There is a sequence early on in filmmaker Jean-Nicolas Orhon’s intriguing Slums: Cities of Tomorrows where the camera focuses on a lone rustic looking outhouse sitting in the middle of a tent community. The tour guide, a reverend no less, instructs that when the outhouse is full, it gets moved over to the next hole carved out in the row. To someone arriving late to the film, the setting could be misconstrued as a third world country, but it is not. This is modern day Lakewood, New Jersey. A stark reminder of the fallout from the recent economic crisis, it is easy to cast pitiful eyes on the circumstance these people find themselves in, but then we would be missing the bigger picture. According to Orhon’s film, these makeshift communities are not a problem, but rather the solution.
Aiming to dispel the negative connotation associated with the word “slums”, the film makes a rather compelling case that slums have been an essential part of society for years. Tracing its history as far back as 19th century London, Orhon shows that slums are as diverse as the cities they exist in. They are the purest representation of what it means to be part of a community. Crossing the globe, Slums: Cities of Tomorrows shows that whether situated in Canada, Brazil, Turkey, France or the United States, the results are the same. Despite the hardship that those in the slums endure, the community always finds a way of evolving and supporting each other.
While governments from all over would rather eradicate these slums and move them to government based apartment complexes – which are esthetically pleasing for the powers that be, but does little to cure the actual problem – Orhon’s film argues that governments should be working in conjunction with the these communities to provide for some of their basic needs. As one of the scholars Orhon interviews points out, no community in this day and age should have to live without electricity.
Although a conventional talking head documentary, Slums: Cities of Tomorrows does a wonderful job of keeping the human element at the forefront. There is something both heartbreaking and inspiring when one of the New Jersey squatters, who built his home completely out of plastic scraps, states “even though you’re homeless, you can still make a home out of nothing.” Despite talking about his own life, the man’s words can easily be echoed by the mother in Bangalore whose lives in a cramped space beside a sewer drain. Life for the illiterate mother of two may be tough, but she takes solace in the fact that her kids are defying the odds and excelling in their studies.
Pulling in fascinating interviewees such as Author Jeremy Seabrook, Professor Nicolas Reeves, and American journalist Robert Neuwirth, the film effectively gets us to look at slums, and poverty in general, in a different light. Jean-Nicolas Orhon’s Slums: Cities of Tomorrows displays that there is no “other” when talking about people in the slums. Regardless of one’s stature, everyone feels poor in relation to those who seemingly have more than them. Instead of fearing those who live in slums, Orhon’s film effectively shows us that there is a lot we can actually learn from slums from both a societal and architectural standpoint.