AAFF 2016: Architecture and Film Converge in Maboneng

Dr Alex Parker, architect and planner from Wits University, chairs a panel discussion at the screening of Sizigia by architect film maker Dr Luis Urbano of the University of Porto at the Architect Africa Film Festival held at The Bioscope, Maboneng, Johannesburg.

Award winning South African director and film maker Dumisani Pakhathi and the uniquely multi dimensional  Kgao Mashego completed the panel which addressed the convergence, or intersection,  of architecture and film, as a reflection on Urbano's film Sizigia.

Two very interesting points emerged as dominant themes, both introduced by Dumisani Pakhathi and supported by Luis Urbano; architects deal in brick and mortar reality, whereas film makers have the liberty, ability and frequent necessity to create fake reality through the use of animation, sets and photographic instruments. The second point addressed the fact that film delves deeply into memory, as does architecture.

Traditionally, during the analogue age, an architect's room had four walls and the film maker's only three; film makers had to use architecture as a backdrop or as a prop when the fourth wall was required – they were dependent on it for key photographic elements such as 360 degree views and shots requiring panning freedom. This is no longer true - digital technology has empowered the film maker to completely reshape reality at will, with no particular reference to architecture whatsoever.

In this way you could say that the film maker is now the architect of his artificial reality's environment.  Kgao Mashego's perfectly executed Fictions: En Route City, one of the films selected for the AAFF2016, is an excellent example of how digital freedom has the ability to evoke memory, emotion and imagination and merge those elements into a cohesive multi-dimensional narrative.

Digital technology impacted on architects equally; architects were empowered with the ability to make films about their yet to be built future buildings with as much ease as they could make a film about their completed buildings. The advent of BIM (building information modelling) played a particularly leading role in the introduction of film to architecture. Over the last ten years the humble “fly through” has matured into the deployment of film productions in functions as diverse as architectural activism, research, design development, education, documentation, presentation and marketing.

The professions of architecture and film making have not merged, of course. But they have converged and are currently running parallel in close proximity to each other. The audience was left to conclude that this is a stirring time for both professions, a time of great opportunity and possibility, and a time for collaboration and the mutual understanding of each other's roles, technologies and skills.

Architect Luis Urbano was clear about his role, “I am an architect who made a film about a building – I am not a film maker”. The film Sizigia is testament to that; it is executed with the love, care and precision that an architect would typically lavish on the creation of a building. Urbano elevates the building, the hero of the film, to the role of principal actor and uses one single human being as the prop in the execution of the narrative. In this role reversal Urbano gives life and presence to Alvaro Siza's iconic building through the visual and the emotive narrative that unfolds to a soundtrack completely devoid of dialogue or music, and which focuses completely on the myriad of voices which the building emits in the deployment of its activation functions, whilst conveying an emotive audio visualisation of the building's active period. It is clever, it is frugal, it is minimalist – and very successful, bringing to mind that the battered  axiom “less is more” remains forever a useful weapon in the architects' arsenal.

In response to this observation by a member of the audience, the ever sharp, articulate and animated Dumisani Pakhathi asked whether elevating a building to principal actor status would not result in the film being classified a documentary. This is an excellent question and highlights the brilliance of Urbano's work; Sizigia is a film in every sense of the word and has none of the qualities or attributes of a documentary - other than the use of an inert object as principal actor.

The AAFF 2016 has proven to be surprisingly successful in a numerous ways and those fortunate enough to have attended it would have left inspired, energised, uplifted, informed, connected, entertained and increasingly aware of the close relationship and synergies between film making and architecture as well as the opportunities presented to both disciplines.

The outstanding success of the Architect Africa Film Festival 2016 edition was made possible by the enthusiastic support and generous patronage of Ghanean architect, academic and author Professor Lesley Lokko of the University of Johannesburg's Graduate School of Architecture. Professor Lokko's contribution to architectural education and the academic ethos in South Africa has been both ground breaking and inspiring. The professionalism, energy, network and sponsorship connections  which were enabled by her tireless efforts and resilient nature resulted in the perfect architectural cultural event that was this week's Architect Africa Film Festival in Maboneng.

A perfect cultural event requires and demands a perfectly appropriate venue and The Bioscope in Maboneng provided just that – and more. The joy of being out in the real world, in the open air, away from the depressive sterile environment of Johannesburg's revolting glass and tile malls was overwhelming and invigorating. Maboneng is not a place, it is not a destination nor a precinct; Maboneng is an experience, a tactile peek into the future city we want our Joburg to be.

Architect and writer Karen Eicker, director of the Architects' Collective and the creator of the Architect Africa Film Festival event, should be justifiable proud of the level of participation, evolution and professionalism which this event has attained as well as the meaningful contribution it has made to the pride, self respect and development of African film makers and architects.

Editorial by Pedro Buccellato