Kat Cizek on Highrise

CollabDocs:  I was going to start by asking you to sketch your background as a documentary director, and say how you became involved in collaborative practice.

Kat Cizek:  My background is really media agnostic in the sense that I’ve always been interested in community media and in exploring how to bring community voices to a larger audience. That started when I ended up behind the barricades of the Oka Crisis in 1990. It’s seen as the “Wounded Knee of Canada” – a Mohawk community outside Montreal stood up against the plans of the Quebecois white community next door, to extend a golf course on to their ancient burial ground. They had a skirmish with the police, and when the dust settled on the dirt road a police officer lay dead on the ground, and it wasn’t clear where the bullet had come from. The army was called in. There was a stand-off that lasted for about seventy-six days, and I was behind the barricades with the Mohawk Warrior Society for about two or three days.

That experience really marked me as a student and a journalist – it was my first assignment for a university newspaper – in terms of what I witnessed with my own eyes compared to what I was seeing on mainstream media as this massive news event unfolded on TV screens in Canada and around the world.  So from that I became dedicated and inspired by the role that community media can play in discussions around how to change the way things are.  We got together and did an ethno-history of the event, a 36 page booklet about the long history behind this confrontation that was sorely lacking in the way that it was covered in the news. We published, I think, 6,000 editions of newsprint, and we didn’t really know where it would go. But a few months later, once we had sent it out into the world – we dropped it off at community centres, and just gave it to anybody who would take it – suddenly all these letters started coming back from prisons across North America. They were huge – 15 to 20 page letters – written by First Nation and Native American inmates, telling us about their own stories, and how they’d themselves been witnessing this event unfold, and how it related to them.

And that just further inspired me, that you make things but you never know how they go out to people and how people end up using them. So that was already an early indicator for me about the power of media and the power of the tools we use – we just don’t know how they will end up being used by the public.

I can talk for a long time about the many years that I spent in various forms of media. I dabbled in all forms of radio and television, in print. I really loved, and still love, the role that print can play in communities. That was a time when independent community newspapers were really at the forefront. I think across the world there was a move from community radio to community print at that time.

Then I got into International Human Rights documentaries and I made those for many years. I did a film about the genocide in Rwanda. Then, eventually, I did a film with Peter Wintonick – “Seeing is Believing;   Handicams, Human Rights and the News” – which documents the genesis and evolution of what we call the Handicam Revolution – this idea that people can take these new accessible, ubiquitous, easy-to-use technologies to defend Human Rights. We traced several case studies from around the world in which amateurs pick up their tools and document important cases and use them in political ways, whether in the court room, or in the media, or in front of important decision makers.

That film we made in conjunction with Witness, an organisation in New York City started by Peter Gabriel when he saw the Rodney King incident unfold on television, and he decided, ‘Let’s try and arm human rights activists with the technology and see where it gets us”.  We traced one of their stories in the Philippines, which really dramatically unfolded in front of our cameras, and theirs. And that film is still in circulation today, ten years later. It’s still being used, primarily by Witness and by its organisations around the world.  It was also seen on television. It went to tons of festivals. And that was before we were talking about the Digital Revolution – that was 2002; early days for us to understand how ubiquitous [Digital would be] and how it would permeate all of our lives in so many different ways.

I think because of that film the National Film Board of Canada invited me to talk with them about an idea that they were having around 2004 to reinvigorate a programme called ‘Challenge for Change’ .That was a huge initiative that they undertook in the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s through which they made, I think, over 300 films both on the English and French sides. ‘Challenge for Change’ explored how film – at that time it was mostly film though they eventually moved to video – could be used to work with people and communities rather than be about them. And that was a really inspiring and exciting programme that they did way back then.

CollabDocs:  Were you aware of the [Challenge for Change] programme before the NFB approached you?

KC:    Yes, I was aware of it. It’s quite legendary in Canada and in certain circles around the world. It really had a huge impact. I’d seen some of the films and knew about its existence – so that’s what really excited me when they approached me to say, “How can we reinvent this in the Digital Age?”

That was the beginning of what came to be known as “Filmmaker-in-Residence”, a project that I did for five years at the Film Board, in which I was working at the frontlines of an inner-city hospital here in Toronto, with researchers, doctors, nurses, patients, and the community surrounding the hospital, to see how Media and Medicine could work together, to improve both the health and lives of people. We wanted to see how media could play a part in that rather than just document it.

Out of that came a website and a DVD box set. The web documentary called ‘Filmmaker in Residence.nfb.ca’ chronicles the early days of that project and was a very important moment in NFB history, because it was the first web documentary made at the Film Board. It won a lot of international awards including a Webby, and it marked the beginning of the NFB’s turn to digital. (There were some other digital creations happening at the time but there was a turn towards digital production.)

If you want to know more about Filmmaker-in-Residence you can go to the website. The films are online for free as well. There’s a 36 minute film called ‘The Seven Interventions of Filmmaker-in-Residence’ which documents the seven interventions that we did within the project.

CollabDocs:  In terms of the idea of reinventing ‘Challenge for Change’ ; did you talk to any of the people who were originally involved in that project? I’m interested in how digital producers are reinventing some of those 20th Century Alternative Media.

KC:   Sure. I did do an interview with George Stoney, the first Executive Producer of the ‘Challenge for Change’ Programme, when I met him in Washington DC back in the early to mid days of Filmmaker-in-Residence. That was really fascinating, and there’s an edited version of that interview on the box set.

So the NFB asked me to see how we could take Filmmaker-in-Residence to a new level – not to replicate it at another institution or mimic it, but rather how you could take some of these ideas to a whole other scale. That’s when senior producer Gerry Flahive and I started talking in more detail. And I came up with the idea, initially, to work in the City of Toronto and just see how this interventionist approach could work at a city level – not so much with City Hall per se but with the entire city.

As I started doing research in Toronto I quickly came across some world-leading thinkers – urban planners and urban theorists, as well as practitioners at different levels. There were three groups in particular – one at York University, one at the University of Toronto, and a group of architects – all of whom were doing such fascinating work about urban issues. They really transformed my ideas around my own city – how I perceived it, and how I function in it. Also, that whole process encouraged me to realise very quickly that I should think about [this theme] on a global scale.

One of the groups in particular, an architecture group, is involved in tower renewal. We have this huge legacy of highrise buildings – these concrete slabs – 1,189 of them here in Toronto  which is more than any other city, after Manhattan, in North America.  So we have this remarkable phenomenon happening in our own city but we’re not really aware of it because [the highrises are] so spread out in the suburbs. It was a very specific plan in the ‘60s and ‘70s to push density out into the inner suburbs. Actually, there’s a good reason to call that smart when you think about sprawl these days, especially in American cities. This idea that you could actually put density in the suburbs is very interesting, and in fact being done all over the world now.

The group in York University really lead me. They were putting together a huge grant proposal for a seven year research project to examine and create a school of thought around Global Suburbanisms. This opened my eyes to this idea of how the suburbs function – how what they are is very different than what we perceive them to be. And how in order to understand urbanization –  and that means to understand the planet because we are now living on an urban planet – we need to understand the peripheries, the edges of our cities, and that’s where the most exciting, problematic, complicated things are happening. Yet we really have no clue about how these places work, both culturally, politically, economically, at all levels. So we went into a partnership and I’ve been working with them – developing the ideas, and the projects behind Highrise which has been in production now for a year and a half. And we’ve got a healthy website called Highrise.nfb.ca that houses all the projects that we’ve created thus far.

Our big global project is Out my Window. It’s a 360 degree documentary built in Flash, which documents our early days research out of Highrise, about the phenomenal diversity and human spirit that exists behind these grey concrete walls in 13 highrise neighbourhoods around the world.

CollabDocs:   Thinking of ‘Out my Window’ as the first iteration [of Highrise] – I was going to ask about the ways in which it is collaborative. I guess you’ve talked about that to some extent regarding the academic partners, but before we leave that could you just say something more about how those partnerships work. Is it quite structured? Do you have regular meetings? Do people have some stated editorial influence?

KC:  It’s pretty fluid. I think we’ve been working to move it into a more structured environment, and that will happen as projects evolve.  Right now we’re in the pre-production stages of a really interesting project called ‘Digital Citizenship Audit’, a survey in which we’re examining digital citizenship within the context of the highrise building. We’re working with one of the team members on the York Global Surburbanisms Team which is very exciting. So she’s the Principal Investigator on this research project that we’re embarking on. That of course involves very long and exciting meetings in which we’re creating the theoretical and conceptual framework for the work that we’re going to be doing in the next few months.
Otherwise, it means an alliance.  We have that alliance with several groups and partners in the city and elsewhere.  And it’s just juggling the realities of everyday, and also trying to keep up on each other’s work and meet when we can.
Regarding the Highrise approach to projects evolving and ideas fermenting, I would say that there are conversations that are just happening all the time in different communities. We have a weekly workshop with a group of residents that in a suburban highrise here in Toronto, that’s been running for a year and a half.  I have colleagues that run that workshop and I try and get there as often as I can.  We are just staying really close to understand their reality, and they share their stories with us, and we do media projects with them. In fact that’s one of the major productions we’re on right now, which I’ll tell you about a little bit later, because I think it’s a really interesting example of a kind of collaboration and re-mixing that we do at Highrise.

So we have that conversation going. We have the academic conversation going. Obviously we’re connected with the documentary world so we’re always interested in the evolving discussions around documentary form and approach, and the language of documentary. And then I have conversations that I continue within the new media world. I’m talking with developers and thinkers around the latest innovations. So, those conversations are always happening, and they are often different conversations that have nothing to do with each other until a certain moment, and then they suddenly have something to do with each other, and I start bringing people into a room, and we start working together.

Each project has its own life. Even within a project different collaborations may be participatory. I always consider these things as a spectrum. It’s not that something is participatory or it isn’t, or is collaborative or it isn’t. It’s a wide range of possibilities, you know. It’s not black and white that way.

In terms of the National Film Board of Canada, we are producers, so editorial control is something that remains with us a hundred percent, and we are very clear with that. On the hospital project we went in on a very detailed contract with them – a 50 or 60 page document that Gerry Flahive, the Producer, put together with our lawyers as well as theirs.  It took about a year to put together and understandably so. A hospital has some really specific, life and death issues of risk management and confidentiality, ethics and values, that had to be hammered out. So it was a very long and detailed process.

On this project our partnerships are much more fluid so we haven’t had that kind of contract negotiation, but I would say we’re definitely inspired by the work that we did at the hospital, and really thinking about all those issues just as much in this project as we did back then.  We’re just not being held to it in the same kind of rigorous way because we’re not in such close partnership with one specific institution.

CollabDocs:  What you’re describing seems like a very different role for a director than the auteur role of shaping a project. It’s as if you’re both a creative force but also a kind of interface between the thinking and the technology possibilities. You’re at the hub of all these different possibilities…

KC:  Sorry to interrupt, but I guess I don’t see collaboration and auteur media making as opposite. At first it can be very difficult to appreciate that, but I do think that there’s still a directorial role, in that I’m working with people that are way smarter than I am, and have expertise in fields that I know very little about, for example.

Maybe I’ll just go through the process of what we’re doing now in our new project, ‘One Millionth Tower’ just to give you a sense of how things evolve and what the role of the Director is in that.

So we’ve been working with this group of residents in a highrise here in Toronto for about a year and a half. We originally did a project with them called ‘The Thousandth Tower’, in which the residents document, through photos and stories, the realities of the landscape and places they live in. That was primarily put together as a slideshow for a huge presentation that we did at City Hall, to an audience of 350. It was a remarkable evening where we had urban planners, city bureaucrats, politicians, architects, Deans of design schools, a variety of different people from different walks of life come together to listen, for the first time, really, in City Hall, to the voice of highrise residents – many of whom had lived here for 20 years but had never been to City Hall. The realities of the inner suburbs and downtown, here in Toronto, are detached [from one another]. So we continued working with them, and that project is available online. It’s called The Thousandth Tower. (It’s housed at the Highrise site.)

So I’ve been working with them, and at one point we brought in the architects behind the Tower Renewal Movement. They’re from E.R.A Architects. They’re great people, and we brought them in to do a series of charrettes together with the residents. That meant that we did a site tour around the building several times and we took photographs of specific, identified sites.We printed them out on large paper, put tracing paper over them, and sat the residents down with the architects several times. And they drew the possibilities of this site. What if we just had a little bit of money and a lot of imagination? What could we do with this space to make it more human, to make it a better place to live, and to make it more of a neighbourhood?

A lot of this is inspired by the research that E.R.A has done in Europe and especially in Eastern Europe, where there have been a lot of these large scale nationalised tower renewal projects that have made these massive high rise neighbourhoods quite wonderful places to live. And the drawings that they came up with were really incredible, beautiful. They shared them with each other and it really inspired a dialogue around the possibilities of the space there. So then we took those images and gave them to a team of animators who started bringing those drawings to life – giving us examples of illustrations – and doing some storyboards. We imagined that this would just be a really simple short frame animation film. But then I started another discussion. I’d been aware of Mozilla Foundation’s new work in HTML5. They have a project called Web Made Movies.

CollabDocs:  Yes, indeed, I’m going to work with it this Autumn.

KC:  Oh great! So it’s a project called Popcorn, as you know. Brett [Gaylor] is a friend of mine, and so we started talking, and I thought it’d be great to put the video into Popcorn so that we could add some additional semantic data, some footnoting around some of the ideas in the film, because we wanted to keep the film very short.

So I passed that on to the developer we were working with and I said ‘Do you want to just look at this?’ And after several days and nights of non-stop work he came back to us and he said, ‘I think we can actually do a lot more with this than we were originally thinking.’  Then we brought the animators in with the web developers, and  together we shaped this way of cracking open the linear video, and putting all this material in a 3D space. So it’s a linear, time-based story that unfolds within a 3D space online, that can be manipulated to a certain extent by the user. So we’ve taken it to this whole other level, and all of it’s triggered by Popcorn.

ColabDocs:  Fantastic! So you navigate this 3D space to access different bits of video?

KC:   Well, what’s happening is the animators are now ‘moving in’ with our developers, and they’re going to be there for two weeks to work collaboratively. Remember how I said we did those photographs of specific sites? Those are turning into like theatrical maquettes. They’re almost standing up in this 3D space, and then all the imagined ideas happen within the 3D space between the user and that maquette.

CollabDocs:  So it’s a set of imagined possibilities. And does it also draw in other data through Popcorn?

KC:   Exactly.

CollabDocs:   That sounds exciting.

KC:  Yes, I know, it’s really fun. We were going to produce a 2D version at one point and a 3D version, and then it just got too complicated, budget-wise and everything. So we decided – let’s drop the 2D production and let’s get them moving into the 3D space. So what the animators are doing this week is identifying all the assets and moving them into the foreground, mid-ground and background of this 3D space. There’ll be certain elements that are created in video, and there will still be a little bit of detailed animation happening in video. But a lot of the animation will actually be programmed.

It’s almost like Remix Culture. There’s an idea that germinates through a dialogue that I’m having over here, and then I take it over here and then… So it is a guided process, but it’s with, like I said, people that are a lot smarter than I am. So it ends up going in incredible directions.

CollabDocs: Yes. It’s the iterative thing – the ability to shift in relation to incoming possibilities – that seems pretty remarkable and precious.

KC:  That’s right.  And it’s really thanks to the NFB that trusts this process and lets us work in a Lab environment, where we’re not committed to eg a television half hour. Even Flash can be quite limited – if you approach a Flash project the way an ad agency approaches a commercial, it can be a very limited, conventional approach. We’re trying to keep a balance – allowing the research, and the story, and the technology to develop in tandem, and speak to one another along the way – and it’s really a fantastic process to be part of.

CollabDocs:  So, there’s something quite important there as well in you saying that you don’t see that there’s a contradiction between the auteur idea and this collaborative work. What do you think the important things are that this collaborative approach brings to documentary as a practice that’s different from a linear – beginning, middle and end type – documentary?

KC:  Well, it just cracks open the range of possibilities in terms of the way a story is told, who tells it, what the story is. I think so often the conventional documentary approach – even with radical and fascinating subject matter – can be quite conventional, and predetermined in a way, because if you write your script too early then you’re stuck to it. So it’s about un-scripting the scripted documentary. Television really, I think, did damage to the documentary,  locked it into a format, and [established] some tropes and some stereotypes that I think the digital world is allowing us to break free from.

CollabDocs:  Is there anything to say about the way you work with your collaborators abroad, say on ‘Out My Window’, or the way you’re working with subjects, the people whose stories are recorded for that project that’s worth mentioning?

KC:  Well, often they’re one and the same.  Some of the stories in ‘Out My Window’ are stories of self- documentation. It’s really, again, having a flexible approach to identifying the talent and the expertise that people can bring to an issue or to a project.

CollabDocs:  And in terms of your role –  do you have a day-to-day team around you?

KC:  Absolutely, yes.  We have a core team here in Toronto.  I’m the only full-time staff. There’s three people at the core. There’s the senior producer Gerry Flahive with whom I’ve been working since the early/mid days of Filmmaker-in Residence. We’re talking every day. He has other projects that he does at the NFB as well though, so he can’t dedicate 100% of his time to it, but he is there 100%.

Then there’s Branden Bratuhin, the Technical Director, who is absolutely brilliant. He’s pretty much full-time now.  He’s one of those rare people who knows everything there is to know about video technology but he also knows the digital world. He also understands the web. It’s really fantastic that there’s that much post-production knowledge, about colour correction, sound, and everything.  He is really a Renaissance person and he also brings so many great ideas to the creativity of the project. He’s been with us since the first film of Filmmaker-in-Residence. So he’s great.

And then we have a team of documentary / community media makers. There’s Heather Fry who’s also been with us since Filmmaker-in-Residence, who runs the community workshops at Kipling, the highrise site in Toronto.  We have Maria Ponnambalam who is a young, emerging filmmaker who’s been part of our Highrise team since the beginning.  Then we have Paramita Nath who also has been doing some remarkable research. She’s a documentary maker, and she bridges the world between documentary and new media. She’s been working on the research side but she also she ran, designed and put together the ‘Out My Window Participatory’ project.

So it’s a wonderful core team. Those are people that are all working on their own stuff too. So it’s really nice.  There are always new ideas coming in.  Then we’ve just been joined by the phenomenal Sarah Rudder, our Associate Producer, who’s going to really help us as our projects grow. She has that organisational capacity to just get us all doing what we should be doing at the right time.

CollaDocs: That sounds like a great team.

I just want to go back, to tease out a bit more around that auteur v collaborative issue. I was thinking about the Interventionist Media Manifesto [which Cizek wrote as Filmmaker-in-Residence] and some of the points in there, for example a dialogic aspect to how you evolve ideas and how you decide on what the important strands are. I guess to me that feels very different from a notion of a filmmaker whose own vision is expressed in a documentary. In a 20th Century documentary that often would mean an attitude of, ‘this is how the world looks to me…’

KC:  I really disagree with that, though. I once interviewed Alanis Obomsawin who is a First Nations filmmaker here in Canada about her process. (She’s approaching eighty. She’s remarkable. She’s still practicing. She’s a filmmaker at the NFB. )  She talked about the role that documentary played in her life, in terms of working on First Nations political issues. She does a lot of teaching. And she tells documentary students that, as a documentary maker, you don’t tell the story, the story comes to you, that really great documentary is about remaining open to what’s actually happening around you. It’s not about you deciding what happens and going and grabbing everything that’s going to prove your case. For me that really resonates, and this is just a continuation of that kind of approach, just in different media, and with different possibilities in terms of how to collaborate with people and open the process up.

But at its essence it’s the same practice – unscripted, and responsive to the world that we’re living in. That said, there are great documentaries that make a case for something, and really argue it, and spend years building a case – films like ‘The Corporation’. But I would argue that there is still a responsiveness in that process.  You don’t go squirrel off into a hole and not talk to anybody to make a film…

At that point we wrapped up the interview.