Interview: Katerina Cizek director of Highrise
High Rise is a multi-year documentary research project into the human experience in suburban high rise neighbourhoods. It’s not a traditional documentary production rather an online platform composed of many smaller documentary projects. Over the years the work has taken many forms, web-documentaries, live presentations, installations, workshops, films and online participatory projects. The project was developed at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) an organisation that has been at the forefront of documentary innovation for decades and this work by director Katerina Cizek continues this rich tradition, with High Rise having won numerous awards in recent years. The work integrates personal stories from residents around the globe with academic and architectural research into high rise neighbourhoods. High Rise is one of the key projects in this research and I spoke with the director Katerina Cizek about the history of the project, here is the transcript of the interview.
How does Highrise fit into the history of participatory documentary at the NFB?
Highrise emerged out of the previous project I had at the film board called Filmmaker in Residence, that’s a project I did at an inner city hospital for about 4 to 5 years, which was created directly out of an initiative by the NFB to re-invigorate the Challenge for Change program in the digital context. So in 2004 they contacted me because of a project I did called Seeing is Believing about the genesis of the handicam revolution. They thought I might be the person to start thinking about the Challenge for Change in a new way and they gave me this brief where they did not want a classical documentary approach.
Could you describe this new documentary approach?
The traditional approach would mean first finding a subject and then the research material to fit the thesis of your film, so the approach I came up with was inspired by Challenge for Change. The foundation is that instead of starting with a thesis or a story subject is to start with building a relationship with the subject and this forms the basis of the work. Both Filmmaker in Residence and High Rise are more about building relationships and collaborations with people, rather than deciding a story focus and a medium which is a common practice in documentary making. The difference with this approach is it starts out as:
lets explore a collaboration with x/y/z because they are doing interesting and important work and lets see how documentary might align and find a really interesting place in that process
This process was developed in the changing context of the digital era, film is not a top priority for me, I have always been what I call media and platform agnostic in the sense that I have cared more about the relationship with the community and the story. The medium is chosen afterwards to fit what the story the relationship and the needs are for the larger overall strategy. So I have worked across a multitude of platforms for most of my life and film and video is just one of them.
How did this approach inspire the beginnings of High Rise?
After Filmmaker in Residence was complete we asked how can we take these ideas and this approach and this methodology to another level. I was interested in Toronto, how the city works and how the city is segregated. You find the cities most vulnerable people cluster close to the social services downtown, but once these people settle and get more secure they end up in the very far away peripheries, often in Highrises. I was intrigued by that phenomenon and I wanted to learn more about the city. The city I saw in the streetcar everyday was this postcard perfect, diverse metropolitan city – but when I would get off the streetcar to go to work or go home its pretty shocking to see how segregated the city is.
So I started connecting with three groups of academics and practitioners that helped inform the project that became High Rise they are David Hulchanski – University of Toronto, Rogier Keil and the Global Suburbanisms Group at York University and finally the work of Graham Stuart and ERA architects which are a firm looking at the postwar tower block as something that deserves renovation and attention rather than just being torn down. So those were the three main underpinnings of High Rise. It started as a interest to look at Toronto and to understand what was happening around me in the city because it didn’t match the everyday mythology and stereotypes, and once we started it didn’t take long for that story to become global.
How did you begin the process with the community? and did the documentary work act as a catalyst for the community?
To begin the project there were two things that I wanted to know right away, one was I wanted to understand the viewpoint of residents in a building and I wanted to understand that at a local level. So there was a selection process in Toronto to find a place where that could work. And the second ran parallel to that, I started working with a team of researchers to look at global stories and to get a view of High Rise neighbourhoods around the world and what was going on at that scale.
In Toronto we started these participatory workshops, we wanted to choose a site that would benefit from our intervention, to come in at the right time with the right partners, that was the goal. There was limited resources and a very specific kind of work that we could do to make a difference. If we could be a tipping point for something, you need to be really aware of what you can and can’t contribute and try and make sure that the work that you can do, can really help to push something into another realm.
We worked for about two years on a weekly basis, we had a team who led the community media workshops in Toronto and three of us would go to the two Highrises on Kipling Avenue and every week we would meet with five or six residents and we started off The Thousandth Tower (see the case study also) with this photo-blogging project.
What is unique about us is that we could engage in the city renewal debate in a way that actually nobody has done before, we could uniquely contribute from a social and community standpoint.
Everyone was doing interesting work, and we were the catalyst for the residents voices to be heard at a broader scale and to bring those voices downtown to city hall to tell their stories.
In One Millionth Tower you worked with a number of designers to re-imagine the neighbourhood, have any of the proposals that were made at the time been implemented?
One of the obvious really small things that came out of the process was a playground. Partially because of the work for One Millionth Tower we learned that 50% of the residents in the tower blocks are under the age of 20. This statistic becomes so powerful in the right hands. The community got a phone call from the tower renewal office and there was an opportunity to build a playground. Due to the community work from the documentary all the other things were already in place. So the process itself is the most important design that came out of any of this. The community work and the ability of the residents to work with the agencies and bring the various players together and identify community needs and to be able to respond collectively to whatever opportunities may come along. So I think it is the process and the collaborations that are the most interesting design to come out of the project, the ability to make collective decisions and work as a whole is the most important.
How did the other design professionals, the architects, urban planners, city officials respond to the documentary process?
What is so wonderful about the approach that we have taken is that everybody at the table has an expertise. Often we just do this within our own circles we don’t collaborate across disciplines.
So there is something incredibly exciting about collaboration and working with architects, landscape architects and residents on my end. They have the expertise and the lived experience of being in the buildings. Something exciting started to happen during this process and we all felt the energy that comes out of breaking out of the mould of your own discipline and figuring out new solutions to old problems.
Could you tell us some more about the global focus of Highrise?
The idea for Out my Window came from the research and incredible stories we were hearing of High Rise communities around the world. I thought it would be interesting to have them all in one High Rise online, matching their stories with these windows. The intention was to do something early that gave the sense of how global this is and simultaneously how incredibly local this is. Out My Window also peels away at the High Rise stereotype and finds the humanity inside, I really wanted that as one of the first things that we introduced on a global scale with High Rise. Out My Window was the first attempt to express what High Rise is about and that it is less about the architecture and more about the people inside and learning from them. I directed the project via the internet using facebook, email, skype and the phone mostly working with local people, photographers, journalists and housing activists.
One of the aims of High Rise is to be iterative and to try and bring in partners and solicit interest from people that we may never have thought about or of working with. So every project that we do is both an expression of an idea but also a call to action.
The project keeps growing what are the next steps for Highrise?
The New York Times recently approached us wondering if we would be interested in doing something on New York and also specifically for their new op-docs section which is short distinctive point of view documentaries. One thing I have always been interested in doing is the short history of the High Rise. So I got access to “the morgue” the undigitised photo collection in the New York Times archive this contains 5/6million photographs to look for a story. After spending a week there and with the help of an amazing archivist I selected 500 photographs to try and weave the story of NYC. New York of course being a focus and having a major a role to play in the history of the high rise. So we have three short films based on the archives the first one is called Mud which covers the pre-history of the High rise the Tower of Babel to the modern highrise. Part two is known as Concrete and this traces the 20C of the High Rise and the rise of public housing. Glass which traces the end of the modernist high rise and the rise of the condo. The 4th piece is a peoples history in which we have done a call out to the new york times readers we have over 1000 submissions with some really exciting stories coming through.