Another City, Not Our Own

in 32nd Istanbul Film Festival

by Lesley Chow

A section of this year’s festival has the ambitious title “Am I Not a Citizen? Barbarism, Civic Awakening and the City.” This question packs in a lot of ambiguity: for a start, who it is addressed to? If I am not a citizen of my own country, am I a barbarian outside the gates, and should I embrace that? Or is the onus on all citizens to unleash their savagery, and form a new city in the process?

The choices in this section ranged from films on out-and-out xenophobes to works in which the markers of difference were as slight and subtle as in José Luis Guerín’s Work in Progress (En Construcción, 2001), a documentary on the destruction and redevelopment of a block of dwellings in Barcelona’s Barrio Chino.

This film has been taken up by an unusual grouping of audiences. It appears on the syllabus of architectural schools and courses in urban design, archaeology and cultural studies. It could be used as an argument for the historical preservation of neighborhoods, if not for the fact that Guerín’s tone is so calm and gentle: curious about what happens next, rather than willing events to occur. If anything, the redevelopment is an opportunity for unprecedented voyeurism: for a limited time only, one can look across the square into other people’s apartments, witness the cross-section of lives in an entire block. All the architectural layers of the place are exposed: bits of Roman and Moorish ruins poke up between the walls of modern Spain.

We begin with black-and-white footage of the barrio in the ’50s: what looked to be a busy, tight, cohesive community, with women and men taking up familiar poses and shapes. Now we flash forward to the present day, in which identity seems much more diffuse. It is no longer clear what people mean by their looks or gestures. Passers-by are curious about the construction, but not enough to do more than pause blankly; a man responds to the demolition noises with pouty looks of surprise — what are we to make of him?

Despite his interest in faces, Guerín looks from the perspective of place rather than protagonist: the neighborhood waits patiently for people to cross it each day, contributing sounds and information, adding their own bit of oddity to the mix. The camera lingers on a light quick step or an ugly shoving motion, documenting people’s ways of gathering and separating, as determined by the space they inhabit.

Over the years, certain ways of living have been promoted by the local architecture: children’s games have been invented around the margins of the building, looks are exchanged across balconies, and families of cats nestle in the walls. Urban design has inspired distinctive patterns of squatting; between the dwellings, little stalls have popped up in the available gaps.

When the new building is finished, all of this will be wiped out — in a regretful but creative act of destruction. It is not clear how the inhabitants feel about this. There is an ambivalence about what the reconstituted community might look like. An old man is charmed by an “ethnic” child upstairs, doting on it but mocking it at the same time. A girl lusts after the local hunk, while referring to him as “the Arab”. These are conflicted attractions which could flip either way in the future. Will people engage directly with one another, or are they more concerned with the overall image of their society?

While the apartments are being constructed, the local children play house within the unfinished walls. They make rules about how they would live according to the grid-plan: you sleep here, I will stay there, we will meet over here. Subsequently a new generation of affluent tenants inspects the condominiums. Just as the children do, they try out everyday postures and see how they fit into the rooms. They check out their prospective neighbors: not in an unfriendly way, although they are wary about the appearance of some of the apartments. With each glance, they seem to be asking: Can I live like this? Could I face these people? How will my life look to others? For Guerín, these daily thoughts comprise the nature of the city we live in.

Lesley Chow