Along the Urbanised Tevere
Cabiria and her blind date stand in the middle of a barren grass field, romantically leaning to one another, laughing and strolling on arid ground. From where the camera stands, this wasteland is seen before and beyond them. Further, in the background, the horizon is shielded by buildings, with deep balconies casting shadows on their concrete façades.
Those who have watched “Nights of Cabiria” might remember the rest of the first scene. The mysterious man, revealing himself as an impostor, snatches the purse out of Cabiria’s hands before throwing her in the river Tevere. Later she would be rescued by the inhabitants of the wasteland or, in other words, the southern outskirts of post-war Rome. Those who have watched will also know the rest of the story: Cabiria, an irrepressible, fiercely independent sex worker moves through the sea of Rome’s humanity, relying on her own indomitable spirit to stay standing. A great film for exercising one’s perception of post-war Italy. However, nothing more than the first scene is needed to understand the condition of the Italian capital in the 1950s. The space between us and Cabiria, and between her and buildings in the background, is one left behind by undisciplined urbanisation, and by the abusive forces that dictated the way Rome was expanded from its consolidated centre, and made into a developmental city. A city that, at least until the 70’s, repeatedly presented a new version of itself in its periphery.
In truth, the Rome that director Federico Fellini portrayed in 1957 was already far different from the one he had encountered twenty years earlier, when he first arrived there at the age of 19. Before his move, the severe and eradicative forces of fascist urbanism had reshaped the historic centre, opening it up to serve as ground for public (and military) parades. In a city at its first intense encounter with modernity, Fellini found an eccentric social sphere made of artists, comedians and writers; a society of intellectual silliness against the political purity of the regime. After the War, following the country’s economic boom and the advent of celebrity tourism in Rome, this community quickly mutated into the mundane, cosmopolitan society of fun and decadence of the 1960’s “Dolce Vita”.
At the same time, economic growth and transformation brought thousands from the countryside to the city, seeking jobs. Many independent entrepreneurs, by moving within the cracks of a recovering economy, took advantage of the inability of the government to accommodate these new tenants. Large plots of dismissed rural land, running along highways projecting from the city centre, were bought by private investors and subsequently illegally parcelled to get the most profit out of available soil. With construction taking place, the city expanded irregularly, leaving large areas of unused wasteland in between residential developments.
Fellini positioned himself (and his camera) in relation to this empty space. To him, things suddenly became clearer: first, the historic centre as a stage for bourgeoisie mundanity and aristocratic decay, where interior and exterior merge into one theatrical set. And then the urban periphery, the site of confrontation with the modern city, and the modern character, seeking for happiness. Thanks to his work, we realise that the act of filming becomes historically relevant to the development of cities in their urban periphery, particularly as an act of positioning. But it is by looking beyond him that we discover how, in the last few decades, the connection between filmmakers and urban sprawl has been a recurring one.
Towards a global realism
Often an interesting ground to filmmakers, we can think of the urban periphery as a contingent boundary, between city and countryside, steadily subject to disappearance under urbanisation. It is a result of late-20th century global urban sprawling, taking place at different moments depending on country; a phenomenon connected to those politics of globalisation that allowed for investment in the housing sector, to accommodate (as in the Roman case) an all-out migration to the metropolis.
All of this, at the same time, ran parallel to a history of cinematic realism: after WWII, more and more crews abandoned film sets, moving their equipment to the built environment. Here, they suddenly found themselves shooting within the physical limitations of crowded, oddly lit, and politically saturated urban spaces.
By some defined as global neo-realism , this international movement followed a kind of urge to move cameras to the city. The term “realism” refers then to a desire to create aesthetics out of reality, and to portray conditions of urban struggle, joy, play and change. A global desire, taking different cinematic forms according to where, in the world, it occurred.
Within this context, the film-camera arguably became a global machine in itself, due to its comprehensive use around the world. Yet, it was also a machine compliant to different types of appropriation, less geographically specific. It was employed just as sensibly in different places to portray vernacular images, whether in Japan, Nigeria, Brazil or otherwise. It lacked, therefore, purely Western connotations and values.
Yet, its modesty might also come from the circumstances in which it operates in the city, as an object in space. We almost never see the film camera in films, giving up to the illusion of the narrator’s eye. By virtue of this illusion, the film camera is able to disappear in space. Differently to the photo camera, its motion provides duration, presenting us pasts and futures, showing (and not implying) where we have been, and where we are going. Because of this, we forget its position.
However, despite its apparent invisibility, the film camera is still very much a physical object, often of considerable size and weight. Placed in the city, it confronts the physicality of other things, of walls, benches, cars, and people. And then, in the urban periphery, it finds an ambiguous position, still part of the city but somehow in detachment, able to look at it as an object, from a ground that is at times less dense of obstacles. As in Nights of Cabiria, here it produces exceptional meanings.
In Abbas Kiarostami’s "Taste of Cherry" (1997) for instance, as we follow Mr Badii’s attempt to find someone to bury him after his planned suicide, we get an understanding of Tehran from both his car’s exterior and interior, as it sweeps through the mountains defining the city’s northern edge. Here we get a glimpse of the many towers being built on elevated plinths, the result of the never-ending housing crisis which followed the devaluation of the Iranian currency in the 1970’s. As we also encounter the processes of extraction of soil occurring just at the edge of the city, we eventually gain an image of Tehran of multifaceted political significance.
In the more recent "Kaili Blues" (2015), shot by Bi Gan in and around Kaili City of the Guizhou province, a 45 minutes long single-take follows Mr. Chen on his journey out of the city, in an attempt to find his kidnapped nephew. With the camera acting as dimensional reference in relation to the street, we discover a system of dependencies between the city and its surrounding roadside villages, once connected exclusively by river. As the camera transitions from the road to the alley, and later to the house, the bridge, the square etc, we are offered an impression of a village under steady urbanisation, a condition shared by thousands of others in today’s Chinese hinterland.
These are just two examples of how filmmakers historically dealt with the urban periphery; positioning their camera either at the edge of the city or, even more significantly, at the edge of urbanisation. These films help us realise how positioning, either of a camera or of oneself, is to designers a fundamental urban act. Where we position ourselves in the city might contribute to what we discern from it, how we interpret it, and, finally, what we might make of it.