The evening started with a screening of Noon Gun, a short film.
How to recreate The Noon Gun in the privacy of your own home: Wait until late at night, turn on the television to SBS, PBS, The National Geographic Channel, or whatever TV station is showing a National Geographic documentary of the Middle East in the 70s. Sand. Camels. Dusty roads. Peasants telling the camera crew to piss off. Fiddle with the brightness and contrast until the picture appears washed out and blurry. Now take some speed. As soon as it kicks in, call your telephone company. (I use Primus but pretty much any of them – or any company with bad, repetitive hold music will do). Now, with the hold music in your ear, and the speed rushing through your brain, watch the National Geographic special on TV. Congratulations, you are now experiencing something very much like the distastefully-edited, colourless, senseless, hyper-kenitic, poorly-soundtracked Noon Gun.
The original material, shot in the 70s by a hippie-turned-filmmaker-turned-glazier who now lives in Portsea, is really quite good, as far as I could tell. Unlike that last sentence. The problem is, two people with no taste came into his glass shop one day, and decided to do something with this nice man’s home movies. So they digitised them, wiping any trace of colour from the film, broke out a copy of iMovie, and went to town. They also provided the music, which sounded kind of like what the AfroCelts would do if all they had to work with was a copy of GarageBand and some free “world music” loops they downloaded from the Internet. The “message for peace” that gets ham-handedly ingested into this too-long short film is in the form of doves and a cannon.
Lagos / Koolhaas
I always feel funny writing about documentaries, especially ones as academic as Lagos / Koolhaas. Should I talk about the film, or the ideas presented? Okay, I’ll do both. It’s good in this case, because one does not overshadow the other. They’re interesting ideas, presented in an appropriate way.
The film itself (or, more correctly, the video) follows Rem Koolhaas on a few of his trips to Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, and Africa’s most populous city. In recent years, Lagos has had a pretty rough time. In the 90s, the military government let the existing infrastructure pretty much rot away, while not provisioning anything new. Simultaneously, everyone moved to the city, pushing the population numbers well past anything that anyone had ever planned for – and it’s still growing. These facts are shown very clearly, mostly taken from a lecture Koolhaas did at university. There are dramatic still pictures of absolute chaos in the city, plus revealing helicopter shots of the concrete jungle – literally – that Lagos has become. There’s an amazing floating bridge linking, um, something, to, um, somewhere else, bypassing yet another place. It literally curves around some land, like oil from water. My only complaint with the movie itself is that while much of the source footage appears to be DV or better, there is some that looks like it was taken from NTSC VHS masters that spent too much time in the sun, or near large magnets. Not pretty.
The ideas themselves were very interesting as well, and I’d welcome a chance to sit down with Mr Koolhaas and talk them through more fully. Please, gentle reader, take this section with a grain of salt, for I’m relying on my often-flaky memory here, and I haven’t actually read the report that Koolhaas apparently wrote on his time in Lagos.
I think he might be suffering from a bit of tunnel vision when it comes to cities and technological progress. He asserts that the people have a way of organising themselves in interesting ways to overcome the not-so-good things about the city. They sell items in the streets, they have “incredibly efficient” markets literally on the train tracks – they have to pick up and move when the train rolls past. I agree that this is people organisation, but I don’t think it’s necessarily due to progress or technology. Certainly technology is an enabling thing, but I don’t think that people en masse will gravitate to technology just because it’s there. Witness “3G” mobile phones. Only a small percentage of people with access to a 3G network actually have a handset capable of using it. Of that percentage, only a tiny number actually use the expanded features (like video chat, etc) that the network allows. My computer would like the extra bandwidth, but I don’t need it.
He raises a very interesting point just briefly at the end of the film, when Koolhaas talks with a reporter. She talks about how useful it is to know the “big man”. The person that, with a simple phone call, can get you out of jail. The person who can get you tickets to the football game. The person who can talk to the people at the power company and get your power back on more quickly. In short, the person with money and power. There’s a scene a few minutes earlier where a group of young men are chatting up Koolhaas, asking for his business card, introducing themselves: networking. It’s second nature to the people here, as it’s the only way to get a leg up, even the only way to survive. Humans are social animals. In chaos, we bunch together in groups, it’s where we feel safer. If we can trust the other people in our immediate group, we will be safe. If we can’t turn the power back on, we know someone who can. When we’re more comfortable and less threatened, we tend to be more aloof and self-reliant. I believe, unlike Koolhaas, that technology is not the end-game here, it’s the vehicle. People don’t gravitate towards technology because it’s technology. People gravitate towards technology because it enables communication.
The end of the movie seems to suggest that Lagos is well on its way to becoming a “normal” city. Big, yes; but “normal”. Water that works, sewers that work, electricity that stays on for a good long time. Koolhaas states that over the several years he’s been visiting the city, it’s been getting more and more “normal”. My question is, has Koolhaas simply been getting used to Lagos? Further: is Lagos becoming more like other cities, or are other cities becoming more like Lagos?