Since its inception as animated photography towards the end of the 19th century, cities have played a pivotal role in the development of cinema in its three central aspects: production, representation and reception. Whilst one could argue that there are barely any films which do not feature representations of our built environment, the very act of framing an image and the definition of scale or lighting suggest the formation of a definite space, one of the fundamental tasks of architecture. “There is no cinema without architecture”, Sofia Mourato toasts to the 10th edition of the Arquiteturas Film Festival (AFF) Where Life Happens, which took place in Porto, Portugal, from June 27th to July 1st 2023. The twenty-eight films presented throughout the numerous venues of the AFF—directed by Paulo Moreira and structured into the Official Programme, Guest Institution Programme and Competition Programme—go beyond the use of architecture as mere setting upon which life unfolds. Rather, the films presented throughout this 10th edition understand the medium as “a peculiar spatial form of culture”1 and explore and exploit it to document and inquire into the actions of the people who inhabit and give meaning to our built environment. These are the actions that carry the greatest weight.2
It is thus not surprising that this year’s guest institution to AFF is the Canadian Centre for Architecture, “a museum and research institution premised on the belief that architecture is a public concern”.3 Beyond the more canonical formats of exhibitions and publications—which cultural institutions deploy as mediums to mediate with the public—since 2014, the CCA has been engaged in investigating the role that film can have as a curatorial tool. Through a selection of screenings, an installation and both formal discussions and informal lunchtime talks, the CCA continued to unravel its investigation in Porto. The CCA enquiry started in 2014 with the film “Misleading Innocence”. Conceived by Francesco Garutti and directed by Shahab Mihandoust, the film portrays the planning and politics of a series of overpasses on Long Island to raise questions on the relationship between politics and artefacts, power and technology. Since then, the numerous films produced by the CCA have sought to survey architecture’s role, reach and importance, engaging in wider conversations around its economies, politics and publics: in Untitled (The Things Around Us) instead of being presented with the built buildings of 51N4E and Rural Urban Framework, we are exposed to the expanded ecology of the architect’s work, revealing how architecture today is activated and shaped by an extremely concrete and vast planetary infrastructure; futhermore, the documentary series “Islands and Villages”, curated by CCA’s c/o Tokyo Kayoko Ota, serves as testament to the potential of architectural thinking beyond the common logics of the architecture market.
Although the architecture discipline has long been criticised for being caught in an extremely self-referential logic, the CCA's most recent documentary series trilogy—conceived by Giovanna Borasi and directed by Daniel Schwartz, of which the final chapter Where We Grow Older was premiered on the opening evening of the AFF—portrays a very different attitude to the practice, one which is deeply concerned and engaged with the criticalities and issues of our contemporary cities and societies. The trilogy acknowledges that cities have always been central to manifestations of social change and embraces John Rennie Urban Theory on how modernity, capitalism and postmodernity link the study of film to the study of cities. The three documentaries take five carefully selected urban environments to examine the ways in which changing societies, new economic pressures, and increasing population density are affecting the homes of various communities. “What it takes to Make a Home” and “When We Live Alone”and Where We Grow Older, reveal the potential of critical architectural thinking and making to establish new typologies. Throughout all three chapters, architects are not protagonists, but rather communities and voices—who are really experiencing difficult conditions—are the ones at the heart of the trilogy, portraying “how architecture shapes—and might reshape—contemporary life.”
Similarly, aware of the limitations embedded in the act of drawing as a means to portray the very essence of life and the networks of care and support which lie at the core of China’s 285-million floating population, On the margins [competition session #memory, special mention by the jury] by Jingru (Cyan) Cheng and Chen Zhan challenges the medium of collage as a time-based spatial practice through which to reveal the everyday life in the village of Shigushan, Wuhan, China, where families get separated and dissolved due to migration to big cities. The film is a new chapter in an eight yearlong research which the two practitioners have been undertaking at the intersection of architecture and anthropology and revolves around participant observations and intersubjective relationships. Through an insightful conversation post screening, the duo brought our attention to a simple object as a chair, not so much focusing on its design but rather in its ability to renegotiate thresholds and as an active catalyst for community making, potentially hinting at its potential for future situated imaginaries.
“Community, spirituality and generosity, this is what I wanted you to experience.”
- Boonserm Premthada
It is this deep sense of care which Ila Bêka’s and Louise Lemoine’s Big, Ears Listen With Feet [competition session #empathy] documents. They follow acclaimed architect Boonserm Premthada for a day in and out of Bangkok. The architects visit first The Artisans Ayutthaya: The Women Restaurant, a project conceived and designed by Premthada for a community of single and widowed women aged 55 to 94, who, apart from cooking local cuisine for visitors also give alms to monks in the early morning at a small run-down village temple, continuing a century long tradition of care which is continued to date throughout Thailand. From the historic City of Ayutthaya all the way to “Elephant World” in Surin and ultimately the Kantana Institute in Nakhon Pathom, we realise that the true act of listening is not limited to one’s actual acoustic capability but rather is engrained in other sensibilities and observations of the world, as Boonserm himself states “my ears are small but my feet are well grounded.”
“People get very silent when they enter the house”
- Lin Utzon, daughter of Jørn Utzon
Similarly unfolding through the course of a day, yet at a very different pace and bound to one specific location, Light Without Sun [competition session #memory] brings us to the sensational Can Lis designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon on the island of Mallorca. Considered among the most significant projects of the twentieth century, the documentary displays the building as a device through which to look outwards onto the world and engage in wider conversation on the very essence of architecture. Throughout the documentary, voids and silences are as important as the actual building blocks. Utzon’s masterpiece is narrated as stemming from his peripheral understanding of things which sits in stark contrast to the more focused approach to the discipline as advocated today.
Light without Sun, Marie Ramsing, Clara Kraft, Christopher Fischlein, Denmark, 2022, 52 min
“Desired for its transparency in a country that has none to offer its people, glass is desired for its absence.”
- Batoul Faour
In Lebanon, architecture, and more specifically the use of glass, closes down spaces once open to the sky and to the sea. Throughout the film essay shafāfiyyāh [competition session #materials, best experimental film awarded by the jury], Batoul Faour brings to the forefront the material politics of glass, exploring its symbiotic relationship to the political and economic corruption rampant in Lebanon. From the makeshift greenhouses boasted by many Lebanese apartments as a consequence of a building law written by developers for greater exploitation and profit, the film explores the cost and implications of Lebanon’s desire for modernity as epitomised by Beirut’s many glazed high rises which are proof of the financial segregation of the countries neo liberal agenda. Stating that “whatever glass had not been smashed by the explosion had already been shattered by angry protesters in the series of uprising which commenced in October”, the film unveils broken glass as embodying the frustration of a city and its sound as echoing the tragic events which have occurred. Faced with the mountain of debris, glass, aluminium and plastic following the Beirut explosion in 2020, the citizens' quest to turn this into glassware is not only proof of their resilience for survival but also the issues tied to normalising these atrocities and the consistent failures of the Lebanese government. At the same time, citizens of Beirut paradigmatically find themselves repairing window panels in buildings which still bear bullets from the civil war, questioning how much glass has been littered in the last forty years and how long will the Lebanese people keep fixing broken windows and repairing broken glass.
“If everything was perfect, I would struggle to know what to do.”
- Dave Hakkens
Beyond the social politics and economies of our built environment, it is impossible to detach oneself from the environmental repercussions of construction, an industry generating 40% of annual global CO2 emissions, 13% of which can be attributed to building and infrastructure materials. It is this very paradigm which lies at heart of the entries to the #futures and #femalegaze competitions programme which includes topiaskop by Josephin Boettger, gypsum concrete by Simon Pénochet, a world to shape by Ton Van Zantvoort [audience award] and earthbound: nzambi matee. Whilst topiaskop documents the incessant and almost hypnotic loop of “demolition follows construction follows demolition”, gypsum concrete, a world to shape andearthbound: nzambi matee unravel the resilience of young designers and their quest to find alternative solutions to shape a better world. From France to Portugal to the Netherlands, these films document Ciguë agency’s investigation into the possibilities of replacing cement with plaster in the manufacture of screed (responsible for nearly 30.3% of CO2 emissions in the building sector), follow Nienke Hoogvliet’s quest of making the world’s second most polluting industry—the clothing industry—more sustainable through alternative applications of seaweed and portray Dave Hakkens numerous projects from Precious Plastic all the way to Project Kamp through, where he attempts to create an open source blueprint for a new low carbon footprint society. From the exporters of the problem to the importers, earthbound: nzambi matee catapults us to the dumpsite of Dandora in Kenya, where the EU countries dump 37 million items of “junk plastic clothing” every year. Combining the plastic “problem” to the paving and housing issue in Kenya, the film follows nzambi matee’s project “Cjenge” (to build yourself), whose mission is to turn plastic waste into both paving and building blocks, whilst empowering the local community of waste pickers. Considering that humans currently produce more than 350 million metric tons of plastic waste per year and that, without changes to current policies, global plastic waste generation is projected to triple by 2060 to a staggering one billion metric tons, the films are testament to the necessity of thinking differently whilst unveiling the impossibility of pursuing design as it is still taught and pursued to date.
If it’s true that there is no cinema without architecture, it is also true that there is no architecture without people. Beyond the screenings, the strength of the programme developed by the AFF team lay in the diverse talks, tours and installations which brought together the organisers, directors, local architects as well as old friends and the wider community of Porto to further discuss the questions and issues raised by the films themselves. From visiting the homeless shelter and the Mercado do Bolhão, prior to the screenings of Albergues Noturnos do Porto and De Volta a Cidade, to the either more formal or informal debates around the very practice of collecting and producing film whilst drawing parallels to the medium of publishing, it is hard not to feel the “uncompressed potentiality” of this medium and the power of humans as storytellers. Ultimately, one is left thinking how a powerful experience of architecture turns our attention outside of itself—the value of a great film is not in the images projected in front of our eyes but rather in the imagination it unleashes within us. This activation of the imagination is the invaluable function of film.
Lines, Barbora Sliepková, Slovakia, 2021
Best Experimental Film
Shafāfiyyāh, Batoul Faour, Lebanon, 2023
Best Fiction Film
2ª Pessoa, Rita Barbosa, Portugal, 2022
13 Square Meters, Kamil Bembnista, Ayham Dalal, Germany, 2021
On the Margins, Jingru (Cyan) Cheng, Chen Zhan
“A World to Shape”, Ton van Zantvoort, Netherlands, 2022, 52 min, Documentary