“The most vulnerable people are on the streets with no help” Stephan Pierre Mitchell talks Deleted and homelessness in the UK

Stephan Pierre Mitchell’s documentary Deleted is an unflinching portrait of how lives can become uprooted in Britain.

The filmmaker captured the last five hours that a 59-year-old man, Ahmed Siddiqi, spends in his home before he is evicted. The resulting documentary shows Siddiqi’s background, his connection to England, and his views on the system that is showing him the door.

I spoke to Stephan Pierre Mitchell about Deleted, his wider documentary work, and homelessness in the United Kingdom.

Sections of this interview have been edited for structure and clarity.

DAN: Do you think people’s general perception of homelessness in Britain is accurate, and if not why not?

STEPHAN: I think the perception of people is “Oh, well people are just putting themselves into that situation, they’re druggies, etc.” You know, even when I went to Sky News, they said “Well there are so many ways to get help out there”, I said “Had it been you that had lost your job, you’re probably on hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, you lose everything, I mean everything, it’s the shame, it’s the embarrassment.

Because there’s a question: “Why didn’t Mr Ahmed seek help when he was on the street” – all the journalists ask that question. It’s the mental health, it’s the fact that a 59-year-old man, coming from an Indian background where the community sees you as the man, the alpha-male – you have to take all of this into consideration. The foremost thought is going to be how to get himself back on his feet. And so it’s also about society, to check on our friends, to check on our colleagues, [asking] “How are you?” Knowing that someone cares about you. And so I think homelessness and mental health go hand in hand together. It’s your frame of mind, sentencing yourself to the street.

Looking at things like [Channel 4 series] Benefits Street, they perceive homeless people to be these people who are unemployed, unjustified, horrible, nasty people, etc. And some people say “Oh well, you know they don’t know any better, that’s all they know,” in a first-world country.

DAN: That brings me neatly up to my next point, which is that the economics of this last year has made it harder than ever to be on the poverty line. I’d be interested to know where you think things go in regards to Covid-19. At No Majesty, we’ve done a lot around homelessness and the government’s pledge to end rough sleeping by 2024. It’s always been a skeptical proposition, but of course Covid-19 meant the government was forced into action to put a roof over people’s heads, and I think the fear from anyone interested in activism is what happens now? Do people just go back to where they were with no improvements?

STEPHAN: I was reading an article last week which said that the government refuses to home the homelessness during Covid-19. More than ever the most vulnerable people in our society are on the streets with no help against this invisible disease. I think it’s going to make it more tough, and it will probably have to again be the private sector, people with hotels, people that can open doors to those who need the most help. But let’s not talk about that; London has some of the richest people on the planet living here – what do they do?

This is my first film, and I’m putting it out there on every platform, and I’m giving it away. I don’t have much, I’m a strong believer in the idea that you get what you give, don’t be selfish, and God or whoever is out there in the universe will give it back. I know a lot of people who have put hard work into this film, and it has a message. Ahmed for example, he would love to know that his words would give something. But I was sitting here the other day and thinking of those people with millions and billions; what are they doing? Maybe they are doing something. The rich also need to give. Marks and Spencer, Tesco, all of these big corporations; they also need to help out. Sometimes in government you need to wait for legislation, there’s parliament and the house of commons, all these things. I know that we’ve put them in the position to do those jobs, but we’re also going through an economic crisis.

Film Director Stefan Pierre Mitchell © Stuart Blakley

Stefan Pierre Mitchell – © Stuart Blakley

Are the homeless different people to those that are housed? No, we are all the same human race. And they need that help more than ever. So yeah, I think it is probably worse now, the situation with Covid, and the fact that there are people on the streets out there, it’s got to be a really nasty situation right now.

DAN: You talked at the beginning about the fact that Ahmed is from an immigrant background. I noticed that at the start of the film there is a brief section where he is talking about his family background, but in general the film wasn’t about his story of being an immigrant, it was – I wouldn’t say raceless, because we started with a brief background of his family of course – but it wasn’t framed around race. What that something that was deliberate?

STEPHAN: Yeah, because you can imagine this was a five-hour interview that I reduced to twenty minutes, and Dan, I tell you, you have no idea what we’ve lost out of this stick. I would have had a comedy, I would have had you guys in stitches. I wanted to come back to the subject matter. Mr. Siddiqi had nothing to do with race, I could see it. The things that you guys haven’t seen: he’s proud to be English, he does not identify himself with the Scots, with the Welsh. He said to me “I think I am Queen Victoria’s wet dream,” – as you know, Victoria had an Indian man. And those are things I now look back and I’m like “Man, I should have let them in.” I think we’ve lost a bit of the sense of humor of Mr. Siddiqi, and he was this man that was full of life, and I did not want to bring anything into it about immigration or race; he is English.

He said in the documentary “I am proud to be English, I was born in this country”, he’s into rock music, I saw all of that. The more I watch the documentary at festivals, I’m realising more and more that all of the things he spoke about, he was actually speaking about himself. But he was ashamed, he was embarrassed. He was embarrassed that he got to that age 59 and the divorce happened, and you know, he had kids and he had to move out of the house while his wife was there, and he was embarrassed about that.

I do want to paint this beautiful man that was like a guru for me, he was such an intelligent man. Oh my god, I think of him all the time, what an inspirational man he was. And I wanted to paint him in the most beautiful way, and dignified way. The way we receive and see the homeless people on the street. And I wanted to really pay respect to a father, and uncle, a neighbour, a friend, that was part of our society. And not use the camera for my own benefit, or think “Let’s get the worst of him.” I wanted to celebrate him in the last five hours in his home.

Deleted documentary 2

Two years prior to Deleted, I was coming back from uni, and this young homeless man stopped by me – I think I was in the Jubilee line. And he had this massive backpack on his back, with a pint of milk on the side, I could see Fanta on the other side, so I sat there cracking jokes with him, like “Oh my god, you’ve got the fridge”, while I looked for some change. And we’re having this lovely connection. And then he took my hand and said “Wow, thank you for looking into my eyes, it’s been a long time since somebody looked into my eyes.”

DAN: Wow.

STEPHAN: That really was like, “Wow my fellow human being. That me for talking to him? Are we that bad, had society gone that bad?” And so when it came to the documentary, I said “I don’t care what the festivals are gonna excuse me of, for doing what I’m doing, I’m going to take you into Ahmed’s world.” So we’re gonna look at the eyes, look at the mouth, look at his hands. We’re gonna listen to this man and look straight into his eyes. And that’s why I did this whole thing with the camera, constantly [moving]. But also because we’re looking at the Department for Work and Pensions, I almost wanted the audience to become the DWP, because when you go for assessment that’s what they’re doing, they’re checking your fingers. So I thought let’s examine this wonderful human being, let’s examine him.

DAN: So what led you to make Deleted?

STEPHAN: I jump on situations. So without planning to – okay I’ll plan filming and stuff, get the crew and whatnot – but I jump on something that needs to be spoken about. There’s a few other things that I want to jump on that are outside the United Kingdom, and I want to jump on it. I can’t believe that people are being burned in some African countries because they have mental issues. There’s a wonderful project and a psychiatric doctor that is fighting against it and treating them in his house, and I want to jump on that story. I can jump on stories that need to be told.

And Ahmed, I don’t know if I told you but he was my neighbour. He knocked on my door, and asked me if I had food; he was so well spoken that I was shocked. He thought I was probably Indian, and I said “No, I’m mixed race white and black Caribbean”. And he felt more comfortable coming to me, because our street is very white. He kept seeing me going back and forth, across into my house, so he would said, you know, “Sorry to bother you, have you got some milk?” and “I’ve been suspended by the Department for Work and Pensions for three months.” So I got to know him, I started going to his house, and when he got evicted I said “Do you mind if I document you?” And that’s how Deleted came about.

DAN: There are other filmmakers that have touched on things like the DWP before, the most famous film of that nature would probably be I, Daniel Blake

STEPHAN: We were in the same room three weeks ago. Ken Loach and myself. We were supposed to be at parliament, but because of Covid, we were brought together. He’s watched my film.

I, Daniel Blake is one of those powerful films. I grew up ‘up north’, I try not to use my Geordie accent a lot. They filmed in Newcastle, so I recognised my mate and I was like “Oh my god look at him, he was in that”. At the time I was in drama school here in London at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I, Daniel Blake is for me a social justice film, and for me it’s at the very top.

Five years later I’m making Deleted, and the situation hasn’t changed. I took a camera, light and sound, and we watch it unfold. But I was humbled to be brought into the same room as Ken Loach.

DAN: What did he think of your work?

STEPHAN: He said “Keep it up”, he was lovely. He said “You’re doing a good job”. But we spoke about films, about Hollywood, and social impact films. What do they do? And I think they’re powerful. I don’t know if the change is straight away, it takes a while. Five years after Daniel Blake I’m making a documentary on the same thing, but we’re here talking, there is a spark. The conversation at that time was does it make an impact, how much impact has it made. Another great film for me was Philadelphia in 1993, when Tom Hanks gets sacked because he has AIDS. So we look at HIV from 1993 to twenty/thirty years later, there is a movement. It takes a while for change to happen.

My next film, Reshaped, we look at love and how men deal with rejections, and toxic masculinity. It’s not going to be documentary, so I think I’m going to be able to play more with colours and visual arts, and things that are not said. It’s a love story told from a man’s point of view. I always feel like stories that represent a community are the strongest, and so that’s how I jump into stories, I don’t plan them, it comes, it unfolds. Because then it comes from a truthful place, and I think the audience will connect with that.

I don’t think I can jump on a film unless I’m passionate about it. It has to come from a truthful source so that it can connect with the audience. It’s the same thing with Deleted, I’m very passionate about the situation with the homeless, very passionate about the fact that, you know, we dehumanise them through documentaries we watch on TV and you have this perception of people staying on benefits, because that’s what we’re fed. But really and truly it’s probably only a tiny percentage of people that are taking advantage of the government and there’s hundreds of thousands that are suffering because of legislation being put in place by the government. And that’s how Deleted sort of popped out, you know.

Deleted is available on Amazon and Apple TV.

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Daniel Cody

Daniel Cody is SEO Editor at the New Statesman, and the creator of No Majesty. He is the host of the podcast Britain on the Rocks.