The City That Holds Us

Paige Dunn-Rankin
Dec 27, 2018 · 4 min read
Courtesy of The Life-Sized City: Tel Aviv

As the audience filed into the glass-walled theater room at SPUR, each person received a piece of paper with a question like “Where in the city do you feel most yourself?” or “How does the city hold you?” They could write answers to these prompts (to be collected and anonymously shared later), and as the lights went down, they could imagine each short film as an answer of sorts, sometimes subversive, often indirect.

SF Urban Film Fest founder Fay Darmawi welcomed a full house at SPUR. Photo by Omeed Manocheri

“How did the city cause you to lose (or gain) part of your identity?” was one of the night’s questions. In New York Woman by Martin Pizarro Veglia, a young woman dreams of going to New York City so much that the city becomes part of her, her body a transparent window onto the skyline. In the satirical film Life in Grey, by Leonardi Martinelli, Brazil outlaws colors as part of an austerity measure, a reminder (albeit hyperbolic) of the power that our environment can have over every aspect of our experience.

In #6261, filmmaker Kimura Byol sent 100 letters to addresses that shared her adoption number, 6261, in her home city of Montreal. Through interviews with 11 of the families that responded, she portrays a diverse city that’s adopted all its residents in one way or another. But a new place can’t hold us until we’re ready. In Al Ghorba, an animated short by Alia Hijaab, the protagonist is a refugee whose nightly dreams of Syria, painted in rich reds and yellows, contrast with her daily life in Canada, where her apartment is a blue box floating in blackness. Her relatives’ voices on the other end of the phone tell her, “Everything has changed, you’re stuck in the past.” She responds, “The past is all I have.”

Courtesy of Al Ghorba

In The Life-Sized City: Tel Aviv, an episode of a Canadian TV series, host Mikael Colville-Andersen tours a complicated city struggling to live up to its reputation for liberalism and diversity. To combat problems with infrastructure and racism, Tel Avivians are redefining their city from the grassroots; without waiting for help or permission from the government, they’re planting gardens in unused lots, running bus lines on Saturdays, starting schools for children of all religions, and cleaning up underwater waste. Activist Robert Ungar’s Onya Collective is turning an abandoned transit station into a creative space for refugee musicians and journalists. As he puts it, “The possibility of being dead…is radicalizing the culture. There’s a kind of urgency.”

The evening’s panel was made up of the program producers and advisors for the film festival, with Ungar seeming to teleport through the screen to moderate. He asked the panelists the same questions the audience had been given. Susie Smith, a documentary filmmaker, said that in the city, “I love being able to be a million people at the same time.” Fay Darmawi, founder of the SF Urban Film Festival, recently drew strength from the city in a time of illness, lying in bed listening to the heartbeat of urban life. Omeed Manocheri, a multimedia producer and artist, and Robin Abad Ocubillo, a planner, designer, and self-identifying “urbanerd,” both came to the city from the suburbs as young adults. They were supported, enriched, and forever changed. Ron Sundstrom, the film festival’s humanities advisor and a professor at USF, appreciates the city because it puts us in contact with “our moral doppelgängers,” people facing tough circumstances we might have just as easily been dealt.

From left: Panelists Fay Darmawi, Ron Sundstrom, Robin Abad Ocubillo, Omeed Manocheri, and Susie Smith. Photo by Rebecca Shostak

Finally, the panelists collected and read some of the audience responses to the evening’s questions. “Where in the city do you feel most yourself?” One person had written, “From my window, I can see the hospital where I was born.” The many different responses were reminders that the city isn’t just a place — it’s something much more organic, something we’re always shaping, and shaped by.

Dive into the panel discussion:

This event took place on November 12, 2018 at SPUR in San Francisco, and was co-presented by the Jewish Film Institute. For more information about the SF Urban Film Fest, visit their website.

Paige Dunn-Rankin

Written by

Writer and editor in San Francisco. Former Google product manager. Working on a novel about tech. Blog:

SF Urban Film Fest

SF Urban Film Fest gathers a diverse, engaged audience and uses the power of storytelling to spark discussion and civic engagement around urban issues. We focus on what it means to live together in a city and make urban planning more equitable and inclusive.

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