Looking for a place
All our city portraits relate to very small and specific places. The Panorama Series was shot in single urban squares in Rome, Bologna, Athens and Hamburg, from sunrise to sunset. Memoria Esterna deals with outdoor places portrayed as personal memories by people living in Milan and LKN Confidential was shot in a single street in Brussels.
In Copenhagen we where trying to find a good point of view of a city that we where exploring for the first time. Copenhagen is absolutely flat and the top of a hill is a capital event in term of visibility!
We where walking around Nørrebro and we turned a corner and saw a narrow alley. We entered the alley way and all of a sudden a strange form framed in front of us; a white rounded piece of earth!
In a completely flat city like Copenhagen, even a tiny high ground becomes a hill. And that day we had to climb it and take a breath from the top. This spot imposed itself to us; it revealed itself as an observatory, an open air theatre surrounded by apartment blocks.
One thing we noticed in Copenhagen is the separation of spaces dedicated to different purposes and different users. We were struck by the use of fences, boundaries and delimitated areas. In some parks there are incredible gardens for junkies and in the former slaughterhouse area on Vesterbro there is a crosswise fence that separate a fancy café from a social service, just to avoid the mutual view.
In another park there is designated areas for children, barbecues, heavy drinking and drug abusers, for cycling and jogging, for buggies and strollers, for skateboarders and scooters… If you are a junkie in Italy you simply should not exist because drug is outlaw. If you are old, young, a mother or a father or whatever, you simply take care of yourself and mind your own business. The place where we come from do not take care of the needs of different people; there is one common place where everyone tries to build up their own private space. There is something strange in both attitudes. On one hand everyone has the right to exist but still remains separate. On the other hand there is no legitimacy (as far as denying your own existence) so everyone must handle the coexistence.
Denmark seems to be a place of (separate) rights apparently pacified and that’s why the mixture in Nørrebro (in terms of generations, provenance, social classes) seemed to us the most interesting and familiar area.
We know as well that Nørrebro is the theatre of social conflicts but we couldn’t see any evident sign. Of course you cannot see it at first sight but we sensed a very serene and quiet atmosphere. We are used to the fact that social fights produce social tension. You can breathe the tension walking down the streets. You see it in the rapid eye glimpses, in the frequent gestures of aggressiveness and self-defence. That’s not the case in Nørrebro. Everything seems to be ok until the next “crisis”.
The neighbourhood has a kind of a bad reputation in Denmark. In a Mediterranean country, this sort of neighbourhood would represent a good example of a mixed and diverse area, which only emphasizes that the perspective and perception of a place is not interchangeable. The observation of a local community become an important experience of encounter and mutual awareness.
Portraing the place
During our talks about the actual shooting of the film, we had the impression that Nørrebro’s reputation was a “well known issue” which we were asked to go beyond. We took this as a given stereotype that couldn’t produce anything interesting; people would get bored instantly!
When we first arrived with our camera at the hill everyone thought we were shooting a reportage about violence, poverty or social conflicts. This produced a sense of disappointment, reticence and mistrust. Things changed when we explained our ideas and that the film would be screened on the same location; on top of the hill. This gave a feeling that we weren’t there to steal stories and faces in order to realize a sensational documentary and sell it to a commercial TV channel. The inhabitants had the possibility to become witness of the entire process, from our arrival to the screening. Even if they didn’t want to participate they still had the possibility to check out what was going on in their courtyard.
We directed our attention on things we care about: the perception and the use of a public space, the representation interpreted by the local inhabitants through their inner imagination and unconscious thoughts of life in their dreams.
Portraing the people
In each of our city-portraits we try to tune a special procedure that focus on the oral transmission and leave the image in the background.
The hill became our station; a place where we could be seen before demanding anything from anyone, a place where we could be reachable day by day, whenever the inhabitants passed by. The fixed (but continuing) point of view worked as a physical anchor from where the conversations could arise.
When we met somebody that has enough curiosity to approach us, we proposed to record sound only. No image, no talking head, no posing. By only talking we could slowly build up a dialogue and confidence. We were able to listen to memories, chronicles, stories and rumours in silence and forgot all about framing borders.
After the sound recording we proposed to film the person in action, meaning; walking away, talking on the phone, having a picnic on top of the hill, cooking at home, housekeeping, unlocking the door, waiting for somebody, fixing the bike… Our secret desire has always been to film someone while falling asleep in a public space. But that is another film.
During the second or third encounter we proposed to film the person while he or she was talking.
Of course language was an issue, but we didn’t want to surrender completely to pidgin English. So, the collaboration with Miriam Nielsen from Third Ear was crucial. First she absorbed our “listening method” and then she continued leading the conversations very freely. Not only did she help us to translate and direct the interviews, she was also the first spectator of the film.
Some of the people around the hill did not want to be filmed and asked us to remove all the recorded material that showed their windows (from the outside) and personal belongings.
We respect this as self-defence, a form of personal “iconoclasm” that tries to release the pressure of the constant image production.
On the other hand there were also people who deliberately came to tell us a story. Not all were recorded, but what a gift!
There is an image from the film that we love. A young boy is climbing up the hill, and suddenly stops in the middle of a step. He stands still but his intention is to move forward, he’s vibrating in hesitation. He is watching us watching him, he’s the simple essence of presence. The boy appears in the background several times. He was the envoy of a family who refused to be approached. His task was to keep an eye on us. And he absolutely succeeded, with blue wild-open eyes.
The Hill isn’t reportage or a social documentary based on thoroughly research. We didn’t want to draw up statistics; on the contrary we wanted to realize our own personal portrait of a very small area: a private courtyard staged as a public space.
We needed people from the area to help us reach an internal perception of that special piece of earth. Weather it was right or wrong didn’t matter. We stayed on the hill for twenty days. Some people popped up, others appeared from a distance and some invited us to their homes. We asked them to talk about the construction of the hill and about places they had “visited” in dreams. In both cases they talked about something we cannot prove nor see by ourselves. Each person had their own perception of the area.
A man with big moustaches says that he miss the summer nights sleeping outside his house in Turkey, and when he mumbles and rolls about on the grass this memory becomes vivid in front of our eyes.
An old Italian woman saw herself dead in a place she describes exactly like the one we can see behind her shoulders out of the window. From that moment Korsgade Hill it’s one of the doors for the otherworldliness.
This audio recording was made in an office beside the hill: the perfect intro or the very end of the entire film:
I work here since almost a year and I always see this hill in the horizon. I’ve never been there, it’s so far away. I want to climb it one day but… it’s just too far away for me now. I need to climb it one day, I need to see what’s on the other side but right now I’m just doing my job, I’m working into this office and I can see the hill from the window, it’s always there but I just haven’t been there. I don’t know if I’m capable, physically capable of going there. So there’s this big mountain that you just, I think you have to… maybe go on an expedition, maybe be more people… because you can’t do it by your own, I think.
It’s too… too tall a mountain to climb.
THE HILL was produced for Metropolis Biennale 2011