Today an explosion of huge megacities is posing serious local and global challenges: equality, pollution, sustainability, climate, space and infrastructure. The documentary series Cities on Speed focuses on megacity citizens from different backgrounds and with different stories. “When someone is sick, you call a doctor. But who do you call when a city is on the verge of collapse?”

Tue Steen Müller
Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

The above fine introductory lines announce the theme of the four documentaries from the series Cities on Speed, shot in Shanghai, Mumbai, Cairo and Bogotá, all directed by different young Danish directors. The titles are Shanghai/Space (Nanna Frank Møller), Mumbai/Disconnected (Camilla Nielsson and Frederik Jacobi), Cairo/Garbage (Mikala Krogh) and Bogotá/Change (Andreas Møl Dalsgaard).

The films are all commissioned works, issue driven and with an ambition to be informative. They are made to create awareness and generate debate. But they also include a creative challenge for the filmmakers: How do you transform a complicated and huge issue into an interesting film?

Photo by Andreas Møl Dalsgaard via the Danish Film Institute. Bogota Change

All of the films are produced with substantial support from DR (Danish public broadcaster) and the Danish Film Institute, and made to fit a one hour TV slot. Several international channels have also made an upfront financial investment. The films will go worldwide. They are intended that way – the problems raised in the films are relevant for all citizens of the world. A clip from the promotional material for the films states:

“50% of the world’s population is now living in urban areas. By 2050 this figure is expected to increase to 80%. The result will be an explosion of huge megacities posing serious local and global challenges: equality, pollution, sustainability, climate, space and infrastructure. How is it possible to plan, navigate or even live in an everchanging cityscape of concrete, commercials and neon lights? And does democracy still make sense if the interests of 20 million people have to be considered every time a decision has to be made?”

City films refer to a documentary subgenre that cinematic history is notoriously full of: Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 Berlin film, Berlin, Symphony of a City, was a declaration of love to a city and a time, when the world seemed to be going in the right direction, and made as a playful montage that in itself was also a hymn to the wonderful new medium of film. This is also true – paradoxically – of young film debutant Timo Novotny and his city symphony, Life in Loops, produced eight decades later in 2006 – a gorgeous innovative remix of Austrian director Michael Glawogger’s neo-classic Megacities. Glaswogger’s film was shot in beautifully composed tableauxlike images from all parts of the world. It is accompanied by music in contrast to Novotny’s film that is based on music – music that drives the rhythm and creates the atmosphere. There are many other great directors who have made films in and about cities, including Robert Frank, van Dyke, Johan van der Keuken, Jørgen Roos and Arne Sucksdorff.

Thus Cities on Speed places itself in a tradition of important milestones in documentary film history – of which the above examples are just a few. At the same time the new series relates to another documentary tradition, the (John) Griersonian one of educating the people, of raising awareness and solidarity, of making the decision-makers and the rest of us first to understand and then to take action – to make the world a better place to live in. The films are launched just before the Climate Summit in Copenhagen in December 2009, and a website under construction (citiesonspeed.dk) communicates that the target group is the educational sector. The films are made to push debate. I am sure Grierson would have been enthusiastic about combining important issues with ”the creative treatment of reality”, as he put it!

The films are traditional in their thematic approach but they are also modern documentaries in the way that the emphasis is on the character driven formula. They are all about megacity citizens, taken from different backgrounds and with different stories: Professor Shu and photographer Xu from Shanghai, migrant Yasin, civil servant Mr Das and Ms Veena from Mumbai, Mr Taher in Cairo and Antanas Mockus and Enrique Penalosa from Bogotá.

The characters are all involved in, and for some you could say victims of, the mega-problems that come from the ‘pancake-effect’ – as Professor Shu in Shanghai/Space shows with his hands: “These cities broaden out more and more, like when you make a pancake. What can we do?” Shu has a vision: He wants to build new space underground, along with the roads – he wants to create artificial sunny atmospheres, human eco-systems under the ground, full of life and birds singing. And expanding vertically downwards means it also becomes bearable to live over ground where the real sun shines. Mr Yu, his antagonist, goes around taking photographs of the change that the city is undergoing. He has done this for decades, during which time he and his wife have moved into a modern flat in one of the skyscrapers. The film therefore manages to present two different views of a place in time – one looking forward, one looking back – through two stories and two main characters that do not directly confront each other.

In Mumbai/Disconnected the three characters are narratively connected to show the disconnection in the city and between them. Yasin and his family want the new cheap Nano car – this is Yasin’s biggest wish, to prove that he is something and that he can fight poverty. Mr Das, a civil servant, is part of the leadership of a road development project which presents constant problems with respect to fulfilling the requirements of a loan received from the World Bank. The aim is to construct a flyover solution to improve the current totally devastating transport situation in a city of soon 20 million people. And last, but not least, Ms Veena, a very well-off woman who fights the plans to build the flyover, and does it with both passion and clever words. She is a senior citizen who, as she says, measures the air pollution and concludes that “the air is not breathable”. Yasin has a life where he cannot afford to think about pollution and city planning strategies, and he never gets close to Mr Das and Ms Veena, who do confront each other in a dramatic citizencity administration discussion.

mumbai-disconnected
Mumbai disconnected

In terms of the premise of the four films, Mumbai/Space takes first prize. It presents the core of the problem in an attractive way and you never doubt that the directors (Camilla Nielsson and Frederik Jacobi) know what they are talking about. The characters are all interesting personalities. You laugh and get angry with them and you have a clear sense of the absurdities of the situation. You like them all – and this is luckily not a black and white film. It has no conclusion and you want the best for Yasin and his family. You wish Mr Das success in his small office with piles of paper, and you understand completely why Ms Veena protests against having more stinking gasoline smell just outside her window. There are a thousand questions on how to solve – if possible – the problems which are social, political and environmental. It is serious stuff, but the filmmakers know that painting it all black would mean that no one would care. Rather they tell the stories with fine characters and a light tone that is also achieved due to the wonderful choice of music: The Raymond Scott Quintet, from the end of the 1940s, sounding like British civil propaganda films from the period.

Mumbai disconnected

Nanna Frank Møller’s previously mentioned Shanghai/Space, is, in comparison to the Mumbai and Cairo films, much less issue-orientated but it does go artistically deeper with the characters, or should I say character:

Mr Xu, who is portrayed so convincingly beautiful, will forever be connected to my memory when talk turns to Shanghai: An old man who tells his life story through a low-key, melancholic type of narration, connected to his photos taken over a period of decades. These are photos of Shanghai as it was – the camera follows him and his wife in the suburbs documenting how the trees, people and houses look before they disappear. The old China. “The change has come to me”, he says when the family has to move – and the camera follows him to different flats that he considers, and continues until he finds the one where he wants to be. The film is thus more than a presentation of the changing Shanghai, and of the underground plans presented by the (also) charismatic and constantly smiling Professor Shu. It is a personal drama, a human story that unfolds about a man, Mr Xu, who during the Cultural Revolution was sent to a camp because photography was a bourgeois occupation. The film is full of details like the motion of the photographic magnifying glass, and the choice of cinematography suits the man with the camera, presenting non-moving almost still life paintings, one after the other. The whole film is so well mastered that I do not hesitate in saying that Nanna Frank Møller, after this third film as director, has proven herself as one of the big talents in the new generation of Danish documentary filmmakers.

shanghaispace1
Shanghai Space by Nanna Frank Møller

As a series, the four films are well thoughtthrough and produced – if you are someone who likes diversity. There is a general theme to be dealt with here, but the directors have also had the freedom to find their own methods, voices, angles and characters. This is what makes this much more than another mainstream TV-formatted series, and therefore makes it suitable for all sorts of different purposes.

“Well done” writes a man who lives in a small city called Copenhagen!


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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