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The houses we were, the cities we are

The Houses We Were (Le case che eravamo) / DIALOGUE
Regissør: Arianna Lodeserto Regissør Yuka Sato
(Italia / Japan)

Two important documentaries that demonstrate the potential of the short film format and highlight the diversity of today's documentary film narratives.


Last year, Ny Tid and Modern Times Review highlighted the short documentary – a vibrant and rich format that is all too often overlooked in our feature film-focused world. Every month we reported on at least two of the best works shown at a current film festival. Now that the year is just over, we grab two excellent films that for various reasons slipped away, but which are far too important to ignore.

Female film artist

Arianna Lodesertos The Houses We Were (Le case che eravamo) and Yuka Satos CHAT lasts for 18 and 17 minutes respectively. Their virtually identical length is not the only common feature of the two short films: Both are made by a female film artist whose works cross the border between photo and film; both present a specific and densely populated urban space (Rome / Tokyo); both have directors who take care of script, production and editing. The latter task, the editing, is absolutely crucial here: The Houses We Were og CHAT is miles from today's "slow cinema" trend. Instead, they use a fast, chopping rhythm. Most roofs are made in flashes that are barely longer than ten seconds. The result is compact, stimulating thumbnails, which – like many short films regardless of genre – are capable of covering an impressive amount, within very tight time frames.

But in all other areas, the two films could not have been more different, operating in opposite extremes of the spectrum of documentary film, and thereby making visible the diversity of today's documentary film narratives.

A compelling tribute to those who refuse to accept the riches' dividends.

Of the two directors, Lodeserto is best known, since she has had a number of reputable photo exhibitions over the past decade, both in Italy and internationally. Lodeserto's works, both in photography and film, are thematically centered around cities and psychogeography and have a pronounced social commitment. The Houses We Were is her directorial debut, and was created in close collaboration with an important Italian institution created in the 70s, the Democratic Workers' Audiovisual Archive (AAMOD) in Rome.

One of the founders of AAMOD, and also chairman for many years, was the acclaimed screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (1902–1989) – three times Oscar-nominated, and among other things responsible for the script of Vittorio De Sicas Bicycle Thieves (1948). AAMOD reportedly sits on thousands of documentaries and news clips, primarily from the gathering of the Italian Communist Party. With unlimited access to this treasury, Lodeserto has clipped audio and images from more than 30 films – many of them fragmented and from anonymous sources.

The result is a revealing and kaleidoscopic panorama of the chronic housing shortage that has characterized Rome from the 40s and up to our own times. The main focus is on the 60s and 70s, and "Il Boom" – Italy's post-war economic growth period: Hundreds of thousands poured from the countryside into the cities in search of work. The drastically increased load on the infrastructure pushed an already corrupt and dysfunctional local administration beyond the breaking point (this is portrayed in several scathing fiction films, such as Francesco Rosis Hands on the town from 1963).

The Houses We Were (Le case che eravamo) Director Arianna Lodeserto

"The construction industry is the oldest industry we have here," states the narrator. "And the strongest, greediest and most bloodthirsty." The use of cheap materials and simple building techniques often have debilitating consequences for the residents of the residential complexes, which eventually arouses community feeling, collective action – and eventually violent resistance. The Houses We Were shows countless glimpses of ordinary people who stand up against exploitation, ejection, subjugation and capitalist coercion. It is a compelling tribute to the countless individuals who have refused to accept the cynicism of the rich and their "astronomical rents and impossible home prices". This year's election in Italy led to a populist right-wing government. The Houses We Were is thus a timely, fiery and defiant battle cry from the nation's innate, progressive forces. The commitment will probably flare up again against the "business-friendly" government in the coming months.

The film is driven forward by evocative, electronic music composed by Enrico Tinelli, while providing fragmentary glow into the dark corridors of the past. The main message is that having a proper home should be a social right – not an exclusive privilege reserved for the financially strong. Because if one is without both home and income, the problems grow quickly over one's head.

A poetic dream

Yuka Satos CHAT is a poetic vision of the prosperity of the 21st century, where the abundance of technological wonders covers a spiritual and emotional emptiness. Lodeserto uses exclusively archive material in The Houses We Were, most of it is analog, albeit digitized for the latest edit. Sato, in turn, relies on his own recordings CHAT, although the very last sequences consist of home videos of what we have to assume is Sato himself as a little girl.

However, it is difficult to be sure of anything in this film, and there is little biographical information to retrieve about the director of it online. "Yuka Sato is a Tokyo-based Japanese filmmaker exploring the boundary between photo and film," is the scarce biography we can read on her website. The voice we hear from time to time seems to come from a fairly young woman. But is this really Sato, or an actress? Is Yuka Sato an individual or a collective? The future will probably provide more answers as Sato's international reputation grows.

DIALOGUE is a poignant poetic dream about nightly Tokyo.

Such progress seems reasonable, given the power of CHAT – a poignant poetic dream about nocturnal Tokyo that has successfully found a place at the intersection of documentary, experimental film, video diary and film essay. We are driven around in the most obscure architectural corners of a sprawling megametropolis, downplayed by advertising posters and floodlit by electric blue tones (and occasionally green, red and pink). Over dozens of elegant fragments – where the editing, like Lodeserto's film, is a delight – Sato constructs a form of reflective and introspective operation through the city. Her voiceover enriches everyday events with a mournful philosophical aura, where loneliness is a recurring perspective: "That day I saw the world from the outside ... Alone I wandered ... A city so enlightened that I could get lost ... Where do we all end up? , where are we trying to find? " Enveloped in the 21st century's general mystery, the invisible, all-seeing, hyper-sensitive heroine is unable to achieve even the simplest human connection.

Time and again, the camera dwells on another individual who is just cut off from the crowds that wander through the city streets (many of them engulfed by the materialistic Western madness called the Christmas trade). Homeless and slightly confused elderly people sometimes appear in front of the camera – marginalized by a society that pays tribute to youth, beauty and status objects. CHATs political and sociological aspects are not less effective and exciting because they are so diminished, for Sato's dreamlike portrayal of a digital dystopia is even more aroused in its criticism than the pronounced charge of exploitation and corruption in Lodeserto's aggressive protest montage. In each case, the artists hardly spend more than a quarter of time sketching out a full panorama.

Neil Young
Neil Young
Young is a regular film critic for Modern Times Review.

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