Kibwe Tavares on bringing a dystopian London to life in ‘The Kitchen’

Co-directed alongside Daniel Kaluuya, the drama is set in a near future that looks very much like our present – almost as if we're already living in a dystopia.

It’s been over a decade since filmmaker Kibwe Tavares and, at the time, a relatively unknown Daniel Kaluuya first creatively crossed paths. The pair were amidst the filming of Tavares’ Jonah (2012), a short film about the perils of commercialisation, centred on a giant, mythical fish, starring Kaluuya. Little did they know, however, that years later, the duo would eventually go on to direct one of the most ambitious and poignant films to come out of the UK in recent times: The Kitchen.

The film, starring Kano, who plays protagonist Izi, arrives just as Britain’s dire housing crisis is set to be a key campaign issue in next year’s long-awaited general election, and offers a solemnly affecting look at what might happen if it’s left to fester. Sprawling and haphazardly Lego-stacked in layout, the film focuses on the estate nicknamed the Kitchen – perhaps after the cooking pots that residents bang outside their windows to warn neighbours of police raids, which happen all too frequently and violently. The place has been condemned, its utilities shut off one by one to smoke impoverished locals out, with seemingly no alternative accommodation on offer. In such desperate circumstances, a defiant air of collective pride courses through the Kitchen’s shabby market lanes and heaving, low-lit nightclubs and over the airwaves of its pirate radio station, where veteran DJ Lord Kitchener (played by Arsenal legend Ian Wright) bolsters spirits with power-to-the-people slogans.

The film’s bigger picture is never less than believable: Its CGI-assisted impression of a London contorted with luxury developments while the unhoused merely rot into the ground, taunted by surveillance drones, hits home. Tavares’ architectural background (he previously attended the Bartlett School of Architecture) is felt both visually and philosophically, and Kaluuya steers proceedings with a seductive kineticism that masks a blunter, uglier punch. Everything on The Kitchen’s surface is designed to make the future feel tangibly immediate, like it’s hurtling glossily towards us – and for all intents and purposes, it is.

It’s no surprise that Tavares, alongside Kaluuya, brings such an exceptionally detailed world to life in The Kitchen. He extensively pulls from his own lived experiences in the Big Smoke throughout. Tavares’ mother has lived on a social housing estate in South London for the past two decades, and for the filmmaker, his aim was to bring that setting to life, presenting the positivity that can thrive within such a tight-knit community despite times of financial hardship and systemic oppression. 

Here, Tavares joins HUNGER over Zoom to discuss bringing The Kitchen to life, his relationship with Kaluuya and how his lived experiences helped shape the film. 

Kibwe wears jacket by SAVAS and sunglasses by SAINT-MONTREAL

HUNGER: Hey Kibwe, thanks for waking up nice and early in LA to chat with us! We’ll get onto The Kitchen, but first of all, how are things over in the States? Do you prefer it to London at this point?

Kibwe Tavares: London’s home so I’m always going to have that attachment. I do like the freedom you get from being in different places, but you sort of feel discombobulated. You start questioning where home is exactly. Sometimes, the scale of what you can work on [in America] is cool, but I don’t know if I prefer it. I think it’s just different. 

It’s been over a month since the release of The Kitchen, and it’s gotten a great reception from critics and audiences. Are you someone who takes much note of reviews and reactions? 

KT: You have to try not to, but sometimes you can’t help yourself because you can’t escape it. I definitely feel proud of what we managed to do and how people feel about it. It’s weird because you spend so much time on it, and when it’s done, you just think, “Okay, what does that mean now?” There’s always something else to make and I’ve been working on this for a long time. 

Once it’s finally finished it’s not really yours anymore, it sort of belongs to the world now. I’ve enjoyed seeing people doing podcasts on it and breaking it down. I was watching some random American podcast where they did a breakdown of the film and how they saw it, so it’s quite cool as well seeing it go out into the world and belong to other people.

Kibwe wears jacket and boots by SAVAS and sunglasses by SAINT-MONTREAL

I read an interview where you said your ambition for the film was to “create a last bastion of all the things that make London what it is.” What do you personally think makes London what it is?

KT: For me, one thing I’ve always loved about London is, well the most positive thing I think about London is the people that have moved there, like with my parents from the Caribbean, you can feel their influence in a different area. London is made up of lots of different cultures, textures and different lives. And we’re definitely trying to portray that in what The Kitchen is, who the people are, and this idea of what happens if you sort of gentrify everyone out of that – what does London become? 

One thing that instantly stands out as soon as you step into the world of The Kitchen is the level of detail that’s gone into creating it. It’s bustling with life and it feels as though if you walk away from the screen, it’ll continue to live on without anyone watching. Could you explain to me the process of creating that world? Was it an idea you had from the outset?

KT: It definitely evolved over time. I try to use as much of my experience and as many of the things I’ve gone through and where I’m from to try and build it into the work that I’m doing. The idea changed and formed, and then as we’re serving a story, it adapted, but it was built from a lot of research, a lot of talking to different people – we spoke to futurists and lots of architects. Then we essentially built lots of documents and collages and pretty much an entire book that becomes a bible explaining what this world looks and feels like and what the rules around that are. We make sure we show it to the cast and everyone working on it so they understand what they’re inhabiting because, for the characters, it needs to just be their world. It needs to be their day-to-day, and so for them to understand what it’s going to feel like living there was really important.

Kibwe wears jacket, hoodie and hat Kibwe's own

The film is set in 2044. Why that year in particular instead of going far into the future or just a few years down the line?

KT: I wanted to try and find a way to talk about what’s happening in London right now in a way that’s also abstract. I’ve always loved how, in London, we place history and the future right next to each other, and I wanted to create a space that allowed you to feel it was recognizable. A lot of sci-fi is based really far in the future and has no signs of how you got there. So, we went into it looking at how we can make this talk to what’s happening right now without taking it too far.

I read that the premise of the film at the beginning was more of an all-action flick before it eventually evolved into what it is now. How did that evolution come about?

KT: Essentially, our first workshop was about making a heist film. There was one key story that Daniel Kaluuya heard in the barbershop about these guys that are doing this million dollar heist and getting paid peanuts, like £200 pounds, to steal these watches or diamonds worth a hundred thousand, if not millions. And then we started to talk much more deeply about the condition of London, how that sets in, and the mindset of not understanding the value in what you’ve been asked to do and the risk you’re taking for quite a small amount of money. So we decided to talk about London in general, what it means to survive, how we respond to London, and how you find your place in the city. Then we got onto the topic of gentrification and fatherhood and different narratives. We tried to pin down the narrative that would allow us to go through that, but the actual stakes are significant to the people and are very relatable.

And for all the drama, social commentary and hard-hitting moments in the film, I think one of the key aspects is showing the humour and personality within the community in The Kitchen. How important was it to highlight that aspect of it all?

KT: It was massively important because we didn’t want to just focus on the negative things. We wanted to show that this community is real and what it would be like to live there. What do you get from having quite a tight-knit community, and what warmth, love and joy? We wanted to make sure there was a balance. There’s always this constant risk and threat, but ultimately, there is a strong glue between everyone there. And so it was massive to show that because we didn’t want to give a completely negative portrayal.

How did your own experiences of growing up in London kind of impact that and the vision of the film overall?

KT: That was a massive part of it. I’ve got two really close brothers and quite a close family. But then we also had this extended group of friends and family from many different places. We’re a bit of a unit, and we’ve done everything together, and so they massively influenced everything. Then I’ve got all these different experiences, whether going to school or going to uni for a bit in London. There are all these different layers and people that I love, and I wanted to find a way to represent that.

Kibwe wears jacket by PAISLEY & GRAY and watch by SAINT-MONTREAL

Both the cast of the film and the soundtrack have a mix of iconic UK talent and some exciting up-and-coming stars. In terms of the London creative scene, how do you feel about it now compared to when you were growing up?

KT: Compared to when I was growing up, it feels like so many amazing people are coming through. There’s a lot more access, and I think this affects my life too, like using the internet and being able to produce your own things, which gives you access to people in a more immediate way. Even when I started my shorts, I started to use Vimeo and YouTube and just put my work out there, which got me my first commissioned piece of work. I didn’t actually go the traditional route of going to film school and going to film festivals and building up that way.

Now, there are so many amazing people and artists in all these different forms. And there are so many multi-hyphenates that could always move into something else. It’s just a massive creative life force, and now you’re getting a wider variety of people who are working on their craft and finding their way into different mediums.

Kibwe wears jacket by PAISLEY & GRAY and watch by SAINT-MONTREAL

You’ve mentioned Daniel Kaluuya, who you co-directed the film with. You both met in your early twenties, but how has your relationship with him evolved through this project?

KT: So, we met during this short film. He was in Shaheen Baig’s casting office, and I took him through some of my previous work and approach, and we became tightly bonded through that process. Obviously, he’s had huge success as an actor, but as a creator, I’ve seen lots of sides to him. For this project in particular, we leaned on each other for our different skill sets. But it’s been a lot. We’ve gone through lots of really big stuff over the years together, so it’s been a journey and an adventure with him.

And finally, I just wanted to take a second to go back to your younger self. How would they feel about what you’ve produced and achieved so far?

KT: In terms of achievement, I’d be surprised. I wouldn’t expect it because so many things have happened that I’ve necessarily planned. I didn’t plan to be a director. And then it came through a lot of luck, and things fell in line, taking opportunities that came up. You’ll tease yourself with some of the things and think, “Did you really just do that?” Because it does feel weird. I’m working on this project here. It’s a big animated film, and it’s always been a dream of mine. From a young age, I have always wanted to get into animation and filmmaking, but it would never feel like a tangible thing.

WriterChris Saunders
PhotographerJordan Rossi
StylistsVenk Modur and Jordan Gonzalez
ProducerSarah Stanbury
Photography AssistantMassimo Campana