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The NFB's innovative Out my Window online documentary looks out of Toronto's windows and beyond

Many years ago, I lived in a grim specimen of a highrise. It still looms over near Jarvis and Carlton, and I'm certain the elevator still smells of someone else's food. There was nothing aspirational or even interesting about the particular highrise where I lived, but living in one for the first time was one of my rites of passage as a newcomer to Toronto from small-town Ontario. Memories of my time on the east side of Yonge Street inevitably surfaced in my mind as I navigated Out My Window, a new Toronto-produced 360 degree online documentary, one of the first of its kind in the world.

Produced by the National Film Board and directed by Katerina Cizek, the documentary has the deceptively simple mission of guiding you through stories of highrise-dwellers in Toronto and around the world, a type of housing more and more people find themselves in. As it says on the opening screen, "The towers in the world, the world in the towers." Through an innovative technique of stitching photos together to construct 360 degree scenes, viewers are able to make themselves at home in these apartments, browsing the interiors casually, and going deeper into embedded stories at any point. Hours of content, including multiple music videos, are navigable at your own pace, and in several other ways: through a visual interface that looks like a building; through a map; or by browsing the faces of the featured residents. Even the method of directing is novel: Cizek led some direction via Skype, Facebook, and email.

Clicking Toronto on the map, we visit the home of Amchok, who lives in the West Lodge Building in Parkdale with his family and a stuffed yak. One of 3000 Tibetans in Toronto (see our Yonge Street video on Parkdale's Tibetan community), Amchok escaped Tibet by climbing a mountain range on foot, at night, over the course of a month. His apartment is clean and relatively uncluttered, making details like a Connect 4 board (and of course, the aforementioned stuffed yak) stand out.  He is a musician, and his music keeps his connection to his homeland strong.  In the 360 degree music video, he is shown playing traditional Tibetan music, a song called "Snowland," with his family and friends.

Cizek says in her Director's Statement: "To be human in this century is -- more than ever before -- to be urban." There is a strong social justice message in the piece, in particular, highlighting how the peripheries where many highrises are built are too often ignored by downtown politics. Out My Window, and the larger multi-year Highrise project by the NFB that it is part of, might be one way to bridge realities between suburban and urban and raise awareness, but Cizek also insists that the periphery needs to be physically brought back into the fabric of the city. "In some places it may mean proper access to public transit (Toronto), in other places it might mean other forms of infrastructure like water, roads, electricity (Istanbul). We also need to link these realities culturally, in both directions (Amsterdam [as depicted in Out My Window] is a great example of doing this right)."

In terms of doing it right, the highrises have lessons to teach planners and politicians, if they are listening, in terms of local needs. The informal and illegal economies of the highrises are often harmless, quotidian services like barbers, and fresh vegetable delivery. Cizek says that these local entrepreneurs "...are technically illegal due to zoning and permits, but are vital to the communities: halal meat distributor on the third floor, daycare on the seventh, etc." In Toronto, the Tower Renewal project aims to address and foster some of this entrepreneurial spirit.

Some highrises featured in Out My Window are actively being rehabilitated, like the Bijlmermeer complex in Amsterdam, a city with an incredibly competitive housing market. Others were never built properly in the first place, with little chance of that being corrected, as in the enormous Alamar complex in Havana. Even in neglected highrises, the communities formed and views out over the city somehow make up for it: the residents of the dilapidated Alamar complex in Havana sing about their leaky, imperfect apartments and they make it sound positively joyous. Despite the cheer in the 360 degree music videos and other touching moments, Cizek wisely decided not to excise the ugly realities, meaning it isn't all feel-good content. Viewers won't have to interact with Out My Window long before they are introduced to realities such as roach infestations, neglectful landlords, murderous thugs hijacking buildings, and faulty piping causing human waste to ruin the local beach.

In the documentary Amchok looks out his window over Toronto, wondering who else is out there in the neighbouring highrises. With the largest concentration of highrises in North America outside Manhattan, chances are good that Amchok would be able to find many other kindred spirits. Exploring Out My Window extends the invitation to anyone to see who else is out there, how they live, and what we have in common.

Michelle Kasprzak is a Canadian writer and curator living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She is currently Project Director at McLuhan in Europe 2011, a cultural network project that will celebrate Marshall McLuhan's impact on European art and culture through a series of manifestations to occur across Europe in 2011, the 100th anniversary of his birth.

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