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NFB doc glimpses into immigrants' high-rise world

Take a glimpse into someone's life that is otherwise invisible to most.

Zanillya Maria Farrell is a musician and the daughter of the recently deceased singer Bobby Farrell of the disco group Boney M. Many would label her part of the huge, immigrant community in a southeast corner of Amsterdam and stop there. But her story, although unique, symbolizes the dramatic changes happening in cities around the world.

In the groundbreaking, Web-based work Out My Window by the National Film Board of Canada, Farrell's story is one of 13 offering glimpses of lives within otherwise anonymous housing developments.

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The interactive page about her (which can found by entering the main site here) opens into a 360-degree view of her apartment and the high-rise community out her window. Click on an image of her, and a brief segment about her life as a musician living in the failed housing project of Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam pops up. In a few glimpses of only two or three minutes each, we hear her music and her story, and learn about her community, which has since been restored as a vibrant multicultural area. Most important, it's home.

Unlike a regular documentary, Out My Window tells its stories in cursory pieces, which feel like actual visits into people's lives.

That's the case with XuLuo Huangzhong and a high-rise cemetery in Tainan, Taiwan, a multistorey building full of memorials to the deceased, where the elderly XuLuo spends her time.

It's also true of Amchok Gompo, a Tibetan musician living in one of the more than 1,000 residential high-rises in Toronto. Click on images of items around his apartment, including a small statue of a yak to see stories that aren't voyeuristic, but are polite and welcoming, as well as more thought-provoking than regular documentaries trying to build emotional tension in their story lines.

"What we were trying to do was replicate or mimic this feeling of when you visit somebody's home and you get to know them in a non-linear, fragmented sort of way," director Katerina Cizek says. "You're talking about one thing, but over the shoulder you see something, and you say, 'Oh, can I ask you about that photograph?' And then that leads to a piece of their history."

Cizek previously directed a NFB multimedia project that captured glimpses of inner-city life stemming from downtown Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital. She and NFB producer Gerry Flahive are using many of those same Web-based techniques, such as layering stories across different multiple pages, for the five-year experiment Highrise. Out My Window is the first interactive film in the Highrise series.

Cizek and Flahive are also collaborating with academic research on how cities are changing, such as the multiyear Global Suburbanisms program at Toronto's York University, which looks at how cities have inverted: The suburbs are now the lower-income peripheries and the inner city is the wealthier urban core.

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Many people in this changing suburban periphery "don't have cars. They're not stereotypically suburban. ... They are invisible, to some extent politically invisible. But they are also physically invisible because they are not living in Chinatown or Little Italy. They are living in these anonymous high-rise blocks," Flahive says.

"And that's a really good place for documentaries," he adds. "The overall Highrise project is not about architecture and urban planning. Primarily, it's about how people live. The attempt is to peel back some of those stereotypes."

The individual segments for Out My Window were made by local photographers and crews, with Cizek often directing the segments from thousands of kilometres away in Toronto via Skype, e-mails and phone calls.

Yet, for all of its emphasis on technology, Cizek and Flahive are actually going for something far older: A non-linear way of telling the story of people's lives in the lower-income high-rises, doing so in the way people in the real world perceive things, in small dollops of information, rather than regular, documentary-length stories.

"Our conventional storytelling narratives don't really account for this, and that was what I was really most interested in as a documentary filmmaker," Cizek says. "We always think non-linear storytelling is somehow new, that it goes against the grain and is driven by technology. But, in fact, it's not. It's very much the way we tell each other our stories in person."

For Out My Window, Cizek stopped at about 90 minutes of content. But the stories are so varied and interrelated, the approach so inviting, it seems that she could have gone on indefinitely. What traditional documentary could accomplish that?

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"The scope we have with Out My Window is definitely broad. The diversity in these buildings is as complex as life itself," she says.

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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