After spending years shooting in non-descript towers – from hospitals and office buildings to apartment blocks – a Canadian filmmaker has turned her camera toward the vibrant communities contained behind the drab, concrete façades that lie on the suburban fringes of the world’s fastest growing cities.
The resulting film, Out My Window, is part of the Highrise project (pictured), a multi-year, interactive documentary series the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) is bringing to the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam’s Doclab program this week in the form of an installation and 360-degree interactive documentary.
The web doc, which premiered on the NFB’s website on Oct. 16, profiles 13 people living in high-rises in cities around the world, from ‘hijacked’ apartment blocks in Johannesburg to the world’s largest squat in Sao Paulo to Bijlmermeer, a modernist housing development on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Visitors to the site enter the characters’ apartments and scroll around a 360-degree photo collage to activate story sequences that place the characters and their vertical lifestyle within the global trend toward suburbanization.
‘What I wanted to do with this piece was fuse the domestic with the geopolitical,’ says the film’s director, Katerina Cizek. ‘It had to be a combination of very strong characters and some interesting stories but also within a very interesting highrise context where there’s something bigger being told.’
Cizek is based in Toronto, which according to the doc’s prologue, is the North American city that’s second to New York for the most number of buildings above 12 storeys tall. Canada’s largest city is also a hotbed for research into global suburbanization; two of its universities have academic centers dedicated to the field. The idea for the film grew out of the Mayor’s Tower Renewal Project, a city government initiative to renovate and upgrade the city’s aging high-rises.
‘We’re becoming an urban planet and the way that we create our cities and live in them is not the way that we imagine it,’ says Cizek. ‘Our imagined perception of city living is very much not what we experience. [When] we think ‘urban,’ we think [of being] downtown, drinking lattes in a village-like environment when in fact most people in the planet living in cities are actually in suburbs in peripheries, in high-rises within these ‘in-between’ spaces.’
The director spent a year researching the film a year prior to production commencing in August, 2009. To source the characters and stories, Cizek and her researcher created a network of journalists, filmmakers and photographers from around the world whom she directed remotely from Toronto via email and Skype. She drafted a 25-page brief that outlined all of her creative concerns and technical specs that covered everything from the style of photography to legal issues and release forms.
Pulling all the pieces together required a ‘massive workflow’. Throughout production she had 22 stories on the go, some of which would fall through. In other cases her reporters would come back with a wealth of material – but after overcoming technical obstacles in countries with often remedial communications infrastructure. For example, the story from Cuba about a collective of artists and musicians living on the fringes of Havana had to be hand-delivered by the photographer months after it was commissioned.
‘I didn’t hear from her for two months and suddenly we received this package,’ says Cizek. ‘And it had not one amazing story, but five and it was just brilliant material.’
A thematic thread in the film deals with the vibrant artistic communities that are fostered behind the buildings’ drab concrete facades. ‘In one of the first high-rises that I got to know here in Toronto, I learned of this Haitian drumming group that every Saturday met and practiced for three-to-four hours and had all their neighbors come and dance,’ she says. ‘I thought, ‘Wow, that’s such an incredible phenomenon that we totally miss when you just drive by.”
In three of the cities – Toronto, Amsterdam and Havana – Cizek used a small five-lens, 360-degree camera created by Amsterdam-based tech start-up Yellowbird to shoot interactive music video sequences. In each instance, the camera was placed in the center of the characters’ apartment as they perform an acoustic song in a single take. The camera sits on a tripod and is connected to a laptop, meaning the director can’t be in the room as the action unfolds and can’t view real-time playback.
‘You can kind of scroll through but you really can’t see it until it’s been processed,’ she says. ‘So you direct very differently.’
In addition to showing Out My Window at IDFA, Cizek is extending the Toronto, Amsterdam and Toronto stories into an interactive, life-size photo collage installation. Thanks to a lattice of high-definition TV screens and projectors, festival-goers will be able to enter the characters’ apartments and trigger their stories using motion-sensors.