Annette is dead.”

This left me feeling pretty cold, but I don’t think any of us could express anger at Woolcock for making this film. But it’s hard to know how to feel when you read something like that.

Despite this, however, I think it’s a film worth watching if you can sit through the hard reality of it’s content. I think the algorithm selected it because of the popularity of the US TV show: “Intervention”. The show’s clips, featuring serious footage of addiction and the people who strive to overcome it, are incredibly popular.

Likewise, clips from newer Channel 4 docs, following the lives of reoffenders and the young homeless, have gained a lot of views. So I think it’s reasonable to believe that the algorithm sees the potential for films like this one to be popular.

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