Most academic literature on cinema uses familiar framing mechanisms such as author studies, national cinema or genre lenses. A less typical organising principle animates Igor Krstić’s book: the representation of slums throughout the history of cinema. As he notes, film scholars have lavished attention on the cinematic city and the question of landscape in film, while largely ignoring recurring screen representations of the slums which are so prominent in cities around the world. With nearly one billion people residing in slums, Slums on Screen: World Cinema and the Planet of Slums aims to rectify this academic blind spot.
Part One of the book: “Global Currents” takes a big picture, transnational approach, beginning in the 1890s and proceeding largely chronologically to cover the 20th century. It opens by exploring pre-cinematic representations of slum life in late 19th century popular media (principally journalism and photography), sketching the early critical themes and tropes that continue to dominate the field to this day. Slums as locations are inherently politically charged, so it is unsurprising that recurring themes emerge. Many films depicting slums weather accusations of voyeurism and exploitation and moral judgments against both slum dwellers and filmmakers. The plight of children inhabiting slums is another abiding narrative motif, from some of the most prominent Italian neo-realist films through to Pixote (Héctor Babenco, 1981) and Cidade de Deus (City of God, Fernando Meirelles, 2002). It is no coincidence that Krstić’s first major case study, Los Olvidados (Luis Buñuel, 1950), deals with the issue of child crime through its young protagonists, or that the two longest case studies in the book relate to City of God and Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008). Each of these films uses the template of street kids as central focalising figures, through whose point of view the audience explores the space of the slum. There is a level of verisimilitude to this narrative approach also, as from New York in the 1880s to contemporary Rio de Janeiro, Lagos and Mumbai, the demographics of the slum skew young.
Other key motifs can be traced back to photojournalist Jacob Riis’s groundbreaking work of social documentary photography, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York 1. With Riis often “disguised as a flâneur,” Krstić describes his images as displaying “a sense of the ad hoc, spontaneous and non-manipulated” (p. 50). This approach is an early example of the non-interventionist ‘window on the world’ style which has ultimately become so contested given the vexed issue of how to accurately and ethically portray slum life. As Krstić recounts, even Luis Buñuel, still most often referred to as a surrealist filmmaker, was moved to repeatedly claim the documentary value of Los Olvidados in order to validate its authenticity. The films catalogued throughout Slums on Screen illustrate how stylistic approaches wax and wane over time, oscillating between detached, ostensibly objective portrayals at one extreme, and more immersive, hypermediated accounts at the other end of the spectrum. The book fascinatingly charts the manner in which notions of realism are continually re-framed, not in a constant evolutionary fashion, but through refashioning as old and new media (photography, the novel, cinema, television, video games, webcasts) respond to and interact with each other.
In considering these profound ontological, stylistic and narratological questions, Slums on Screen avoids relying on a fixed theoretical lens. The book is based on Krstić’s doctoral thesis, and as he surveys a broad range of theoretical constructs, he proves a dab hand at synthesising different approaches. Examining documentary traditions and shifts in notions of “realism” more generally, he canvasses the work of André Bazin, Bill Nichols, Eleftheria Thanouli, Lucia Nagib and Cecilia Mello, as well as filmmaker theorists such as John Grierson, and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin from the French cinéma-vérité movement. At the junction of cinema and philosophy he invokes a familiar suite of theorists, including Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Thomas Elsaesser, Slavoj Žižek, Gilles Deleuze, Siegfried Kracauer and Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Generous in its scope, Slums on Screen uses case studies of films spread across the past century and from around the globe. Krstić’s approach is open and inquisitive, taking as its touchstone Robert Stam and Ella Shohat’s Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media 2. From the beginning, he declares his intention to take a polycentric approach, tracing links and comparing close readings of selected films in a nuanced manner, always respecting and explaining the relevant context. His professed aim is to upend conventional binaries such as fiction/non-fiction, first world/third world, global/local, which can work to close off genuine enquiry. Krstić’s analysis of Moi, Un Noir (Jean Rouch, 1958) represents the acme of this method, dissecting how Rouch, then a middle-aged, academic, white, French director pioneered his ethnofiction approach in portraying locals from the Treichville neighbourhood in the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. As these local characters take on nicknames from cinema stars (e.g. Edward G. Robinson and Eddie Constantine) and provide feedback on Rouch’s footage, questions of collaboration, authorship and narration are up for grabs. In this vein, the case studies provide fertile ground for exploring a wide range of debates and practices from differing perspectives, such as the ethics of representation, preferred stylistic modes, the uses and significance of technological advances, and “the ‘push-pull’ dynamic between global currents and local contexts” (p. 258).
Chapter Three, “Documentary Mappings”, further exemplifies this approach, dissecting the link between the documentary tradition and the representation of slums by studying how different types of films map urban space. Krstić’s initial foray here conforms to a well-trodden path in documentary genealogy, juxtaposing the poetic mode employed by city symphony films such as Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Walther Ruttmann, 1927), Manhatta (Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921) and Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice (1930), with the more didactic, expository approach of films produced by the John Grierson-led GPO Film Unit. However, when comparing the Grierson-produced Housing Problems (Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey, 1935) and the interactive and multimodal DVD/website Lagos Wide & Close (Bregtje van der Haak, 2005), based on the work of “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas, he notes that despite the obvious differences, both are organised around “the prototypical problem/solution structure of the argument-based expository mode” (p. 87). The kicker is in Koolhaas’s counterintuitive approach, which leads him to regard “the supposed problem (informality, chaos, unregulated sprawl) not as a problem, but as a solution for how rapidly expanding cities […] can organize themselves.” (p. 87)
Part Two of the book, titled “Local Expressions”, devotes a large slab of analysis to two films in particular: City of God and Slumdog Millionaire. Like neo-realist films such as Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio de Sica, 1948) and Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, Roberto Rossellini, 1948), as well as Los Olvidados, both these films use the recurring device of the street kid’s point of view. The shift in hemispheres in City of God and Slumdog Millionaire maps the development of slums in the new mega-cities, orienting the viewer to “perceive the mutating socio-historical realities of ‘arrival cities’ in the global South.” (p. 110) Together with a prior chapter entitled “Digital Realisms”, which dissects Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas trilogy, Ossos, (Bones, 1997), No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room, 2002) and Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth, 2006), this section moves us into the 21st century. Tracking the shift to digital cinema, it investigates the intersection between postmodern practice, interactivity, docufictions and a hypermediated form of realism i.e. “a form of realism that does not conceal its status as a mediation and which corresponds with our new digital ‘realities’, our ubiquitous screen environments and permanent immersion in (new) mediascapes.” (p. 253) The stylistic self-consciousness of this hypermediated form is worlds away from the type of “window on the world” realist style that emphasised the effacement of the filmmaker.
The analysis of City of God is contextualised within a history of representations of favelas in Brazilian cinema, from feature films romanticising samba culture in favelas, to films adhering to the neo-realist tradition, and finally to the more radical (both politically and aesthetically) Cinema Novo of Glauber Rocha and his associates. Krstić sees City of God as particularly in dialogue with the latter movement, notwithstanding the employment of a hypermediated form of realism in its shooting and editing strategies. In fact, this style serves Rocha’s philosophy well, allowing for the representation of the lives of marginalised favela dwellers through a “cinema that not simply ‘depicts’ hunger and the violence resulting from it, but is simultaneously hungry and violent itself too” (cited on p. 200).
Krstić employs a similar strategy in relation to Slumdog Millionaire. He traces the film’s lineage through Indian film history, including its recycling of earlier Bombay cinema genres, such as gangster films, family melodramas and the homeless/street kid film, the representation of slums in Bollywood cinema and the influence of and connection to Italian neo-realism at a transnational level. He notes that the mixture of the film’s subject matter and its commercially motivated rags-to-riches template removes it from any claim to being a realistic portrait of the city and accounts for some of the cruder critiques of the film as “poverty porn” (p. 233). Having acknowledged Slumdog Millionaire’s rejection of a conventionally realist approach, Krstić focuses on the film’s presentational aesthetics, including its attempts to capture the rapidly changing city of Bombay “through a kinetic camera and editing style”, on display from the immersive opening chase scene (p. 243). He also sees this visceral, affective dimension in the film’s emphasis on its protagonists’ vulnerability, such as through repeated depictions of characters sleeping in public places.
This book will be of interest to a wide range of readers including, but not limited to, those interested in the shifting boundaries between fiction and non-fiction and the politics and ideology of representing reality, cultural studies, national cinema, globalisation and transnational cinema. All the case studies are thorough, detailing historical context and the intersection between ideology, history, culture and style. In what is clearly a passion project, Krstić’s ambition to tell a story that has been absent up to this point is admirable. As he says in his introduction, when it comes to the topic of slums “one cannot isolate aesthetics from political and ethical concerns; instead one needs to consider them as indissolubly entangled” (p. 2). Undertaking nothing less than a genealogy of the representation of slums in popular media, harking back to the pre-cinematic era, Krstić has taken on a huge challenge. Cataloguing a large group of thematically connected films, he deftly analyses shifting and recurring currents across time and space in this absorbing and accessible study.
Igor Krstić, Slums on Screen: World Cinema and the Planet of Slums (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)