What Urban Futures? (I) Films on Nature and Technology

Por Mariana Liz

In 2019, ICS’s Annual Conference will be devoted to the topic of urban futures, with a focus on the relationship between nature and technology, and on the tension between politics and rights. Confirmed guest speakers include Evgeny Morozov (The New Republic), Vanesa Broto (University of Sheffield), Melissa Garcia Lamarca (Universitat Autònoma Barcelona) and Jorge Malheiros (Universidade de Lisboa). With debates and keynote speeches taking place on 5 and 6 June at ICS’s premises, the conference begins with two days of film screenings in Caleidoscópio. On 3 and 4 June, two film sessions, starting at 6pm, will introduce the conference’s themes: nature and technology, and politics and rights.

The first of this two-part blog post focuses on the first theme, introducing the five films that will be screened on 3 June. The session covers climate change and global warming, new forms of space occupation in an over-populated planet, as well as the risks of data gathering and the omnipresence of technology. While all films address, to some extent, the relationship between nature and technology, as the session moves forward, the focus is more clearly on the latter. With films from Brazil, Argentina, Kenya, the UK and the USA, the session screens landscapes in Northern and Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. All films are in English language or subtitled in English.

The session begins with Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Recife Frio/Cold Tropics (2009). Cold Tropics is a 24-minute mockumentary about a cold front affecting the metropolitan area of Recife in the Northeast of Brazil. A tropical resort, the city suddenly turns into a cold and damp metropolis, where tourists no longer wish to go, and inhabitants hide in acclimatised shopping malls. The effects of climate change are explored in social terms (depicting, for instance, the unequal access to warm clothes and fit-for-purpose housing), as well as cultural terms (we are shown how different religions react to the phenomenon, and at least two musical performances try to make sense of the changes taking place). The film has the ability to project viewers into the future by manipulating space and time as only cinema can: buildings and nature are given equal footing; change and the reactions to it are accelerated, as Cold Tropics manipulates speed, duration and rhythm through narrative and editing.

Grey Recife. Fonte: by ‘ednamssilva’ on Pixabay.

2011’s Pude ver un Puma/Could See a Puma, by Eduardo Williams, sees a group of young men aimlessly spending time in empty spaces. Locations include the roofs and ruins of a city, a swamp and a forest. There are no markers of time with the exception of faint transitions between day and night, and a reference to the timing of the conversation, as voiced by one of the characters. Although surreal, the constant dialogue roots us in some degree of normality, as characters talk about being hungry and thirsty, play games amongst them, and take pictures with phones and cameras in the different places they visit. Even though technology is central to the film, one of the characters describes this wandering about as a dream they currently experience, and one in which, as he puts it, nature has won once again.

Nature takes central stage, and is also the winner, in Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi, a Kenyan film from 2009. Set in a future where global warming has compromised human life, Pumzi begins with images of press clippings about a shortage of water. The film is articulated around two main oppositions: inside and outside, and the virtual and the real; both are expressed in terms of their proximity or otherwise to nature and technology. It is not just nature that dictates the separation between inner and outer spaces: technology is what allows characters to cross frontiers between realities, as is the case of the dream suppressants used by characters. The use of technology leads characters to experience virtual worlds; yet nature, and extreme weather conditions in particular, are also responsible for questioning the veracity of the real.

Subterranean Singapore 2065 (Finbarr Fallon, 2016) is a 7-minute speculative film about underground living in land-scarce Singapore. Created as part of Fallon’s Masters in Architecture at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, in London, the film puts forward new visions of built space in urban contexts, as well as the relationship these establish with nature – be this the physicality of humans, their working and living conditions, or the need to balance the space occupied by cement and steel, water and plants. As a film about imagined futures, this is a cautionary tale about the need to use technology in line with, and not against nature. Shots are visually striking, with animated sequences adding to the projected dynamism of this location, and the sound mix, with loud voices, effects and music, creating an atmosphere of heightened cosmopolitanism not too different from the one that defines Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Blade Runner, from 1982.

Urban living in land-scarce Singapore. Fonte: by ‘xegxef’ on Pixabay.

Finally, Harvest (Kevin Byrne, 2016) is a documentary filmed over 7 days, which follows the life of a woman named Jenni and her family. A film about data privacy, it is, of the short films screened in the session, the one most obviously concerned with the uses of technology in our daily lives. Although set in the present, the film contributes to debates on the future of privacy laws, data protection and conceptions of the smart city. With a clear narrative, clean editing and stylistic sobriety, Harvest is not only particularly topical and realistic, it is also a chilling account of a future we already experience.

These five short films are of particularly interest to those wishing to explore the discourses and representations of nature and technology in fiction and documentary. Presented by Graça Castanheira and followed by a Q&A and drinks reception, the session is a unique opportunity to launch an informal debate on the challenges and hopes that citizens, researchers, planning practitioners and policy-makers experience and envision with regards to urban futures.

Mariana Liz is a Postdoctoral Fellow at ICS-ULisboa. mariana.liz@ics.ulisboa.pt


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