Thinking Outside The Blocks
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Thinking Outside The Blocks

Look at the Toronto segment of Out My Window.

The Germans call them Plattenbau. The former Soviet bloc has a different word: panelák. In the UK, they call them tower blocks. In South Korea: 아파트단지. Americans usually refer to them as midrises or highrises. Here in Toronto, we usually just call them apartment buildings. They’re generally defined by building engineers as multi-unit buildings whose heights exceed twenty-three metres. They look different, but not by much. And the idea is always the same: large buildings, usually made of press concrete, built to house a lot of people. And if you don’t live in an apartment building, you probably know someone who does.
“It’s the most commonly built form of the half century,” says Katerina Cizek. “Highrises exist almost everywhere.” Cizek is the Toronto-based director of Out My Window an interactive National Film Board web documentary which recently took the DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival. Part of a larger collaborative documentary project called HIGHRISE, Out My Window looks behind the ubiquitous concrete slabs that dot the periphery of mostly any urban centre on the planet.

Using innovative 360-degree photography techniques, Out My Window takes viewers (users? As with so much “interactive cinema” and “new media,” the terminology is still being worked out) into highrises, tower blocks, and panelák, from Toronto to Montreal to Bangalore, Phnom Penh, Havana, Beirut, and plenty of places in between. It’s really a neat little project. This isn’t because it wakes us up to believing that real people with real lives are living in all these sky-scraping concrete blocks (Talking Heads songs have served that function for the last thirty-some years), but because of the format. Though the intermingling of moving images, sound, and non-fiction narrative may superficially resemble a documentary, Out My Window is something else altogether.
“The idea was to not define the project by the platform or media used to make it,” explains Cizek. “We wanted to get into the lab and experiment, and to find a different starting point for documentary.” After about two years of research, Cizek and her team had accrued enough raw material that the idea for Out My Window began to emerge. Unlike a more conventional documentary film, which may unite different stories through a common linkage (like Dish, the look at waitresses from around the world that played at Hot Docs last year) and then stitches together a guiding thematic current, the thread that runs through Out My Window is formal. Presented as a digital apartment block, with each window hyperlinking the viewer-user to a different story, Cizek’s project realizes the McLuhanist flattening of medium and message. It also gives life to another of McLuhan’s prophesies, in digitally compacting the experience of citizens of the world into what Cizek describes as a “global highrise.”

The ingenious, user-friendly interface of Out My Window.

The formal quality of Out My Window was also reflected in its production. Instead of jetting around the world on the NFB’s dime to capture these stories, Cizek liaised with local photographers, activists, journalists, and researchers using e-mail, Skype, and Facebook. The process makes Out My Window both a truly collaborative and global project. And unlike a lot of other interactive media projects it may be of a piece with, Out My Window never feels gimmicky. (Or rather, it’s formal gimmick fits the content so well that we don’t even notice.) It’s telling that when asked if interactive, collaborative experiments like this are the future of documentary at the NFB, Cizek laughed and then quickly responded without missing a beat.
“It’s not the future. It’s the present.”
Stills courtesy Trevor Haldenby.
Check out Out My Window available now at the NFB’s website.