“So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth …”: How Digital Media Revisit our Images of Slums

Victorian but not Victorian: Carnival Row (Amazon Studios, 2019)
Igor Krstić discusses the ethics and politics of representing slums in contemporary film, television, and video games, from computer-generated imagery of Victorian London to documentaries about Mumbai.

“There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher,” wrote Victor Hugo in his undying novel Les Misérables, and it still rings true more than 150 years after its publication. The book was intended by Hugo to have a broad, international appeal: his characters and storyline were meant to be read not only as a realist depiction of the injustices of France’s rigid class system during the first half of the nineteenth century, but as an allegory applicable to all industrializing nations of that time. The title has sometimes been translated into English as The Dispossessed – fittingly, I think, since this is what most of the urban population of that time originally was: dispossessed (sometimes violently) from their agricultural lands, the Commons that is. Whether on page, on screen or on stage, Les Misérables continues to draw in the crowds. Hugo himself could have predicted it: “So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this.” From Paris and London to Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro, there are dozens of versions, translations and adaptations of Les Misérables all over the globe. Additionally, a whole (now digital) “culture industry,” as Theodor W. Adorno would have put it, surrounds Les Misérables, but do its story and characters still resonate, allegorically or not, with today’s miseries in what Mike Davis has called our “planet of slums”?1Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London and New York: Verso, 2007).

Perfect Imperfections: The Victorian Slum in TV Series and Video Games

The suffering of past slum dwellers resonates with what major film production companies deem profitable. The latest Hollywood adaptation of Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012) recreated some of the historical Parisian slums that appear in Hugo’s novel with the help of CGI – a trend in numerous recent film and television productions. The slums of 1920s Berlin feature prominently in Babylon Berlin (ARD 2017-20), those of London in Ripper Street (BBC 2012-16) and Taboo (BBC 2017), and those of New York City in Copper (BBC America, 2012-13) and The Alienist (TNT 2018). In Carnival Row (Prime Video, 2019) we can see a variation of this tendency, because the “Victorian” slums are here populated by marginalized fantasy creatures, who make their living from prostitution or crime. The idea to recreate a historical slum with the help of CGI and visual effects or via chroma key compositing goes back to one of cinema’s all-time key innovators, Martin Scorsese. Even though Gangs of New York (2002) was filmed on classic 35mm stock, it nevertheless seems as if the (supposed) realism and grittiness of New York’s infamous Five Points slum – designed by Dante Ferretti at the Cinecittá studios in Rome but enhanced with some forty-five computer-generated shots2A few years later, the slums of ancient Rome were also rebuilt in Cinecittá for HBO’s Rome (2005), which with a budget of US$100–110 million is one of the most expensive television productions ever. – counters the soon-to-take-over high-definition imagery of digital cinema.

It is perhaps this contradictio in adiecto, “beautiful slums” –  that is, the harsh realism of dirty, unimaginably appalling and backward slums that are recreated with beautiful, clean and modern HD technology – that has fascinated filmmakers and producers ever since. Nicholas Rombes has argued in his Cinema in the Digital Age (2009) that this confluence is less of a paradox because the digital turn and the realist revival are directly related to each other. As he explains, it is “no coincidence that the Dogme 95 movement – with its preference for disorder, for shaky, degraded images, for imperfection – emerged at the dawn of the digital era, an era that promised precisely the opposite: clarity, high definition, a sort of hyperclarified reality.” For Rombes “there is a tendency in digital media – and cinema especially – to reassert imperfection, flaws, an aura of human mistakes to counterbalance the logic of perfection that pervades the digital”.3Nicholas Rombes, Cinema in the Digital Age (London: Wallflower Press: 2009), 1. What could be described as the entertainment industries’ “obsession with realism” (to use an expression by film critic André Bazin), and hence its obsession with creating hyperreal worlds via the use of the computer – a “hyperclarified reality,” as Rombes puts it – seemingly finds an alternative development, a “counterbalance to the logic of perfection,” in the resurgence of less “perfect” characters and settings.

London’s Whitechapel in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (2015)

Considering that numerous set designers, special effects companies and concept artists invest so much time and money into creating hyperrealistic images of Victorian slums in television for (mostly) commercial reasons, it is hardly surprising that the gaming industry does so too. In video games like Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter (2016), we can navigate with Holmes through the streets of some of London’s worst Victorian slums. Some of the game action also takes place in the shabby, badly-lit interiors of slum dwellers, where we have to solve the usual puzzles and riddles. The Victorian slum has become popular with game designers, especially since Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (Ubisoft, 2015), in which London’s Whitechapel is meticulously recreated by concept artists Grant Hillier and Hugo Puzzuoli in order for gamers to explore and – in this case – conquer the area. We can find in video games like these not only a fascination with painterly or architectural realism (of buildings, streets and interior designs), but also with what one could call the stereotypical nineteenth century topics surrounding slums: crime, prostitution and violence. This is probably what fascinates not only video game producers, but also television scriptwriters and audiences most about the past horrors of slums, and this is ethically also its most troubling aspect.

Ethical Dilemmas: Contemporary Slums in Fiction Film

No matter how digitally enhanced, stereotypical or commercialized the images of historical slums in these cinematic and gaming productions are, they are far less frequently criticized for being exploitative than those that are set in contemporary cities. Another cinematic visionary, the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, reinvented the image of slums in this regard. Released in 2002, the same year as Gangs of New York, Meirelles’s masterpiece City of God created a whole new genre, with Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008), District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) and Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013) following in its path. Whether in action, science fiction, romance, or gangster films, real slums and their inhabitants – street kids, gangsters, prostitutes – became not only fascinatingly exotic settings and supporting characters for generic stories about love and violence, but also lucrative shooting locations for major production companies. This, of course, led to criticism. City of God and Slumdog Millionaire in particular have been accused by critics of shameless “slumming” and qualified as “slum tourism” or “poverty porn” by writers including Arundhati Roy.4Arundhati Roy, “Nothing sells like poverty,” Dawn, 1 March 2009. http://www.dawn.com/news/851161/nothing-sells-like-poverty. For those critics, slum-dwellers and their homes are exploited by media productions – extensions of the phenomenon of slum tourism – as objects of touristic gazes. Pushing this argument further, some critics claim that inequality – not only the unequal distribution of power and money, but also of knowledge and know-how – is in truth an intrinsic feature of media representations of the dispossessed.5See, for example, Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1977).

Alongside prominent critics like Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie,6Salman Rushdie, “A Fine Pickle,” The Guardian, February 28, 2009. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/feb/28/salman-rushdie-novels-film-adaptations (accessed 10 April 2021). academics have also argued that in order to avoid neo-colonial, orientalist or voyeuristic exploitation of poverty-stricken subalterns through the (Western, dominant) entertainment industries, we should, for instance, think about questions of authenticity and authorship, and empower and enable the dispossessed to produce their own images and stories about themselves.7For a postcolonial critique of Slumdog Millionaire, see Anjana Mudambi, “Another Look At Orientalism: (An)Othering in Slumdog Millionaire,” Howard Journal of Communication 24, no. 3 (2013): 275-92. On City of God’s supposed “cosmetics of hunger,” see Sophia A. McClennen, “From the Aesthetics of Hunger to the Cosmetics of Hunger in Brazilian Cinema: Meirelles’ City of God,symploke 19, no. 1–2 (2011): 95-106. Indeed, to this day, films about slums have been almost entirely directed and produced by those who have never lived in slums, from Luis Buñuel (Los Olvidados, 1950) to Meirelles, Boyle or Portuguese director Pedro Costa.8This has only recently changed due to the relatively low costs of producing a film with digital cameras and desktop editing. There is, for instance, an annual “Slum Film Festival” that has taken place since 2011 in Nairobi, Kenya, which empowers slum dwellers to shoot, produce, und exhibit their productions. However, unlike Meirelles or Boyle, who have spent a certain amount of time in the slums to shoot in the narrow alleys of Mumbai’s Dharavi or Rio de Janeiro’s Cidade de Deus with large film crews – after which they turned towards new projects, never really to return again – Pedro Costa remained in the slums. During the shooting of his five films about Fontainhas (1997-2019),9While in the first two of these films – Ossos (1997) and In Vanda’s Room (2000) – Fontainhas still exists, in the following three – Colossal Youth (2006), Horse Money (2014) and Vitalina Varela (2019) – past, present and future interlace into a surreal vision of a place and its people. a former slum on the outskirts of Lisbon, Costa not only lived there, becoming part of the community, but also radically minimalized his approach to filmmaking, using only a digital video camera and no further crew members. Consequently, Costa’s films are quite the opposite to what mainstream genre cinema shows and tells us about our “planet of slums.” Whereas Meirelles and Boyle employ frenetically edited action scenes, through which we gather the impression that slums are dangerous but ultimately lively and exciting places, Costa uses beautifully composed, poetic, but unbearably long static shots of suffering, drug-addicted or delusional individuals, most of whom are real Cape Verdean immigrants, giving us the impression that slums are, above all, dreadful, apathetic and lifeless places.

Dead Time in HD: Ventura in Horse Money (2014)

Throughout, we remain visually close but emotionally at a distance to Vanda Duarte and Ventura, Costa’s two main characters, who play themselves rather than fictional characters. Costa confronts his viewers in this way with what Hugo would have called our lack of humanity, our ignorance towards misery, since he forces us to spend – in the most literal sense – “dead” time with these characters without being able to empathize or identify with them simply because there is no story told. Costa’s series of Fontainhas films indeed question whether any attempt at dramatizing (that is, creating a fictional story about) social misery is ethical at all – after all, don’t we distort the lives of these people as soon as we construct a narrative for the purpose of identification and dramatic effect? Similar to Hugo, however, Costa wants us to read his films as allegories that go beyond the filmed place and its people. At the beginning of his fourth film on Fontainhas, Horse Money (2014), we see a series of black-and-white photographs of slum dwellers in New York, made by Danish-American Jacob Riis around 1890 – also used by Scorsese as photographic material to recreate Gangs of New York’s slum alleys on a set in Rome – suggesting that no matter whether the slums are in the past or the present, Portugal or the USA, the misery is about the same and we still let them suffer.

Battles for the City: Documentary’s Slums

Costa’s films have been lauded by film critics and academics as high art, yet his rejection of fictional narrative in favor of beautifully composed, static long takes leaves audiences nevertheless mostly perplexed, sometimes outright bored. Is there a way to reach bigger audiences in the digital age, but at the same time avoid the ethical dilemmas of historicizing (via CGI), popularizing (via generic storytelling) or even just dramatizing social misery, past or present? An answer to these dilemmas might be found in the documentary film, which is traditionally a genre that has leaned towards the criticism and revelation of social misery, but is nevertheless – partly thanks to platforms like Netflix – immensely successful today. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (2017), for instance, both historicizes and dramatizes 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 slums? Unlike the fictional examples discussed above, it focuses thus on planners and architects, and less on slum dwellers. It does so through juxtaposing two visions of urban planning, those of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, to give insight into a battle that is fought all over the globe today between capitalist urban planning from above and activism among communities from below.

Architect Mukesh Mehta in Dharavi: Slum for Sale (2010)

Other documentaries, such as Dharavi: Slum for Sale (2010), focus on similar grassroots “battles” – in this case, between architect Mukesh Mehta and Mumbai’s slum dwellers. The film shows how Mehta tries to convince not only slum dwellers, but also private investors and the government of his plan to eradicate “Asia’s largest slum,” Dharavi. The plan, however, intends to dispossess Dharavi’s inhabitants and to relocate them into social housing projects at the outskirts of Mumbai in order for them to make way for a financial district, which meets the resistance of NGO activists and Dharavi’s inhabitants. Unlike fictional films, series or video games, documentaries like these, enable us to look at slums as terrains of political struggle in concrete historical times, rather than as beautiful images of imperfect places that are somehow detached from us in their timeless suffering. “So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth,” it is more of these images of slums that we need from future media to come.


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