Short Takes

    Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued #23
    Edited by AMO, Archis, Pink Tank, NAi
    Designed by Irma Boom

    Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued is the second book installment of the Al Manakh research initiative. While the premier Al Manakh was a canonical foray into Gulf urban studies, Al Manakh 2 focuses on how the region’s major cities are responding to the global economic crisis. Spearheaded by Rem Koolhaas’s AMO and funded entirely by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, Al Manakh 2 brings together over 140 contributors (including Bidoun’s Antonia Carver, Negar Azimi, and Alia Al-Sabi) from around the world. The result is a dense 536-page collection of essays and interviews. The book is illustrated, characteristically, by elaborate information graphics, pie charts, architectural renderings, and maps, and designed by lauded Dutch book designer Irma Boom. Al Manakh 2 profiles six cities in five countries (UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia), while four chapters provide thematic axes. “Crisis and Crises” takes on the lives of the economic crisis in the Gulf. “Vision” explores structural plans concerning connectivity, infrastructure, energy, and water. Within the “Cohabitation” chapter, Al Manakh examines the integration of culture in cities and the particular dynamics of urban living. Finally, “Export Gulf ” illustrates that export is not only about products and models but also about the effects and new forms of influence. Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued picks up where its predecessor left off, providing for an invaluable document and resource for anyone engaged with the life of this swiftly evolving region.

    John & Jane Toll-Free
    Ashim Ahluwalia
    83min, Color, 2005

    Ashim Ahluwalia’s film John & Jane Toll-Free is not a documentary in the conventional sense. Through its observational and poetic gaze, it explores the critical context of a globalized outsourcing call center market between India and the US, while introducing a unique filmmaking practice outside of the studio system in India today. Like other contemporary international filmmakers such as Michael Winterbottom or Jia Zhangke, who explore the gray zone between fiction and documentary, Ahluwalia creates a unique cinematic experience that goes beyond the traditional classification of film genres — an innovative approach that was barely acknowledged by film critics at the time of its initial release, but which audiences now have a chance to see with this new DVD.

    John & Jane’s settings are call centers, workers’ homes, and the newly developed townships of Greater Bombay, where reality manufactures fiction, and vice versa. The six employees of a single call center all take on aliases whose alter egos eventually merge into their private lives. The workers, under pressure from American supervisors to perform without errors of enunciation or pronunciation during long shifts at the center, are all striving for individual goals outside it — from wealth or religion to skin color or simply an American way of life abroad.

    Shot on 35mm in just thirteen days by K. U. Mohanan and Avijit Mukul Kishore, the stunning visual conception, musical score, and sound design create a mesmerizing space for international audiences to experience and reflect upon what globalization means in daily life — in this case, from the other side of the telephone. Ahluwalia used live recorded sound from call center operations recorded during preproduction and shooting (for which he faced serious legal issues during the preparation of the cinematic release, as most of the callers could not be identified afterward to give permission). The legal process is another indication of how Ahluwalia approaches his filmmaking — between the space of the traditional and the nonconventional.

    The distinction between fiction and reality is harder to define today than ever, and Ahluwahlia’s film is highly aware of that. John & Jane narrates beyond the borders of time, space, and cultures — and as such, demands new strategies of criticism and marketing. The film screened only one week in the cinemas of Bombay, and later aired on HBO in the US in 2007, before finally finding distribution through re:frame, a company that operates between documentary and experimental films. Ashim Ahluwalia’s fiction film Miss Lovely (produced by Future East Film) was shot in 2009 in Bombay and is currently in postproduction.

    — Mario Pfeifer

    Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films By Pedro Costa
    Criterion Collection

    This March, the seemingly infallible DVD distributors Criterion Collection released a long-awaited boxed set of three previously impossible-to-see-films by Portuguese director Pedro Costa: Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006). The three films form a hypnotically shot and paced trilogy in Fontainhas, an area of slums outside Lisbon. In all three films, Costa lived and worked with members of a largely immigrant community in the neighborhood, several of whom appear from film to film, and none of whom are professionally trained actors.

    The director’s painstakingly controlled process of shooting numerous takes of the same loosely scripted scenes — until he gets just the right casual, detached quality from his subjects — still has something in common with documentary, but its practiced lines take on the quality of the hyperreal. The result is an uncategorizable portrait of a community that, unfolding over the three quite different films, is spare to the point of brutality, but is contravened at nearly every step with simultaneous moments of beauty.

    The release is significant not only for giving audiences the opportunity to become familiar with these landmark works by Costa, but also for the exceptional “extras” for which Criterion has become known. The four-DVD set includes conversations between Costa and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin about Ossos and Colossal Youth; a video essay by photographer Jeff Wall on Ossos; All Blossoms Again, a feature-length documentary on Costa, Colossal Youth, and the director’s relationship to Fontainhas; two short films by Costa; and a booklet of essays by critics Cyril Neyrat, Ricardo Matos Cabo, Luc Sante, Thom Andersen, and Mark Peranson.