Q&A with Katerina Cizek - Part 1

Q. How did you choose the locations for the project?

A. We were interested in kind of a fusion, a mix, of really interesting highrise environments. An interesting geographical or urban story, mixed with a really powerful human character, and domestic story as well. As a documentarian what I wanted to experiment with in this project was storytelling - I wanted to explore everyday life, and the way that we tell very simple, everyday stories about one another. I wanted to mimic the feeling you get when you enter somebody's home as a guest there, and the way that you learn about each other as you sit in that space. Someone may be telling you one story, and you look over their shoulder for a second and you see something on the wall and you think “Oh wow, I wonder what that is?” and you ask that person “What's that painting?”, and they tell you, and it's the way you get to know them.

I feel like in documentary we've gone to very broad, large narrative structures which can be really powerful and amazing in a theatrical documentary for example, but we don't meet each other and share each other's stories with huge beginnings, middles and ends - they're all fragments. They're all these little pieces that we share in an interactive way, and I wanted to try and replicate that in the stories. I think we were also looking for rich environments in terms of storytelling possibilities.

Q. By getting that feeling of going into someone’s house and meeting them you have this window into a microcosm, but what’s really happening as well is that you’re getting these beautiful segues out into the much broader community, like the issues of housing in Istanbul and the comments on people’s relationship with government in Havana. Did you have any idea that it would head off in these broad directions?

A. That's what we were hoping for, absolutely. We talked about the personal and the political, and I think in Out My Window what we're trying to do is fuse the domestic with the geographic, the geopolitical. In these places that we inhabit - what are those forces that create those spaces, how do we influence those spaces, and how do we live with (and often despite) the built forms around us? So back to the earlier question of how did we choose the places, we wanted to make sure there was a nice balance between that personal domestic feeling, and just being intimate with somebody in their home, and feeling welcome. I really hope the experience feels much more like a respectful visit rather than a voyeuristic gaze into people's lives and homes. That's partly why we built these seam-ful collages that have all these edges and overlaps... as audiences we don't have the right to everything, we have the right to some things. So that was a huge impetus, that balancing act we wanted to have with every city, and also in the way that we balanced the cities - we wanted to make sure we had geographic representation.

Q. How does this kind of interactive project change what it means to be a film director? It must be quite a different approach that you take.

A. Definitely, it's much more collaborative, and in some cases curatorial, but I'd still say that there's just so much creativity involved in terms of finding the way that the story can shape and bring in unlikely partners together at the same table - that's been a really interesting part of the process too. Not just collaborators to make documentary content, but partners like Michael (Shapcott, from the Wellesley Institute in Toronto), the residents of buildings, city departments, landlords. Bringing people to the table around art can sometimes be a really wonderful way to mediate and create lines of communication where there otherwise might not be. So it's also the power of art to create communication. It's called media - it's not a one way thing, it's a flow, so a director in this century needs to think about it that way.

I'm much more interested in interactivity and intervention on the ground than online. I think the online stuff is sometimes obvious, and great - we have these great tools - but what's not so obvious is how to bridge the really stark digital divide that continues to exist in the world. And not just north/south, it happens in our cities, and that's why we're doing a digital literacy survey, to find out how the digital divide manifests itself within our own city.

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About this Blog

The Canadian-made, globally-focused Out My Window, posted about here previously, is a groundbreaking piece of online interactive documentary making. It’s one component of a larger ongoing collaborative media project called Highrise. I spoke to the director, Katerina Cizek, about how the project came together and about what they’re trying to achieve with it.