“Old Soul,” one of three guides who will take you through "Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise," a new interactive documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Courtesy NFB

The new interactive documentary, part of the HIGHRISE series produced by the National Film Board of Canada, makes its U.S. premiere on CityLab.  

TORONTO—Are you a digital optimist? Is your perfect Internet a limitless utopia? Then you need to meet a little girl named Old Soul. She shares your enthusiasm for a world without borders.

Or is your web a darker place, best navigated with a pair of encryption keys? It’s best you introduce yourself to the man who operates under the name D.C. (Digital Citizen).

Maybe you’re in it for something else . . . something spicier. The poetry, the absurdity, the sexuality of the world-wide web. Yeah? You want to see Agokwe.

These three figures—Old Soul, D.C., Agokwe—are your hosts in Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise, the final chapter in the multi-year, multi-part HIGHRISE documentary series produced by the National Film Board of Canada. They are your guides to the global suburbs, a concept rooted in place and information. It’s a project that Katerina Cizek, the director of HIGHRISE, has been developing for years.

Universe Within, which makes its U.S. premiere here on CityLab thanks to a collaboration with the NFB, is a digital, custom-built, choose-your-own-adventure tour of the secret lives of the world’s most anonymous buildings. Through video and interactive animation, the documentary tells a story—based on years of research into demographics, immigration, and inequality—about the interconnected networks that residents build from highrises that are frequently disconnected from cities. It’s more of a map than a movie.

“HIGHRISE is a metaphor,” says Cizek. “As soon as we started, architects might say, ‘In our world, highrises are 12 stories and up.’ But what constitutes a highrise in a refugee camp? As soon as refugees start building on top of each other, how impermanent is that camp, really? And what does that infrastructure tell us politically and socially?”

These aren’t hypothetical questions. One of the episodes in Universe Within follows Ahmed Mukhtar, an Azerbaijani photo-blogger who winds up living in an unfinished highrise hospital in Baku in the wake of the Nagorno-Karabakh War. The conflict made a ruin of his native city, Ağdam, which is still a ghost town, more than 22 years later. But through his blog project, Mukhtar comes to befriend Armenians whom he might otherwise despise as blood enemies.

Stories in Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise, produced by the National Film Board of Canada, span the globe. (Courtesy NFB)

Mukhtar’s tale is just one of the many stories to be uncovered in Universe Within. Old Soul, D.C., and Agokwe are the gatekeepers to these video vignettes. Here’s how the site works: Once you select an avatar, he or she will ask a series of questions. The choice you make determines the video you see. One answer leads into the next question. All in all, there are a total of about 70 different “passes” or permutations you can take through Universe Within, but you can see most of the material in 9–12 passes. A pass takes about 15 minutes.

The world contained in this documentary is sprawling. The highrises featured in each minutes-long mini-doc span the globe. The experience of traversing Universe Within, however, is intimate. That’s because each of the three avatars brings together a different narrative and mood.

Follow Old Soul, for example, and you’ll find stories about people persevering across boundaries. D.C., on the other hand, takes a post–Snowden look at the world. Agokwe’s stories are the most individualist. The dialog—the work of Susan Coyne, a writer and co-creator of the popular Canadian television series Slings and Arrows—is convincing. The actors who portray these characters were recorded using SLR cameras, a Microsoft Kinect, and an open-source filmmaking tool called DepthKit, according to Branden Bratuhin, technical director for the National Film Board.

“For a documentary, you have a very conventional set: pre-production, production, camera, post-production, editor,” Bratuhin says. “Whereas in this, we have local teams create the stories, and then we have a second set: developers, designers, user interface, user experience.”

Click through Universe Within and you’ll eventually meet Ruin, a professional gamer who lives in a highrise in Seoul. Specifically, Ruin lives in a team house. He wakes, folds his blanket, starts practicing, eats lunch, keeps practicing, then eats dinner, as he explains to viewers in a mini-film. His team—the very best in the world—has earned $900,000 playing online games. For entertainment, Ruin plays guitar on the roof, where he won’t interrupt his teammates: maybe 10 minutes here or there.

To capture his story (and others’), the HIGHRISE production team interviewed subjects over Skype and hired local film crews to record super-short docs. To find each story involved a larger research team, including Deborah Cowen, a geography and planning professor at the University of Toronto, and Emily Paradis, a research associate at the U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

“There are stories [in these highrise buildings], but how would you even know?” says Gerry Flahive, the producer for HIGHRISE and former senior producer for the National Film Board of Canada. “They just look like nothing. As opposed to a story about how Chinatown is now Koreatown, or how Little Italy has been gentrified, where you can see it with your own eyes. You look at those buildings, you can’t see anything.”

A single scene from one of about 70 different “passes” or permutations you can take through Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. (Courtesy NFB)

Some of the stories are disquieting. Ling, a woman who lives in Guangzhou, tells viewers about the practice of mock marriages in China. “It’s a sort of legal and emotional collusion between a gay man and a lesbian woman,” she says. Her own mock marriage started in 2007 and ended in 2007: It was a disaster. These faux relationships are arranged on QQ (China’s Facebook) but take place in real life—entirely out of sight.

Universe Within introduces us to another woman who was only able to leave her Tokyo highrise with the assistance of a robot. Yoko Azuma suffered from ALS, and was eventually incapacitated by the disease; but through OriHime, a robotic avatar equipped with a camera that streams video to an iPhone or iPad, she was able to keep up with her family remotely. (She died, at 51, eight months after the segment was recorded.)

Finding a way to convey several themes side by side was the formal and functional experiment of Universe Within. Secret Location, a digital agency based in Canada, built out the site; the firm’s creative director, Pietro Gagliano, says that its avatars were “engineered from the HIGHRISE philosophy and reverse-engineered from the documentaries.” Bringing to life Old Soul, D.C., and Agokwe—plus 25 different mini-documentaries—required the largest team Cizek has ever assembled.

“I was really excited about the technology and the story. I knew the story was going to be amazing. The client is telling us: ‘Be as innovative as you can be. There are no limits,’” says Noora Abu Eitah, executive producer at Secret Location. “Are we going to create something that is so broad that every browser possible is going to access it, or are we going to make that decision to push the boundaries of WebGL [a JavaScript API for rendering 3D graphics], and create this really awesome experience, and tell the story as powerfully as we can? We made that [latter] decision.”

“D.C.”, one of three guides who will take you through Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise, a new interactive documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada. (Courtesy NFB)

In a sense, the project’s three avatars are the three blind men. They see these stories of private lives—hidden away in the densest buildings, often at the margins of society—in a different light. Old Soul says that their lives are connected by broader worlds we can never see. D.C. says that they think they’re alone, but eyes everywhere are always watching. Agokwe, meanwhile, is mostly a big flirt.

“I got really excited, as a documentarian, to explore the idea of a conversation. How does a documentary become more like an algorithm?” Cizek says. “We decided to take it to a more metaphorical level, and do it in the story itself. The characters became representations of some of the questions I have as a documentarian in terms of having a host or a narrator.”

Flahive, a nearly 30-year veteran of the National Film Board, says that great documentaries are supposed to reveal something right in front of your eyes that you can’t see. From the start of the HIGHRISE series, that something was an anonymous-looking tower on the outskirts of Toronto. But by the end, it was something larger: a statement piece about the ways that place changes people.

“We definitely have parameters for these stories,” Cizek says. “Some of them bind the digital and the highrise in a very profound way. Some of them could just be people living next to you.”

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