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Vertical Integration: The NFB's 'High Rise' Project Tackles Urban Living

By Tamara Krinsky

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "documentary" as "A work, such as a film or television program, presenting political, social or historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner and often consisting of actual news films or interviews accompanied by narration." The National Film Board (NFB) of Canada aims to blow that very traditional definition out of the water with its second Filmmaker-in-Residence (FIR) program, High Rise, a multi-year, trans-media project based around questions about the human experience of the high rise and the future of urban living.

The first FIR project, which Documentary profiled in its May/June 2007 issue, was a creative partnership between St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and the NFB. Filmmaker Katerina Cizek created several different projects, including Web-based pieces, still photography, video and text, based on the time she spent with hospital staff and patients. Her adventures included traveling with doctors from "St. Mike's" to Malawi for HIV drug distribution, riding along with cops and psychiatric nurses, and working with a group of homeless pregnant women-turned-portrait photographers. Originally meant to be a 60-minute film, the final fruits of the first FIR project yielded a box set of two DVDs, plus a CD-ROM with all of the Web components.

High Rise grew out of talks about the city of Toronto. NFB Senior Producer Gerry Flahive describes his hometown as one of the most multicultural cities in the world. "We joked that Kat could be the filmmaker-in-residence for the city," says Flahive. "As we were talking, though, all these social media tools arose. We began to think that maybe we could actually do a large-scale collaborative media project about how the city is changing. Most of what we did with the hospital was outside of its walls; it was more about how the hospital related to its community. So there was sort of a street vibe to it already."

As they began to research possibilities for a city-centric endeavor, Flahive and Cizek connected with academics at York University and the University of Toronto. Their timing was perfect. Urban scholars at York were just embarking on a massive, multi-year study of the future of suburbs, which they believe is where the next 300 to 400 million people are going to live. But they also believed that these suburbs won't look like the manicured half-acres we're used to in Toronto or Phoenix; rather, these suburbs will be comprised of vertical apartment buildings.

Another piece fell into place with Toronto's "Tower Renewal" program. During the hospital project, the NFB had developed a relationship with Toronto Mayor David Miller. He introduced the FIR team to the Renewal program, a 15-year project aimed at greening and revitalizing Toronto's numerous residential, aging apartment towers.

Says Flahive, "All these ideas started colliding--people living vertically, what's happening on the edges of cities. Most of the world is urban and that's increasing. This project grew organically out of the academic research, and then we found a creative frame: the idea of the high rise. But we're focusing our creative lens on the human stories. This is not about urban planning or architecture or zoning; it's about the human experience and how it's going to change with so many people living in the most ubiquitous built form of the 20th century."

The NFB announced the project in October 2009 at the Collaborative City Conference in Ontario, which, as its website describes, is a forum "to engage global perspectives on collaboration and connect them with local change-makers." At the end of the year, the FIR team added the "Prologue" to their website (http //, which gives users a sneak peek at some of the directions the filmmakers plan on exploring. One of the first pieces, "Out My Window," will launch in late Spring 2009. Working from a creative brief created by Cizek, 18 photographers from around the globe have been commissioned to each tell the story of one person living in an apartment. The project will feature 360-degree stitched photography and streaming audio stories.

Although the High Rise sounds tremendous in scope, the project isn't trying to be the final, definitive statement project about tower buildings or the future of cities. Instead, Flahive and Cizek are specifically interested in cities where great change is taking place. They are trying to keep things manageable by focusing on cities similar to Toronto, such as Marseilles, Bogota and Nairobi. These  "second-tier" cities, as the filmmakers term them, have populations of about five to six million and have had huge migratory movements of people in recent history.

Just like the first FIR adventure, Flahive and his team have no idea what specific formats High Rise will ultimately take. They're open to everything from Web documentaries, to mobile applications, to live performances, to new digital platforms not yet invented. When they first started working on the hospital project, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook didn't even exist! But the flexibility the NFB is giving the team will allow them to invent as they go, utilizing the forms most appropriate for what they discover along the way.

"Its great to have the freedom to not know what end-product we are developing," says Flahive. "It's great that NFB didn't ask for specifics. There's something really valuable in documentary to approach a subject like this. We have a four-year mandate where things can shift and change. We're platform-agnostic; we don't have to make any specific thing. What we tried to do with St. Mike's was explode or expand or retrieve what the definition of documentary is. Now it's even easier to think about that."


 Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary