City Life: The Human Scale

Danish filmmaker and social anthropologist Andreas Dalsgaard discusses cities and their inhabitants, with special concern for Christchurch, ahead of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

The Human Scale is a salient, visually articulate look at successful cities (Copenhagen, New York), failed cities (Chongqing, Dakar), and the visionary Danish architect Jan Gehl’s ideas. Via Skype from the Sydney Film Festival, pleasant young director Andreas Dalsgaard talks to Alexander Bisley about romantic cities, memory, Werner Herzog, and whether Christchurch will be like Los Angeles or Copenhagen.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: “I am interested in people,” you say. “How we work, sleep, make love, fight or talk.” What is the most romantic city in the world?

ANDREAS DALSGAARD: I just lived for two months in Buenos Aires with my wife, and that felt romantic. We moved the family and everything there for two months. New York’s doing pretty well, too. Of course Venice, but that would be a cliché.

AB: What makes Buenos Aires so romantic?

AD: Buenos Aires has a really wonderful mix of small streets where it’s nice to walk. It was mainly built around 1910–1920, so it has this art-deco architecture, really wonderful craftsmanship. Great rooms, great buildings. You walk around the city with this wonderful architecture that’s really inviting. You feel it, you want to touch it. And it’s full of wonderful restaurants.

It’s a place where you really feel like walking, and where every corner, building, ironwork is interesting. You want to check out the details, go inside these rooms and spend some time there.

AB: Who’s a formative influence as a documentary filmmaker who still influences you?

AD: I really admire a director like Werner Herzog, because I think he really manages to connect storytelling and ideas. And make philosophical films that share ideas and thoughts about the world in a very artistic way.

AB: What about his idea: ecstatic truth versus the accountants’ truth?

AD: I have mixed feelings about it. I had a discussion with Errol Morris about this recently. He has a different perspective, where he says there are truths, and he criticises Herzog’s concept of ecstatic truths. Let me rephrase the issue. Herzog is a big fan of Wagner; he uses Wagner in his films. Wagner has this idea that art should replace the church, it was related to Nietzsche’s ‘God is Dead’, and instead of God we should have art. And of course the new god should be the artist, and the real person Wagner was thinking about was himself, that he should be the new God. And I think the celebration of the artist genius is something I don’t like very much. And I think that’s a problem in Herzog’s work, that he constantly celebrates his own genius, I’m not fond of that. But I am fond of many of his films.

AB: I have heard good things about The Act of Killing, which Herzog was a producer on.

AD: The Act of Killing my company co-produced. It’s also screening in Australasia, it’s a film you have to look out for.

AB: Tell me about a favourite Herzog?

AD: I just recently did a master class together with his editor, Joe Bini, who edited, among others, Grizzly Man. Grizzly Man is a wonderful, human, touching story that resonates on so many levels. Les Blank’s documentary behind the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams, is an all-time classic. It’s a fantastic film about a crazy project Herzog has where he wants to make a film about a man who wants to take a steamboat across a mountain in the Amazon, and he decides that he should do it for real in order to make a film about it. So he actually drags a steamboat across a mountain in the Amazon in order to make this film [laughing], where most other directors probably would have just used special effects. The documentary tracks all the problems about making that film, and it’s wonderful.

AB: It’s quite a yarn. What’s your creative philosophy?

AD: My creative philosophy is that I come from anthropology, and anthropologists are very humble in the way they go in to the place they study. They go in without predefined ideas, into areas, and they spend time together with people there. And thereby understanding the story, or the narrative, or the way people live and perceive the world. I like to approach filmmaking that way. I don’t come with a predefined aesthetic, or predefined way that I have, but I subject myself to the story, or point, or case, and try to develop a story or style from that. I apply this anthropological curiosity, and from that the creative work grows.

AB: One of the interviewees who impressed me in your film was Janet Sadik-Khan, New York City Transportation Commissioner since 2007. (She is responsibile for a $2 billion annual budget, 6,300 miles of roads, nearly 800 bridges, 1.3 million street signs.) Could you comment on her, and why New York’s great?

AD: Often when we look at pictures from New York, we look at the skyline of Manhattan. The funny thing is, what are actually the places when you visit New York that you want to spend time in? Well, it’s not the area around Wall Street, it’s not the area around the Empire State Building, those are really dull, boring areas. Where you want to spend time is in Soho, or Greenwich Village, or Little Italy, or Williamsburg. And these are all low-rise areas, where you walk between the places. I think the real greatness of New York are all of these neighbourhoods, that’s what I love about New York.

AB: It’s cool they close down Park Avenue four Saturdays in a row during summer. I really enjoyed walking the Avenue in August, intimate spaces like the High Line. I love the people; New York’s so cosmopolitan, vibrant, energetic, and friendly.

Andreas: Very true.

AB: I became a fan of Jan Gehl when I did some comms work for Wellington City’s talented urban designer Gerald Blunt. We all agree “the city is for the people.” New York’s variety and energy of people is really exciting.

AD: New York has attracted a variety of people because of so many reasons, it being the capital for many creative things, the capital economically, and so on. When a city doesn’t have that variety of people ethnically, culturally, it starts getting a little bit dull. You want that kind of frenetic energy and diversity that a city like New York has.

AB: Your segment on Christchurch with Gehl’s British David Sim resonated. The idea of memory, “this is where I first met my girlfriend.” The idea of cities as overlapping human memories, stories, and heart.

AD: Cities are full of our memories of what we experienced in a certain place, where I had my first coffee with my girlfriend, when I was walking in that park I took part in that demonstration, we had a wonderful party there, or we had a great concert. Those are emotions, those are memories, and that’s really what a city is. When we talk about New York, we talk about it with great emotion. If you look at China, by contrast, they have managed to eradicate traditional neighbourhoods in order to build these new areas that don’t have that history, don’t have that memory. In Christchurch they decided to tear down the church [Cathedral], it was a big discussion because it was like tearing down people’s memories.

AB: What’s an enduring memory you have of Copenhagen? Why is it an exciting city to live in?

AD: Oh my god, I have memories from pretty much every corner of that city. I was in a relationship for a few years, and we had a very heavy breakup, so I met with three of my friends. It was night time and we had some beers and we broke into Copenhagen’s botanical garden. We climbed over the fence, and we sat there in the botanical garden and had beers and smoked cigarettes. It was a very emotional moment in my life, whenever I walk past that park, whenever I go through this park; it always reminds me of that experience, of those emotions.

AB: Your least favourite city?

AD: I think my least favourite city, but also a city that I’m quite fascinated with, is Los Angeles. Because Los Angeles has a city structure that’s horrible; you spend hours in traffic, it has no sense of centre. And at the same time, it’s a city that has a lot of creativity. I remember the first time I came to Los Angeles I had no idea where to start; I didn’t know how to grasp the city. It wasn’t until I had a few friends there that I started getting into the city. In that sense Los Angeles is a very excluding city, the city itself doesn’t do it for you. So I’m fascinated about Los Angeles for the people there, but I think it’s a horrible city.

AB: It’s a fascinating dynamic. Much of Los Angeles looks unattractive, but then there are all these great people, exciting projects, and gems like the Getty, with its peaceful central garden.

AD: Exactly.

AB: The Human Scale documents that 106,000 ideas were submitted for the Christchurch rebuild. What would be one idea you’d leave for Christchurch?

AD: I think the really interesting story about Christchurch is not the specific ideas that came up, but the fact the citizens became engaged in what kind of city they wanted. Suddenly they had this shared story about what they wanted for their city. Everywhere it’s always a struggle between different interests, economic interests, political interests, and so forth. In Christchurch they managed to create this unified public voice about that they wanted: a low-rise city. There were huge economic interests pushing for that idea not to prevail.  But the government wasn’t able to overrule it simply because they would get in so much trouble with the public. So I think the big story of Christchurch is how can you create this public shared story?

AB: Tell me about a strong memory from your visit to Christchurch?

AD: I’ve been one of the few people who were actually able to go in to the red zone and spend time there. Most citizens of Christchurch have been blocked out of the city centre, the red zone, for security reasons. They haven’t been inside their own city centre ever since the earthquake. I was able to move around this dead city, with everything just left the way it was the day of the earthquake. Coffee cups were still standing on the tables, some of them with coffee in them still. Walking around this landscape that was without people, it really made a very strong impression on me, that cities are really about people. Because once the people are not there, it’s just empty; it’s like an empty stage set. There was a really weird, really eerie feeling to walk around this death city. It was an incredible experience.

AB: Do you think Christchurch is going to be Los Angeles or Copenhagen?

AD: I think that’s still to be defined, right now it’s definitely Los Angeles because everybody moved out of the city centre, and the big question for Christchurch is, is it going to be able, possible, to get them back? It is Los Angeles right now. The question is, can it become Copenhagen?

Alexander Bisley’s interview with Andreas Dalsgaard was made possible by the Sydney Film Festival. Thanks to the Kimaya McIntosh for transcription assistance on this article.
The Human Scale’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

Alexander Bisley has been an editor-at-large for The Lumiere Reader since 2005. His speciality is in-depth film, music, book, and theatre interviews. He works as a freelance writer for diverse national and international publications, and is an occasional broadcaster, especially for Radio New Zealand. Drawing on his Nga Puhi whakapapa, one of his passions is writing about Maori and Polynesian artists.


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