In this week’s Arts I talk to Czech-Canadian documentary filmmaker Katerina Cizek – the director of Out My Window, a fascinating and highly-innovative project that looks at lives behind the walls of highrise buildings in 13 cities around the world, from Prague to Beirut. The non-linear feature film – called the first 360 degree internet documentary in the world – is up for an international Emmy next month and can be viewed on the website of the National Film Board of Canada. Kat Cizek told me more about the idea behind her project and how it all came together, on a line from her home in Toronto this week.
“Out My Window is part of a much larger multi-year, multimedia experiment at the National Film Board of Canada called Highrise. For four years I am lucky to be investigating and trying to understand how the planet is becoming more and more urban and Highrise seemed like a very interesting way of exploring urban density. And so in the first year we started research just looking at highrise buildings, I had a team of researchers, and as these incredible stories of people living in different such building emerged, I began to wonder what it would look like if we took some of these stories and these people and put them in one ‘virtual’ highrise online. That was the simple idea for Out My Window.”
How important a theme is ‘atomisation’ of the family or of the individual in the different societies?
“Well, we are interested in ‘built form’ and how it influences our experience of the city and how it influences our lives. But we’re equally interested in how people live and build community and create art and meaning and search for spirituality despite the build form around them. So I think it’s about the tension between atomisation and this very universal quest for building ‘community’ wherever we are.”
At the centre of course are human stories: how did you go about finding the different protagonists and stories and what are some of the similarities and differences?
“We were really searching for diversity. We wanted to have geographic representation and diversity, different kinds of people and different kinds of places, but we were also interested in something universal, that breaks the stereotype. When you drive past a highrise you often see just a gray concrete building, one looks exactly like the next one. And we wanted stories that would usurp that and challenge that notion. We ended up with 13 cities around the world – after starting off with maybe 20 or 25 in our initial research – and eventually it just boiled down to the 13 that you see in the piece.
“But each one has its own unique story of how it came to us. For example, in Prague I was doing research and I came across this beautiful website of Sylva Francová’s, who is a graphic designer and photographer who lives in Jižní město (South City) and we began a correspondence while I was still in Prague. Ironically we never met face-to-face but communicated through email, facebook, skype and over the phone and we developed the story together. In other cities, for example in Itsanbul, we found an architect who did some research for us in the gecekondu neighbourhoods, which are these informally and self-built housing projects that you see in Istanbul. So each place had its way of making its way into the final story that you see in the project.”
The aspect of there being a whole different world as you say behind these gray walls is very intriguing... for example in the story of the Czech graphic artist, one thing that I liked and noted was when she describes her own childhood. She talks about how children don’t actually see the gray mass, that for them they find mystery even in those giant blocks, these giant buildings. Do you think that your own discovery of the mystery behind that was similar?
“Oh absolutely, absolutely. I have had a few experiences of my own living in highrises and have certainly had that kind of attitude towards highrises in my own city here in Toronto. We have the most highrises in North America outside of Manhattan: 1,189 concrete residential highrises in Toronto which is quite phenomenal. They are very pushed out into the suburbs, so you don’t see them as you would Manhattan. I would drive by them and I wouldn’t think that something exciting was happening inside them until I challenged myself and began to explore this phenomenon and what a huge impact it has on all of us. I think we have a lot to learn about the mystery and the potential of imagination and inspiration no matter where we live and how that might impact the future planning of our cities and the understanding of our urban planet.”
To discuss unexpected changes... I’m focussing a little bit on the Czech story although I want to discuss the other ones as well... One of the interesting things there were the changes after 1989 in the South City, you have shots there of little shops cropping up... How did you collaborate with Sylva on the visual material?
“What is so beautiful about Sylva and her father’s story is that the both of them have been documenting and self-documenting their own environment for decades. So they have an incredible archive of literally thousands and thousands of photographs and so we worked together building some stories and we’d get on the on the phone or skype and she’d talk about the view from her window and stories it reminded her of. And slowly but surely we put some audio together and we recorded our interview and she did her own digital recording and interviewed her own father. And they sent me the audio and some of the photographs, while we commissioned some additional photography especially for the website.”
“Yes. We collaborated with over 100 people around the world: photographers, journalists, architects, academics, advocates, housing activists, all sorts of people from all walks of life who came together with various expertise on the issues, who all came together with various contributions.”
Explain, as if you were telling someone who hasn’t seen any of it yet, how they can experience this project. Because it seems to me that it is very democratic: it’s up to you really to dip and dive into aspects that are interesting to you.
“When you arrive at Out My Window you see a highrise building with all these windows and as you scroll over each window the inside comes into colour and you can see a little bit and come into someone’s life. And when you click you arrive in someone’s apartment and you can scroll around and explore their environment inside and out. This is beautiful, beautiful photography that creates a collage, a 360 degree game-like environment. Every once in a while you’ll come across an object or something in your apartment that highlights and offers a story.
“So for example in Zanilya’s apartment in Amsterdam you come across a statue of the Virgin Mary and if you click on it the screen is taken over by a short video anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes long in that person’s voice something about their lives or the geography they live in, the politics of the space and their own personal story. There are 49 stories which add up to about 90 minutes if you were to go through everything, so that’s why we call it a feature-length internet documentary.”
“As far as we know, using this kind of 360 degree game-like environment. What I find cool about building something like that and watching users experience it, is that it’s something new in documentary online where the navigation – the way you move around the site itself – also provides you with content. It’s this merging of navigation and content which is a kind o new innovation in web documentary.”
One of things I’ve noticed even about myself as an internet user is a certain ‘impatience’ so it’s kind of nice to be freed up to be able to go exactly where I want at any given time...
“Yes, and that’s what is exciting for me as a creator: I feel that this kind of digital is, like you said, more democratic for the user, where we are actually opening up space for the user to create their own story and their own connection with things. And that’s quite challenging for some documentary filmmakers because documentary – not all documentaries – but some – can be quite didactic. Some can be quite authorial in the voice in terms of telling you how things are or how things should be. And I think this kind of process is quite humbling: understanding deeply how the internet and the digital space works is more about a two-way dialogue and I think that documentary needs to open itself up to that.”
Are the people who are profiled, or who profile themselves, better or lesser-known in their societies or is it a mix?
“It’s a real mix. For example, Amchok Gompo, the Tibetan musician who lives in exile in Toronto, he’s quite well-known within his community. He spent some time in India and ran a music school there for the Dalai Lama and he performs when the Dalai Lama comes to Canada and will often open the stage for him, audiences of 20,000 – 30,000 people. The artists in Beirut is also quite well-known as well and outspoken, and then there’s Zanilya in Amsterdam who is the daughter of the late Bobby Farrell, who was a member of the famous European 1970s disco band Boney M and she’s also quite well-known within the hip hop and music community.
“And other people are quietly living their lives but also share stories of extraordinary magnitude. There is the story of a 91-year-old woman in Tainan who has retired to a monastery but every second day goes to visit a highrise for the afterlife, where all her ancestors and relatives who are deceased are all aggregated and she takes care of them in this space. So we learn about how ‘death’ is being handled in Asia as density increases. It’s a very poignant and meditative story about the end of life and afterlife.
“In Sao Paulo we meet the organiser and leader of a homeless downtown movement who has been instrumental in organising placing to live, occupying empty buildings, empty highrises, for people who have nowhere else to go. So she is also quite well-known within her community although her story is new for the international audience.”
It strikes me that what is also interesting, the fact the some of the stories are more gentle and might not make to the forefront of a documentary if it wasn’t this kind of format. Without the ‘glue’ of the highrise bringing them together, comparing them, some of these stories probably wouldn’t be told. Do you think that is the case?
“That’s a very base observation, absolutely: I think what the internet and the digital space affords us is to tell stories that otherwise might not be told if it were in a linear, theatrical 90-minute documentary. We all know that for a story to carry in that kind of environment – in 90 minutes on a cinematic screen – it has to be an incredibly... well I think it has to be a certain type of story. Whereas what I think is happening on the internet, which I find fascinating, is this appreciation of everyday life that you often don’t see on the big screen. You know, everything about the big screen is ‘extraordinary’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘big’ and ‘transformative’ but if you actually dig deep into the stories of Out My Window they are also all of these things. But they are at a very different kind of scale and tonality. And that’s what I like so much about the digital space: it opens up the possibility of telling different stories that otherwise might not be told.”
Regarding how the stories are told, music as well as local sounds also serve a very important role: could you tell me more?
“The playlist is a phenomenal acquisition. We have a music supervisor, Helen Spitzer, a fantastic radio producer here in Toronto, and she put together an amazing collection of up-and-coming independent artists from around the world. We have dedicated certain tracks to certain videos, but if you look carefully at the navigation bar at the bottom of the screen there’s an option where you can actually chose your own music. You can actually change the mood of stories by changing the music that plays underneath them, which is a fun little thing that we did. So yes, the attention to sound in the project was a huge effort on our part to give it an immersive feeling and this feeling that the user is really entering into a space and I hope that is how people experience it.”
One personal thing, because we are almost out of time, but when I was looking at the 360 degree interface – the space through which you move - I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of the work by David Hockney, his famous Polaroid collages. It reminded me of that a little bit and wanted to ask if that was an inspiration.
“Huge inspiration in fact: some of his work... and he is cited in the style guide as a big inspiration for us... in terms of breaking down, addressing how truth in documentary – if you want to look at it from a more theoretical level – how the truth is a collage and it shifts. Some things are hidden and some things are behind scenes and some things are doubled up. And that’s the way we certainly experience one another and each others’ stories.”
Out My Window is a unique experience. Look it up at http://interactive.nfb.ca/#/outmywindow/