Out My Window – The Role of Architecture in Seeking the “Film-Truth”

by Conan Ito

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 “You see them all over the world. Concrete residential highrise buildings are the most commonly built form of the last century. On the outside, they all look the same. But inside these towers of concrete and glass, people create community, art and meaning.”
– Katerina Cizek, “HIGHRISE”

As old, traditional buildings and environments are rapidly being replaced by intensive, ubiquitous high-rise buildings, the homogenous urban fabric veils its most valuable cultural identities of cities all around the world. In recognition to the need to recognize, understand and counter such practices, a documentary filmmaker Katerina Cizek directed an interactive 360-degree documentary, Out My Window (2010). This interactive documentary is part of a conglomerate global projects of HIGHRISE, “a many-year, many-media collaborative documentary experiment at the National Film Board of Canada” (Cizek, 2011). The initial idea of this interactive documentary was to develop ways to study the experiences of individuals living in the “vertical urban peripheries” of high-rise residential buildings (ibid).

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In Out My Window, the users are invited on a journey to wander inside a chaotic, collage-like high-rise building structured by thirteen architectural windows, which represent thirteen different global cities in different parts of the world. Each window reveals glimpse of everyday life of ordinary people living in a high-rise residential tower, and by clicking on one of them, the users can enter inside the room to navigate and interact with the residents. Once users are inside, the interactive interface transforms into a 360-degree panoramic view, which then the users can freely wander through the spaces. The panorama is used as an apparatus to “imaginatively transfer the observer to a different place” (Dinkla, 2001, p. 30). However, rather than having a seamless presentation of the panoramic view, Cizek incorporates overlapping interior photographs to build a spatial collage of the room. In Kino-Pravda (“Film-Truth”), Dziga Vertov (1925) claims that, “Fragments of actuality which, when organized together, have a deeper truth that cannot be seen with the naked eye”. Though, does the use of “fragments of actuality” qualify as authentic for this documentary to be considered as a documentary? A significant figure in ethnographic documentary history, Jean Rouch, developed a technique called “cinema-veritae” (Rouch, 2003), which was strongly influenced by Vertov’s theory of “film-truth”. These fractures in the panorama heightens the “instability of perception” (Dinkla), in which forces the users to cognitively stitch the photographs together to seek the “deeper truth”, and create their own interpretation of the experience inside each room.

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As the title entails, “window” is the fundamental concept in Out My Window, and it plays a strange, but essential role in this interactive documentary. Typically, windows are used as public and private interfaces in architecture buildings. The windows, in this case, are used as a portal to transport oneself to a stranger’s room, instead of a door, and, yet, the users are capable of promptly accustoming themselves to this idea. Once the users are inside the room of a stranger, we notice that the windows are kept open, or more accurately, not there; the space where there is supposed to be a window, is simply represented as an architectural void. The openness and the nakedness of the residents, revealing almost all of their privacy, entitle us to feel prominently welcomed. Though this nonlinearity in cognitive relations create an unrealistic spatial quality, it has a complementary influence on the feeling of disorientation that users come to feel when they’re moving around the collage-structured panorama.

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When particular objects inside the room or buildings outside the window are clicked, it triggers one of the forty-nine stories (over ninety minutes of material altogether) with a voice-over of the residents in the form of a slideshow of still images. The stories are accompanied by background music which adds to the mood of the story. These stories are mostly conveyed through still image sequences because Cizek believed that, “the calmness of still image allowed the story to come through in the sound” (as cited in Hernandez & Rue, 2015). There is no way to speed up the stories, but to pause and resume. An assumption could be made that the interactivity is not only an exploration through socio-cultural time and spaces, but a contemplation for slow consumption in respect for the subjects.

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Let’s take a look at John’s room in Johannesburg for instance. His stories are primarily about the dangers and struggles surrounding the periphery of the high-rise tower he is living in. He talks about how the hijackers would go to a residential building, which can be seen from the view of his apartment window, to take over, kill the owner, and collect money from the residents. The frequent killings that ensued when residents refused to pay rent to them was quite a shocking story to listen to. In contrast to the life-threatening danger depicted in John’s everyday life story, there are certainly joyful stories in other residents from other global cities.

Since the narrative is nonlinear with no one to guide the users along the story, the users can navigate the story on their own will and choose different rooms to explore. Therefore, the experience of this interactive documentary solely lies in “the random discovery of links by constantly roaming and exploring the film’s screen display of hidden hyperlinked text and images” (Ng, 2011).

This makes use of the notion of “derive” (Debord, 1956), used in Situationist practice, a term first used by Guy Debord. “Derive”, or drift, is often used as a technique of immersion into an urban space. The act of “derive” involves one to aimlessly wander through an urbanscape, and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of terrain and the encounters they find there”. This concept first originated because of the predictable and banality of everyday in capitalistic society. By disorientating the emotional state through the act of drifting in a foreign land, one can study the psychogeographical variations in the urban context. In this case, Debord’s definition of psychogeography, “specific effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behavior of individuals” (1958), is used. Furthermore, in the context of Out My Window, the feeling of disorientation is augmented by the act of “derive” in a foreign room, and the engagement with the 360-degree panoramic vision, in which users can interact to reveal the “film-truth” of the residents’ everyday life. What this amounts to is that, the users are not only opportune to listen to their very intimate stories, but to observe the milieu scattered all around the room, creating a sense of belonging.

Out My Window demonstrated how architectural quality could capture the “film-truth” through the conversion between interactive documentary and “derive”. The psychogeographical stimulations influenced by the panoramic view of a resident’s room had heightened the sense of disorientation and the drive to seek the “film-truth”. In summary, Cizek’s interactive documentary experiment had indeed challenged and unraveled our perception of the urban high-rise building – which are hidden behind the concrete walls and rarely exposed – by engaging users through the “windows”.

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Works Cited

ABOUT. HIGHRISE. < http://highrise.nfb.ca/about/ >

Debord, Guy. Definitions. 1958.

Debord, Guy. Theory of the Derive. Les Levres Nues. 1956.

Dinkla, Soke. “The Art of Narrative – Towards the Floating Work of Art”. 2001.

Hernandez, Richard Koci, & Jeremy Rue. The Principles of Multimedia Journalism:

Packaging Digital News. 2015.

Ng, Jenna. Fingers, Futures, Fates: Viewing Interactive Cinema in Kinoautomat and

Sufferrosa. 2011.

Out My Window. HIGHRISE. < http://interactive.nfb.ca/#/outmywindow/ >

Rouch, Jean & Feld, Steven. Cine-Ethnography (Annotated Edition). 2003.

Vertov, Dziga. Kino-Pravda. 1925.