Posted November 12th 2010 at 7:09 pm by
in Media Mindfulness

Q&A: HIGHRISE Documentary Filmmaker Katerina Cizek

“In a lot of places, especially in these high rises, people are not connected to the internet or social networking tools. A lot of people think, ‘Oh yeah, this project is on the computer; it’s interactive,’ but that is not the case.” – Katerina Cizek

HIGHRISE is a multi-year, multi-media, collaborative documentary project about the human experience in global vertical suburbs. Out My Window, a 360º documentary, is part of the HIGHRISE project.  Watch the trailer above.

In your Director’s Statement on the Out My Window site, you talked about traveling to Moscow to do a project and finding out that your accommodations were in a high rise at the last subway stop, two hours outside the city center. You wrote:

Out the window, it was block after block of grey concrete towers. But inside, the place was teeming with people and languages from all over the world. On the rickety elevator up to our “apartment-hotel” I met migrant construction workers from all over the former Soviet Union. And in the open-air market down the street, I could hear Chechen, Uzbek, Korean, Azerbaijani and Cantonese. I celebrated my rowdiest International Women’s Day ever at a packed resto-bar at the base of our tower.


How did this project come into being after that experience?

That was when I almost subconsciously realized that the city wasn’t as I thought it was. A string of many experiences throughout my life led to the vision for this project.

In part, it stemmed out of the documentary work I did in an inner city hospital in Toronto. As I was doing that project, the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada started asking me and the producer, Gerry Flahive: “How can we continue with this idea of making documentaries more with people than about people?” Sometimes people in Toronto would say to me, “Oh, you should be filmmaker-in-residence for City of Toronto”. I didn’t think much of those comments at the time, but then it worked out.

The incredible space that the NFB gave me allowed for an in-depth and profound process leading up to this project. I was able to spend time with the material, and meet a lot of researchers and practitioners here in Toronto.

Toronto has a Tower Renewal program, which is looking at the legacy of having 1000 high rise towers in the city. As we started to look in to these towers and towers in other cities, we began to see that it’s not just about Toronto; it’s about cities around the world.

How did you begin to recruit stories from all of these cities?

For Out My Window, we started with twenty locations and whittled it down to thirteen. There is a different story behind how we got in touch with each of the contributors, but many of those relationships came out of the early research we did in the first year of the project. In Taiwan, we found a really exciting Canadian photographer who was self-documenting his own family; he did the story of the woman, his grandmother, who tends to her ancestors in a high rise cemetery. In Istanbul we found an architect who was doing a lot of work on housing rights. In Chicago, we knew that David Schalliol had been documenting Cabrini Green for years.

I did not travel to all of these cities myself. Instead, our Toronto team spent a lot of time on Skype and email talking with the people who were documenting each of the towers as they developed their material.

I developed a twenty-five-page technical and creative brief that had all the details on how to gather materials for this project: equipment to use, minimum resolution for photos, how to send material to us. Even more importantly, we gave information on how to develop the stories and on looking for objects that could serve as trigger points for the stories.

As you drag your mouse, you get to see all 360º of the interior of each high rise. When something pops out of the wall, as HIGHRISE CEMETERY does above, you can click on it to hear a resident of that high rise tell a story.

You are committed to collaborative, interactive projects. What do these words, ‘collaborative’ and ‘interactive’, mean in your work?

In a lot of places, especially in these high rises, people are not connected to the internet or social networking tools. A lot of people think, “Oh yeah, this project is on the computer; it’s interactive,” but that is not the case. One thing I love about this project is that the relationships with the participants are alive and in-person.

Interactivity could be anything, including live events. Tomorrow I am on my way to Amsterdam to make a physical exhibit of the project. With the help of this cool three-dimensional software by a company called Derivative out of Toronto, we will be able to show these stories in a life-sized form so that you feel like you’re in the apartments. We will show the stories in which we used the 360º camera: Toronto, Amsterdam, and Havana.

When people talk about rights, they often talk about the right to shelter and the right to clean water, but there isn’t much talk about the right to communication. People have a right to communication.

The concept of a documentary is changing. The old model, that a filmmaker gathers material for years and then produces one final product, is almost impossible now. Where does your work fit in?

Documentaries are transforming as the whole media landscape is transforming. We’re living through transformative economic times, too. A lot of the cut backs we’re seeing in television, for example, are related to the cutbacks in automobile advertisements.

The democratization that has come with the Internet has changed the way we live. Documentary is about relating to the world we are in. As the world we are in changes, documentaries must also change. It’s not just about gathering material and publishing things four years later.

There are a myriad of ways that a film can be interactive at different points along the process. Some media-makers are using the collaborative process on the back-end to get people involved in the distribution of a project, or to get people involved in a movement or as a tool for mobilization. This project, HIGHRISE, has been collaborative from the early research phase.

One component of the HIGHRISE project is called 2000th Tower. In the same tower we’ve been working in for over a year, those residents are doing a charrette with ERA Architects. Together, residents and architects draw up sketches for the buildings, and we will bring that material to life in a web documentary. We are calling this next project 2000th Tower because there is a massive quarter that goes in a huge horseshoe around Ontario, and it includes 2000 high rise towers.

ERA Architects advised the City of Toronto in the creation the Tower Renewal Office. This office has four pilot sites, and one of the four is the building we have been working in. After recent municipal elections we don’t know what the future of that office will be, though.

Do you have any recommendations for cities with high rises?

I used to think that high rises were a blight on the landscape, but now I realize that a lot can be done with them physically, socially, and politically. These are sound structures. A lot of these mega-projects were conceived without considering who would live in them.

I think cities now have an opportunity to use participatory research methods to really open up the understanding of, and possibilities for, high rises. People who live in high rises have important information on how to improve them. There is a lot of knowledge to be passed on from experts and academics, but the flow of information needs to go both ways. It’s not just about experts making huge decisions without talking to the people who live there.

The idea that simply eradicating this built form will eradicate the problems associated with high rises does not really address the issues. It’s much deeper than that, and we need to think more creatively.

Is there anything else you would like the CoLab Radio community to know?

We’re really eager to learn more about participatory methods. We’re eager to hear ideas for more collaboration that could come out of HIGHRISE since we’re still in early in the project.

HIGHRISE director Katerina Cizek has offered to respond to your questions on the CoLab Radio blog space.  If you have something to say, please do so below.

3 responses to “Q&A: HIGHRISE Documentary Filmmaker Katerina Cizek”

  1. […] interviews at MIT’s Collab Radio, SBS Love […]

  2. Christina says:

    Katerina, This project is so amazing on so many levels. You and your team have taken something that society too easily and too quickly stereotypes as negative and shown us all of the complexity and beauty the what we aren’t seeing in our hasty judgements. What other areas of society/humanity do you see has needing an “Out My Window” lens?

  3. Stefanie says:

    This project is amazing! I love this innovative approach to documentary filmmaking, where multimedia tools allow you to step into someone’s living room in another part of the world and explore. It seems like exploring these stories might reveal some interesting common threads between people from completely different places. I am a true believer that stories are major driver to connecting people and creating social change. I am very interested to watch more of these stores.

    Just curious– what is the 360 degree camera that you used for this?

    Also, around multimedia/arts and participatory methods, MIT Professor Ceasar McDowell might have some ideas. His work around the international question campaign , which he is now kicking off on a local level in Springfield might provide some ideas on how to follow up to a multimedia art/story project like this. In Springfield, as people submit their questions for their neighborhood, he plans to group them by like themes and help people organize into working groups around the issues that concern him. He is working closely with the North End Organizing Network to implement this process.

  4. Kat Cizek says:

    Christina and Stephanie, kat here, the director of highrise/out my window. thanks so much for your kind comments. Christina, i see application across many fields, I actually build the methodology from work i did for 4 years as the NFB Filmmaker-in-Residence at an Inner-City hospital, working with doctors, patients, nurses to fuse media with medicine. you can see more about it here:

    Stephanie, the 360º camera hardware and softward came from Yellowbird, a new tech company in Holland. I blog a few times about the shoots in the director’s blog at Thanks for the reference for Ceasar McDowell, I will def. check it!