Culture | More than the modern city

New film gives global perspectives on slums as alternative housing

In popular culture, the term “slums,” usually brings precise images to mind – Brazilian favelas, shantytowns of South Africa, or something out of Slumdog Millionaire. Québécois director Jean-Nicolas Orhon, however, has put together a film that presents quite a different visual.

Orhon’s new film Slums: Cities of Tomorrow takes the viewer on a worldwide journey that goes from Bangalore, India, to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to “Tent City” in Lakewood, New Jersey, and even comes all the way home to Quebec. The beautiful shots from city to city capture the vast landscapes of countries such as India and Brazil. Aerial views of houses draped with makeshift roofs fill the screen, while images of these slums overshadowed by concrete jungles and massive skyscrapers add depth and contrast to the film’s aesthetics. These scenes are interspersed with interesting anecdotes and personal stories, which, while they make the film relatable on an individual level, are often cut too short. Instead, Orhon replaces these lived experiences with an excess of interviews with ‘experts’ who provide their academic opinion on why slums don’t deserve a bad reputation.

Three of these experts, UQAM professor Nicolas Reeves, author Jeremy Seabrook, and investigative journalist Robert Neuwirth, claim that slums – or “squatting communities,” as they are more often referred to in the film – are an urban and architectural phenomenon throughout the world. They define squatting communities as neighbourhoods born not out of a historical construction but out of necessity, as residents are faced with factors they are not able to control. Governments, they explain, are attempting to eradicate squatting communities; but, as is evident in the film’s footage of squatting communities around the world, these neighbourhoods are not going away anytime soon – they are instead growing into bustling urban centres with the potential to create long-lasting communities. The three argue that governments should improve lives and provide basic services in these communities instead of trying to evict them from the land they’ve unofficially claimed.

Although they are affected by harsh economic times, Slums demonstrates how the residents of these squatting communities learn to live with what scarce resources they have. Each of the film’s selected settings are home to vibrant neighbourhoods with a strong sense of community. One of the residents of the tent city in Lakewood, NJ, nicely sums up this feature of the squatting communities, stating, “Even if you’re homeless, you can still make a home out of nothing.” The inhabitants of these squatting communities live in a sort of “collective activity,” as Seabrook puts it, constantly living and working together, sharing the land, and taking ownership of it as a collective.

Slums goes beyond investigating the misconceptions of squatting communities, to also critique the modern city and the individuals that inhabit it. Seabrook compares cities to slums unfavourably, arguing, “Individuals [in cities] take more than they require and absorb all natural resources leaving nothing behind […] what a sad epitaph.” He points out that in slums there is a sort of “restoration of social hope,” the idea that a new sort of society can be born, one where communities are actively engaged with each other in terms of urban and architectural development and the sharing of resources.

While the documentary has some valuable content, rough editing between community scenes and interviews results in a trajectory that is often jumpy and overzealous. Orhon tries to provide the viewer with a global perspective, but Slums ultimately suffers from an excess of storylines. The scattered nature of the personal stories makes the film hard to follow, while the interviews often come across as awkward and stiff.

Despite Slums’ heavy reliance on ‘experts,’ and lack of storytelling depth, Orhon does succeed in challenging stereotypes of poverty and economic theory. Slums suggests that maybe the answer to unaffordable housing is not cheaply built, low-cost high rises. In fact, the residents in this film seem to be handling the issue much better than most governments do – heads of state may want to check it out.