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Highrise: an International Digital Emmy nom for this fresh exploration of 21st century suburban life

“I’ve always considered myself pretty platform agnostic in the sense that I’ve always been more interested in how documentary can be part of social innovation and change, rather than just documenting it,” explains Katerina Cizek, who is the driving force behind the multimedia documentary Highrise. “I was drawn to documentary as a tool rather than documentary in and of itself, though I think that my primary instinct is always documentary.” Cizek started her career as a photojournalist documenting the Oka Crisis and has worked in both print and film. However, it is her instinct for documentary filmmaking and innovation driven by an interest in new technologies that has won her international acclaim. She regards the award-winning Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002) as the beginning of her interest in the revolutionary power, both social and creative, of new media and technology.

“I moved pretty swiftly into the multimedia world, I’ve always been interested in how communication tools can be harnessed through documentary storytelling to directly impact the communities and lives of the people involved in the work,” explains Cizek. However, it was the work she started five years ago as the National Film Board’s Filmmaker- in-Residence that laid the foundations for Highrise (the participatory multimedia project involving a Toronto hospital also won her a Webby award in 2008). An expansive and ambitious project, Highrise explores apartment buildings, and the lives of people who live in them, in 13 international cities. Found throughout the world, high-rises are the antithesis of suburban sprawl, spreading upwards with their dense populations of inhabitants.

Flipping the digital script
Cizek’s equally dense project, with its many compartmentalized aspects housed online, requires a substantial team to realize, as well as the work of participants themselves. Highrise takes us into Canadian cities like Montreal and Toronto (The Thousandth Tower), as well as global metropolises like Bangalore, Amsterdam, Beirut and Johannesburg, as it explores this form of vertical global urbanism through a variety of mediums – web-documentaries, live presentations, installations, mobile projects and, of course, documentary film. An interactive doc, for both the subjects and the audience, one module of Highrise entitled Out my Window gives participants cameras, engaging and empowering its subjects to document their own lives and environments.

“At the centre of discussions about journalism and documentary, we’re always talking about the handling of the truth and how one does that, both in our own representation of ourselves when we’re communicating with other people and when we’re representing other people’s points of view,” explains Cizek. “I think we’re in a very important time when people are able to represent themselves, through these very affordable, ubiquitous and easy-to-use technologies that have all been harnessed together through the internet. That combination of technology and access has transformed who gets to tell whose story.” Cizek, the NFB and 2.0 documentaries like Highrise are at the forefront of that revolution, empowering both storytelling and truth.


Directed by Katerina Cizek | Produced by Gerry Flahive