Set in three high-rise blocks that constitute the now-abandoned Rabot Towers in Ghent, Belgium, this documentary film is as epic and haunting as the buildings themselves. The constructionscocoonedseveral familiesafterbeing installed as low-cost public housing in the mid-1970s.
Rabot(2018)offers a remarkable and highly stylished collective portrait of the tower’s residents that traverses everything from love, loss and drug addiction to the fragility of social cohesion that exists among low income earners within Belgium’s urban areas.
The filmmakers focus on more than a dozen residents of the towers and – in keeping with the egalitarian nature of public housing – refuse to spotlight one narrative over any other and instead construct a lavishly detailed, compassionate and broad-ranging representation of life in post-welfare state public housing.
The Rabot towers have been slated for demolition since 2009 due to an inability to meet modernsafety standards, the need for constant repair and a general shift by governments away from tower blocks to lower rise medium density construction as the preferred means of delivering public housing. It is at this point of uncertainty that the filmstarts observingits subjects’ situations.
«Like any community existing on the margins of society there are both unsung heroes and unashamed villains.»
As the sequential demolition of the three towers looms and ultimately begins to take place, some of the apartments lie abandoned and in disrepair, others are vacated during the course of filming and a further group of residents continue to live their lives in front of the cameras in a remarkably unselfconscious manner as the first of the towers is demolished.
The filmmaker’s skill is unassuming yet breathtaking at times and the shunning of camera movement in favour of an almost total use of still frames showcases both the interior and exterior locations as melancholic yet theatrical spaces.Each still frame takes on the status of a meticulously detailed environmental portrait much in the same way that a still photographer may document such spaces for detailed examination. As a result the location itself becomesasignificant actor within the narrative of the film.
In fact the characterisation of the building is crucial to the realisation of the impressive urban anthropology that the film manages to portray. From shots of the inner mechanisms of the lifts, to the perfectly-balanced still frames showing thefront entrance at one of the tower blocks,the uneasy yet somewhat organic nature of the relationship between building and human is perfectly interpreted by the static cinematography and the action that is captured within the frames. This approach facilitates the creation of a genuine and holistic vision of the lives of the films subjects without the need for an overtly interpretative cinematography.
«The documentary is flawlessly complimented by an eclectic soundtrack.»
The documentary is flawlessly complimented by an eclectic soundtrack, a mixture of both diegetic and non-diegetic music that is always seamlessly positioned to providemomentary pauses that despite being characterised by the absence of noise manage to enhance the film’s narrative development. Whether it be a love starved resident listening to an Elvis hit, or a classical accompaniment to a scene of demolition, the music is always evocative of the lives and suggestive of the ultimate fates of the film’s subjects.
Unsung heroes and villains
Theissues faced by residents cast a shadowover the piece – the filmmaker does not shy away from confronting vulnerability and regret. But there is an overall tenderness of approach and throughout the documentary a dignity is afforded to the people affected. Like any community existing on the margins of society there are both unsung heroes and unashamed villains, as well as everyone in between. While the antagonism is only hinted at though the use of suggestive devices such as shots of confrontational graffiti andscenes of residents making official complaints to the housing authority, it is the resilience of the film’s subjects that constantly reinforces the central narrative.
«The location itself becomes a significant actor within the narrative of the film.»
A life-affirming masterpiece
However, there is a majorunsettling undercurrent in this tentativelyoptimistic portrayal: the filmmakerdoes not hold back from relaying theconstant laments fromCaucasian residents about the lifestyles of non-white residents. But, as if to provide an editorial counterpoint, the filmmaker also capturesthe relationship between amentally ill resident, originally from Ghana, and her Belgian-born ex-husband who still cares for her.While difficult in parts, their storyserves as an expression of interracial lovein an environment which is far from tolerant to it.
Rabot is pure and brilliant social realism, melancholy with elements of tragicomedy, yet irrevocably an expression of the power of human resilience. With its superb characterisation and painstakingly edited narrative it is laced with a dark tenderness and is ultimately a life-affirming masterpiece.