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Cities on Speed – Four Megacities Captured on Reel

Four mega cities, four challenges, four visions, four films.

The opening captions of the 2009 documentary film series by The Danish Film Institute titled 'Cities on Speed', just about sum up the content of the four episodes. As the drama unfolds in each of these episodes, so does the relationship between civilizational achievement and human tragedy. And this about sums up the mega city contradiction brought out by the films.

The Four Mega Cities Documented in 'Cities on Speed'

The four key episodes of the series are directed by four different film makers, each of whom was selected by the Institute via a call for submission. Each tells a character-driven story of one of four different mega cities in the world and I recommend they be seen in this order; Shanghai Space, Cairo Garbage, Mumbai Disconnected & Bogota Change.

Shanghai Space definitely leans towards the human tragedy aspect, yet shows how adverse situations can lead humans to innovate. Through the lens of a photographer who spends a lifetime documenting 'change' in the city, it shows how the ground is simply shrinking for Shanghai, which draws about half a million people migrating to it every year. The result is that a new building is completed everyday, as old neighbourhoods undergo 'efficient' redevelopment ever more often. And as exhaustion of the land seems inevitable, we learn how some planners are thinking of turning to building underground cities as the next area for habitation.

Cairo Garbage simply takes you by surprise with its unique – but not uncommon – garbage disposal problem. Habituated to having a 'garbage community' collecting garbage door-to-door and recycling it almost entirely in 'garbage villages', a recent sudden population explosion combined with the degrading health conditions in these garbage villages, has made the traditional garbage disposal mechanism obsolete. The result is garbage piles left for weeks on major streets, even as foreign contracting companies try to educate the population – of which, comically, the government has simply lost count! – on how to use the garbage bins correctly and how to dispose what garbage they manage to collect into pits in the middle of the desert.

Mumbai Disconnected is a satirical representation of the typical Indian urban situation. But despite the satire, it is the truth that is represented. Documenting the process of the sea-link design and implementation, the difficulties of the over-burdened rail network, the extensive traffic problems, and the celebrated launch of the one lakh (US$1,800) TATA Nano city car as the ultimate middle-class aspiration, the film accurately portrays the 2009 state of Mumbai. As the city's elite fight against rising pollution levels, the poorer masses pressure the government for development of transporatation infrastructure, and in the absence of any consensus neither of the problems get any decisive attention.

Bogota Change is definitely to be saved for last viewing since it is an extraordinary story bordering unbelievability. The manner in which Mayors Anatanas Mockus and Enrique Penalosa pull off an almost unthinkable urban transformation, will make a believer out of anybody that profound urban change is in fact possible in today's world. More than anything else it shows what an honest and dynamic leadership can do for a city and its society at large. That is, in the span of a decade, driving a 22% decrease in automobile traffic, accompanied by a 50% reduction in traffic fatalities and a 70% reduction in homicide, along with a host of other staggering feats.

The films present a very unbiased view of the situations they document. In doing that, they do not direct or influence the viewer towards any one philosophy of change or being. Further, they are a convincing watch since they show live footage, shot over the period of documentation and well edited to nullify any unnecessary drama out of the real time situations. For anyone fascinated by big city contradictions, this set of films is a worthy indulgence. Check out the trailer below: