Theater of Cruelty

Small rooms can fill big people

The Human Shelter
Regissør: Boris B. Bertram

We all seek a roof over our heads, but when do we really feel at home?


That is the question the critically acclaimed Danish director Boris B. Bertram is exploring The Human Shelter. The film shows us different ways of life and ways of thinking in all the nooks and crannies of the world. Through seven chapters we get an insight into how people from different cultures and with different conditions live – from Kautokeino in the north to Tokyo in the east. They have one thing in common: a home.

The film is shown in connection with the Architectural Film Oslo, which is arranged from 8. to 10. February. The theme of the festival is how the world changes through architecture. In the documentary, we are introduced to various architectural gems – some inspired by the past, others more future-oriented. We meet, among other things, an elderly and happy Ugandan, who hums to Dolly Parton in her recycled wooden cabin, and a NASA team preparing for a Mars expedition in a small, futuristic habitat on a volcano in Hawaii. What makes these people feel at home?

"You can say I have more homes. Winter, spring, summer and autumn, ”says a Sami reindeer herder from Kautokeino. And while I see him in his little caravan where he pours himself coffee from a thermos, I begin to ponder my own home where I sit in my shared apartment in Belgrade. Where's my home?

The Speech of Things

"The home is a place of origin, but it's also a destination," says Sean Anderson, curator of the exhibition Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter at the MoMA in New York. "As we reach the destination, we feel safer," he continues. We follow him into the museum, where they are setting up an IKEA-designed modular plastic house. Today, these plastic houses provide shelter for people on the run in the UN's many refugee camps around the world.

"The home is a place of origin, but it is also a destination."

Far from the New York exhibition, we are invited to an Iraqi family living in the same type of plastic house. This is their new home now – here in a refugee camp outside Mosul, just off the Iranian border. The interior is important to create a home feeling for these people who have had their lives turned upside down. "We wanted it to look like the house where we lived," says an elderly lady sitting on the floor with a small child in her lap. She points to the rugs on the walls and the sofa they bought on the market after they had to leave their old home.

The Human Shelter. Boris B. Bertram

A middle-aged man has organized himself soberly on the 17 square meters the modular plastic house holds. The living room is tidy, but when he pulls away the curtain that hides a neighboring room, we spot a myriad of things, nicely stowed together. The suits are important to this man, but also the colors: "It is important to dress in different colors," he says, and says that the suit we see is worth 85 Iraqi dinars (around NOK 000). He has preserved the style, which may be what defines his identity and life as it once was, here in his new habitat. Like his suits, this man adds color to the otherwise gray landscape that surrounds the camp.

Also for a female NASA employee living in the futuristic Mars habitat on the volcano in Hawaii, the objects that define the home feel. She shows a postcard a friend sent her in advance of the expedition. On the card it is pasted on a small rock. "It's from the area where I grew up," she says. "It's a little home."

Do us a little

Although the different narratives have different starting points, it is mostly people with a limited physical area to unfold that are interviewed in The Human Shelter. Some have voluntarily opted for a spartan lifestyle, while the lifestyle of others has been imposed as a result of life's conditions.

Maybe it's in the small rooms that the big things can unfold.

In the film's closing scenes we are in Iceland. An Icelander – western and properly dressed – almost flicks comically with a lawnmower on his little garden spot. His life is in stark contrast to the life of Nigeria's port city of Lagos, or to Tokyo's vibrant traffic and skyscrapers. He sits at the kitchen table and tells how he feels when today's chores are done and the silence has subsided in the house: "Then the soul feels most at home."

The Human Shelter .Boris B. Bertram

While in Nigeria, they look forward to decorating and refurbishing their tiny river house, it seems the western soul may be a little tired of the tyranny of things. With a copious everyday life and a full agenda, this is the void this Icelander seeks, as also the Japanese photographer in her photo lab describes it while waiting for the film rolls to be exposed. "Now I live here for myself, in a dark place with my photographs. Of course, I feel lonely at times […] but then I get to a point where I forget myself and transcend. It's important to me when I live in such a busy and noisy city as Tokyo. "

It strikes me that there may not be much to feel at home. When I see the Ugandan hippie and environmentalist singing "Islands in the Stream", three meters above the ground in his recycled wooden house, I think it may be in the small rooms that the big things can unfold

The film will be shown on Arkitekturfilm Oslo, 8-10. February.
Freelance writer.

You may also like