The Origins of Slums, Capitalism and the Shortcomings of Cinema

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)
How have slums been represented onscreen? In the first installment of a three-part series, Igor Krstić considers the history of the cinematic representation of slums and examines the capacity of visual media to portray the complex relationships between capitalism and urban development.
[Ed. note: This piece is the first of a three-part series on the representation of slums on screen. As additional posts are in the series are published, we’ll add links to them here.]

In my book Slums on Screen: World Cinema and the Planet of Slums (2016), I analyzed, criticized and sometimes also praised selected historical and contemporary photographs, documentaries and fiction films that depict the world’s urban slums, from Jacob Riis’s How The Other Half Lives (1890) to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008). My interest in this topic began after watching Slumdog Millionaire with my girlfriend in a cinema near Stuttgart in the summer of 2008 – that is, at around the time the financial crisis hit global markets. In retrospect, this might have not been a coincidence, since public and academic debates that year increasingly focused on the (historical) drawbacks, failures and shadow sides of capitalism. As I was researching that book over the following five years, I became especially interested in the historical aspects of slums. Initially, I asked myself, what are the origins of slums and how did slums become the global phenomenon that they are today? And further, how did capitalism lead to slums and were these larger connections ever depicted on the cinema screen?

As for the origins of slums, some have argued that they already existed in ancient Rome, but as a modern phenomenon they first appeared, of course, around 1800 in the industrializing cities of Great Britain. In fact, one can say that slums not only “originate in the countryside“1Mike Davis, “Planet of Slums,” New Left Review 26 (March-April 2004): 24., as Mike Davis has put it, but more precisely, in the British countryside and, that is, at the beginning of the capitalist-industrial age. Karl Marx emphasized the constitutive role of the so-called “enclosures” in the transition from feudalism into capitalism, and one could argue that we have witnessed “enclosures” on a global scale in recent decades, leading (among other major reasons, such as climate catastrophes) to the astonishing figure of one billion slum dwellers today. The enclosures of the 18th century – today also known as corporate or other kinds of “land grabbing” – were simply a means to privatize previously commonly owned agricultural land (“the Commons”), depriving poor farmers of their livelihood, leading to rural depopulation and hence, to the “making of the working class” (E.P. Thompson) as well as the overpopulation of cities. Whereas the now-privatized Commons were used to feed large flocks of sheep and enrich a few landowners, large numbers of farmers and their families worked for textile manufacturers in Liverpool or elsewhere, ironically processing the sheep’s wool into fabric and enriching a handful of industrialists.

we have witnessed “enclosures” on a global scale in recent decades, leading to the astonishing figure of one billion slum dwellers today

Today, nearly half of the English countryside is owned by only 25,000 land millionaires, who constitute less than 1 per cent of the population2 Guy Shrubsole, Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land, and How to Take It Back (London: William Collins, 2019)., whereas the majority of the global urban population dwells in spaces that are often cramped, immensely dense and often uninhabitable. Today’s “planet of slums” is, in this regard, a remnant of the First Industrial Revolution, only on a much larger scale. Particularly since the 1960s and 70s, governments in Africa, Asia and South America looking for economic improvement encouraged the massive transfer of land from tribal peoples to the state, to individuals and later to large corporations. Today’s tragic irony is that affluent urbanites of the highly industrialized North claim to spearhead the “Third Industrial Revolution”, in which, according to Jeremy Rifkin3 Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, The Economy, and the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)., networked sharing economies – the modern day “Commons”, so to speak – will take over, while at the same time the global South repeats the fatal logic of the First Industrial Revolution that originated two centuries earlier in the North.

17th century drawing of forcible land enclosure and expulsion

However, only very few filmmakers, whether south or north of the equator, have tackled these broader historical and economic contexts when they told their stories from the slums. Pioneering social documentary photographers like Jacob Riis, or early filmmakers, such as D. W. Griffith or Charlie Chaplin, largely deployed documentary and/or melodramatic modes to tell stories about orphans, street urchins, alcoholics, outcasts or gangsters, or to simply show well-educated middle class urbanites “how the other half” lived in the growing slums of New York, London or Paris, in order to draw their attention to the miserable living conditions for working class populations. Even after World War II, when socially and politically engaged alternative film movements emerged (Neorealism, Cinema Vérité, Third Cinema), the nexus between slums and capitalism, or, by extension, economic imperialism, was rarely tackled. In Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950) or Jean Rouch’s Moi, Un Noir (1958), for instance, the narratives center on suffering children and deprived youth, but despite their humanistic empathy, cinematic mastery and innovation, neither of these films criticize, explicitly or implicitly, the larger context of rural depopulation in the South and its causes.

Today, with the digital revolution and the massive rise of slum populations after the neoliberal turn of the 1970s, slums have become stock features of reality television shows (BBC2’s The Victorian Slum), documentary productions (Al Jazeera’s three-part series on Manila’s Tondo neighborhood, The Slum),  independent DV productions (the Philippine New Wave of filmmakers such as Brillante Mendoza), and art cinema (Pedro Costa‘s films about Lisbon’s now eradicated slum, Fontainhas), as well as a popular subject of mainstream blockbusters, which often mix documentary modes with the generic patterns of romance, science fiction, and gangster films (e.g. Slumdog Millionaire, District 9 or City of God). The latter examples have not only been criticized for decontextualizing poverty, but also as a form of poverty porn or slum voyeurism. For those critics, slum-dwellers and their homes are represented in such exploitative media productions – extensions of the phenomenon of slum tourism – as objects of touristic gazes.

But is cinema capable of depicting a rather abstract issue, such as the connection between capitalism and slums, at all? One might argue that in order to do so, filmmakers need to employ documentary or even essayistic rather than narrative forms. However, narrative cinema is, in my opinion, equally capable of depicting complex (global) issues, for instance by employing allegorical characters, leitmotifs or storylines. There is, for example, Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Vidas Secas (1963) – a classic of Brazilian cinema and the Cinema Novo movement of the 1960s. Dos Santos’s film is indeed an “allegory of underdevelopment” and one of the rare cinematic examples that depict the circumstances that drove rural populations off the land and into the cities – in this case to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In this regard, Vidas Secas also showcases the strength of (narrative) cinema, because no essay, academic book or economic theory will give such a visceral insight into the suffering and injustice that precedes the migration from land to city.


Is cinema capable of depicting a rather abstract issue, such as the connection between capitalism and slums, at all?

One Way or Another (Sara Gomez, 1974)

Another example that I would like to highlight is Sara Gomez’s One Way or Another (1974) – a “Third Cinema” essay film that mixes documentary and melodrama to portray the clash between Havana slum dwellers and middle-class urbanites during Fidel Castro’s 1970s slum clearance campaigns. The film indeed contextualizes poverty, since it provides viewers via voice-over narration with (Marxist) explanations, theories and statistics about the rise of slums as well as the so-called “culture of poverty”4Gomez drew from the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who conducted research among slum-dwellers in Mexico and later also Cuba. See: Oscar Lewis, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1959)., while also narrating the story of a complicated relationship between an educated teacher and a factory worker from the slums. Even though one could criticize the film for its Marxist bias, it is, with regard to the topic of slum representation, unique and highly innovative. My final example is Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (2017). It is a well-made documentary that I like to show to students attending my “Slums on Screen” seminars at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, because it historicizes and personalizes an issue that has been of pivotal importance to urban planners and architects in the last 150 years or so: how should we solve the problem of the slums? Centered on the battle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, the film gives a representative depiction of a historical battle between capitalist urban planning from above and networked sharing communities from below – a battle that is now a global one.


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