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Within Formal Cities - Film Review (Transitions Film Festival 2018)

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by Rhiannon Bristow-Stagg (subscribe)
Freelance writer and photographer with an interest in science communication. Always looking for new experiences and discoveries!
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Learning from informal communities across South America
Within Formal Cities is a project by Abe Drechsler and Brian Gaudio to document housing and infrastructure projects in five cities across South America.

The documentary explores self-built houses in the favelas of Rio through to government-funded housing projects designed by world-famous architects. The detail around incremental housing is especially interesting and could have been explored further.

Within Formal Cities raises many fundamental questions about the purpose of architecture some may see good design as frivolous, but this documentary helps us understand how it can make lives better. It doesn't draw any conclusions or take a position on these social problems, it merely reveals them.

It does present some alarming statistics around the amount of people expected to be in slums or social housing by 2050. Yet, for all the danger around favelas, even the documentary makers are struck by how they felt so 'alive' at the street level.

The approach of observation rather than activism, has meant in many locations Abe and Brian are given free access inside the homes of residents, which allows us to see how these homes function on a day to day level for real people.

The theme of community is woven throughout the documentary, with emphasis on their involvement at every stage, building trust and rapport, and the challenge for architects to relish the unknown and design with their communities not for them.

In a technical sense, the documentary structure is loose in parts and at times the background music drowns out the content, but then again this style fits perfectly with the concept of 'everyday' lives.

Within Formal Cities will appeal to a wide audience but will be of particular interest to those in the built environment, community development and engagement fields.

The Transitions Film Festival showcases groundbreaking documentaries about the social and technological innovations, revolutionary ideas and trailblazing change makers that are leading the way to a better world. See the full program at

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