Slums are often considered a blight on a city, a place where the very poor live in shambles, far from the glass and steel of the modern (read:expensive) areas. No one wants to live in a slum, and city planners and managers don’t want their municipalities to become one either; it’s the very symbol, for most people, of urban decay and a society in decline. Director Jean-Nicolas Orhon begs to differ, though. His thesis in Slums: Cities of Tomorrow is that slums are, well, the cities of tomorrow. How can a society of inequality cope with a growing population and the desperate need to accommodate them? Does slum even mean the same thing in the 21st century as opposed to what it did when the phrase was first coined in 19th century Britain?
According to the film, there are about a billion squatters in the world, and some expect that those numbers will double by the end of the century. Since presumably some of us will be living there one of these days, what does a slum look like? Orhon and his cameras visit multiple slums around the world including India, Turkey, Brazil and New Jersey? Yes, New Jersey. A tent city, or “informal settlement,” is set-up in the woods at Lakewood, New Jersey, where a small community has taken root and is shepherded by a local pastor who’s fighting not just for the salvation for these lost souls, but to make sure they can keep a roof, such as it is, over their head.
But while Orhon champions these pioneering New Jerseyans, one of the things that might have been missing from the story is that in America, living in a slum is still mostly a choice. For millions of others, however, it’s not. There’s also the fact that the Jersey woods are more picturesque and comfortable than your average urban slum, which has been lived in for decades and has neither the benefit of pre-planning nor the access to natural resources and clean water. One gets the impression that the New Jersey example is the “ideal” slum, but is there such a thing really?
The interesting thing about Slums is that it isn’t a “pity me” venture. Orhon accentuates the positives of slums versus public housing, including some of the paradoxes. In Turkey, people living in slums are being moved to brand new public housing, but in their new home they are barred from setting up home businesses and markets, the same type of activities they used to do that helped them earn a living. The animals too, the chickens especially who helped feed them in the slums, are banned. Sure, these people now have someplace nice to stay, but how are they to make money to live? How can they feed themselves? Those are questions that nobody has answers for.
It doesn’t matter to the powers that be though, because the government is obsessed with paving over the slums and creating what they call the “non-slum world.” The film tries to submit that this is impractical and that, indeed, we all need to change our way of thinking. It introduces an idea that might be in the back of all our minds, but is never really articulate: we all feel poor, even the very rich, and we hate to be reminded that we could be poorer. That describes the drive towards greater levels of greed, particularly amongst the already very wealthy, and slums, a visceral visual of poverty, is a reminder no one wants of how far they can fall.
Surprisingly, Slums: Cities of Tomorrow more often than not can be quite analytical despite the apparent sympathy for the subjects. It’s a well structured debate piece that’s fairly one-sided, but a film like this I don’t think needs objectivity. The word “slum” conjures powerful images to the contrary of its message even before the movie begins. True, the slum as we conventionally understand it, is probably not somewhere you want to be, but can it be reclaimed like so many other terms that were once negative in their connotations? Orhon argues that yes, it can, and in a world desperate for solutions to housing, slums represent a greater sense of freedom and adaptability than other options like government housing.
One is reminded of the old Herman Melville quote, “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.” Slums: Cities of Tomorrow puts forth many preposterous notions of its own, but with an open mind you can’t help but wonder if some of them don’t make a lot of sense. The world isn’t getting any bigger, so maybe some of our ideas should.
Despite the initial, absurdist idea of promoting slums, Slums: Cities of Tomorrow makes a compelling case for the open-minded futurist.