By Chris Elisara and John Paget. Elisara and Paget are co-founders of First+Main Films and the producers of the Better Cities Film Festival
The last time we drank a cocktail at 30,000 feet, we certainly made it count. We were en route to Abu Dhabi in February 2020 to produce our Better Cities Film Festival in partnership with the United Nations.
The occasion was the 10th Session of the World Urban Forum (aka WUF10). World Urban Forums are not for your average trade show and rubber-chicken circuit punter. As the big biannual event for UN-Habitat and the world’s largest conference on cities, it draws heads of state, governors, mayors, prime ministers, civil servants, journalists, religious leaders, and activists from across the globe. Over the course of one week, they effectively form a small bustling city of fifteen thousand people. They come to discuss urban policy, strike deals, and share knowledge about every imaginable facet of cities. The UN-Habitat Better Cities Film Festival was a part of this teeming mix of urban devotees, embedded on a global platform in our own bespoke movie theatre. Our mission? Screen films, give awards to the best entries, and fire-up the world’s imagination on how to make cities better.
At their best, these elite, wonky, almost surreal international confabs are meant to be a place to exchange views, experiences, and set actions into motion. People from all over the world, from government to grassroots and anywhere in between, gather to articulate our highest ideals, link them with the world’s best ideas about cites, shape up the practical solutions and policies that follow, and see these solutions and polices disseminated on the ground around the globe by the attendees. Sounds good on paper. The cynic – or realist? – might harbor doubts. Nevertheless, there we were, wide-eyed, in a fabulous city, participating in a mind-boggling global event. And, lo and behold, we were thinking day and night about the SDG’s, and whether and how they could really happen. Wait, you say, what is an SDG? Sorry, a little lingo and a few acronyms come with the territory.
SDG’s are Sustainable Development Goals. Seventeen SDG’s were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, and they set out to achieve those goals worldwide by the year 2030.
Think your New Year’s resolution was ambitious? Well, the SDG’s are resolutions on superhero steroids. For example, SDG #1: No Poverty. SDG #2: Zero Hunger. Or how about SDG #7: Affordable and Clean Energy and SDG #12: Responsible Consumption and Production.
But how do the SDG’s apply to a rebounding rustbelt city like Buffalo? Or a small mountain town like Julian? Or to your town or Main Street? These are the questions we pondered while screening films, sipping tea with Sheikhs, and cruising the famed Corniche Promenade on e-scooters.
The following three vignettes are part photo travelogue / part intellectual scribblings that shoot back and forth between the gap of the big, lofty, and abstracted realm of WUF10 and the small, grounded reality of the places we love, live, and work to improve.
We Build the Cities We Imagine
When we had the opportunity to escape the artificial conference metropolis and experience the sights and sounds of the real Abu Dhabi, we didn’t dawdle. Our first stop was Heritage Village. The online description promised we’d experience “traditional aspects of the desert way of living” and be immersed in a “time capsule” that brings “pre-modern UAE to life.” We weren’t disappointed.
This old sepia tone photo, which was taken at one of the Heritage Village exhibits, is of Abu Dhabi.
The photo below is also of Abu Dhabi – one we stopped the taxi to shoot, after being slack-jawed by the immense cluster of modern skyscrapers.
Amazing as the transformation story from a pre-modern village to the world class city that Abu Dhabi is today – and it must be a whopper of a tale – what astonished us is that it all transpired within our very own lifetime!
We can’t speak for other filmmakers. But for two guys who believe a story can change a city, standing in the spot at the Heritage Village where the photo below was taken, we were struck by the awesome power of the human imagination.
What is consciously composed in the camera’s viewfinder in full visceral force, scanning from the pre-modern village in the foreground to the modern city in the background, isn’t the story of hundreds of years of evolving urban development. This is a story of extreme rapid city building. We could have started out life in the hut or the tent pictured in the photo, and today be living in one of the starchitect designed skyscrapers in the background (heaven forbid!). This photo compresses time, the trajectory of urban design, and the civic story of a world class city in one profound image.
Scholars tell us that stories sink deep into our bones and picture for us what constitutes the good life. We then lean into those stories, as characters in the narrative we’ve absorbed. If that’s true, then where are people getting the stories and narratives that inspire the cities we’re imagining, designing, and building today? Are today’s city builders, who can transform villages to megalopolises in a single lifetime, influenced by stories that inspire them to design and build cities and communities in ways best fit for human happiness? Or are they under the influence of bad stories and distorted ideas that can lead to inferior places being designed and built – places that lead to loneliness, inequity, and ruin?
Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” But it’s not a closed loop. Because stories also powerfully shape our character and our imaginations, and Churchill knew this best. We can do only what we dream. We can build only what we can imagine. So we better have good stories to kickstart and shape our imaginations.
And that brings us to the bonfire.
The Film Festival is a Bonfire
Light a fire at a social gathering and without prompting people with beaming smiles will soon be gathered around and the stories will be flowing. Anthropologists tell us this is no accident. It’s deeply ingrained. It’s a vestige of millions of years of gathering around fires in groups for protection, cooking, warmth, socializing, and telling stories that built our social and cultural bonds. A fire ring is civilizing technology.
Some say television is modernity’s fire ring. And what we call television has evolved, with on-demand services, social media, and ubiquitous private screens. And yet humans still can’t resist a good old storytelling bonfire. Our film festival was WUF10’s bonfire. In the course of four days, we screened more than 50 films from over 20 countries. People from all over the world gathered ‘round to watch the flickering light and share stories. They left the hearth with heads and hearts full of fresh inspiration, new connections, and renewed courage to make a difference.
In the Better Transportation category, we gave the top award to Cycologic, a short film about the challenges faced by a Ugandan urban planner working in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. She’s working to make the streets of Kampala safer for cyclists, which brings multiple benefits to the city: better public health and the reduction of traffic congestion, air pollution, and carbon emissions. Her appreciation for cycling is something she gained firsthand while studying for her planning degree in Europe. Once we selected the film to win the award, we contacted the Uganda delegation at WUF10 to share the good news and invite them to the award presentation. We discovered the mayor of Kampala was attending WUF10! So when the award was presented, he attended the film screening, along with several other government ministers. And he gave a short speech, embracing the films ideas and challenges. It was a powerful moment that only could have happened because we lit the bonfire.
The Best Feature Film was awarded to Soufra. It’s the remarkable story of Mariam Shaar, a Syrian refugee living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Mariam, a dogged social entrepreneur, started a successful catering business that touches the lives of hundreds of employees, customers, kids and families in the camp. Captivated by the film, the international panel of judges was united in its praise of a story showcasing how the human spirit, ingenuity, and pure grit overcame a steep mountain of obstacles all too common to people with refugee status around the world.
Capitalizing on its award status, we were able to host a VIP screening for Soufra in the UN media room attended by ambassadors, UN representatives, journalists, filmmakers, investors, and other invited guests. When the lights came up, we facilitated a power-packed panel discussion led by Myrna Atalla, the Executive Director of Alfanar, the Arab region’s first venture philanthropy organization and seed investor in Mariam’s business. The topic: “How to invest in city inclusion?” They tackled key questions concerning the role of social investment, women’s empowerment, and sustainable development in urban and refugee contexts. Throw another log on the fire.
A little closer to home, the winner of the Better Innovation and Technology award went to Pushing Zero. It’s the story of Chris Parker, an innovative developer building mixed-use, mixed-income, carbon-neutral infill housing in downtown Salt Lake City. In the large sweep of important themes – climate change, clean renewable energy, economic inclusion, mixed-income housing, mixed-used urban design – one of the most important unsung issues in the film concerns how to solve critical social problems with technology. In this case, can we build affordable housing and carbon neutral buildings, without subjugating our humanity to new technologies in the process? A balance must be struck between the humanics and mechanics, and that comes through in Parker’s story.
The entire film producing team – Parker, the film’s producer, James Campbell, and its director Chris Burke – flew from Salt Lake City to attend the film festival and share their carbon neutral energy solutions for housing in the forums and discussions at WUF10.
The sponsor of the Better Innovation and Technology category, CitiIQ, came to WUF10 to personally present the award to the Pushing Zero team and immerse themselves in the UN world — a first for them. We introduced CitiIQ to the head of UN-Habitat’s data division. A few months later CitiIQ was helping the world fight COVID-19 through a joint project that daily updates COVID-19 infections in thousands of cities around the world through their online UN-Habitat City COVID-19 Tracker. As Robert Ndugwa, head of data and analytics for UN-Habitat, puts it, “With the front-line battle against the pandemic often fought at a city level, timely information is critical in managing scarce public resources. Through this platform, UN-Habitat has offered a decision support tool based on the most current data for those helping cities around the world to combat COVID-19.” Light the bonfire, then let it do its thing.
Do the Small Thing. Do the Big Thing. Value Both.
Have you ever seen an old black and white photo of Robert Moses, Le Corbusier, or some other architect, urban planner, or urban developer leaning over their scale model of a redevelopment project, or some new building they had designed? They look all-powerful as they dominate their model to convey, “Look, people, this is what I’m capable of doing.” They are demi-gods, and us mere mortals, represented by specks on the model if included at all, should trust them. They know exactly what they are doing, and their development is “what’s best for us.” Well, we now know that’s bunk. Pure posturing. It’s hard not to simultaneously laugh and inwardly cringe at those old photos.
But if we’re honest, we began to feel the same way toward ourselves, attending WUF10. Why? Like other similar well-meaning global events, it’s enormous. Complex. A highly abstracted and high-powered affair. It is a universe removed from where the real placemaking in cities and neighborhoods is happening. You can feel like nothing at this level is ever going to filter down from these elite halls to the street to make a real difference. So, you take self-mocking photos at a big audacious model to keep your feet on the ground. Yes, you’re glad to be hosting the film festival in partnership with the UN. But don’t let it go to your head.
There’s a rift in our society, and it manifests itself in our field of work too. Its stark reality hit home recently in a Zoom Christmas party with some urbanist friends when a person finally slammed his fist on the table and shouted, “change can only happen at the local level.” Forget anything big — like analyzing social and cultural trends with an eye to intercede for the common good (which we were discussing at the time). Never count on banking or government to come through with the right policy, or to be effective at anything. Doubt all large-scale projects, large-scale reforms, and large-scale organizations. The only scale where things can happen, where change can occur, is at the small, local scale. The UN? Forget about it! That was his take, and he dropped the mic.
We’re sympathetic. Our Small Town Spirit series, for example, champions local stories and local solutions. But for us, we’re not putting our bet on just one locus of change. We’re all in with the SDG’s and we fully back Proud Places – a fresh new voice empowering you to be the spark that can change things. We’re bringing the film festival to the global stage at the United Nations, to the national stage at our flagship festival in Detroit, and to smaller towns and communities with Best of Fest screenings. Why? Because an environmentalist friend once taught me that no matter how much you care for the health of a particular stream, forest, or farm, it can all be wiped out by one bad policy and law. Listening to our black and minority friends, we’ve learned the same truth from their experience. So, we need to somehow get big and small working in tandem for the common good.
Our next stop? In 2022, we’ll be taking the film festival to the 11th World Urban Forum in Poland. But between now and then, we hope to come to Paducah, Peoria, Poughkeepsie and all points between. Our goal is to bring Better Cities Film Festival to any place that needs a bonfire to foster community and spark imagination.