Life and dreams in the Burgh (2016)

The project is an experimental documentary weaving together factual and fictional stories recorded in Pittsburgh, PA. It is based on personal interviews with local residents, accompanied by diaristic video imagery, found footage and digital animation. The film conjures up the psychological landscape of the city troubled with social and economic tensions, haunted by memories of its past and the dreams of possible and impossible futures.

I began the project during my artist residency at a non-profit “City of Asylum” in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2015. During my stay I recorded lengthy interviews with fourteen local men and women from different backgrounds and neighborhoods: a housewife, a poet, a homeless person, a medical student, a dishwasher, a foster mother of six, etc. While each came with a specific story in mind, the conversations expanded to include other stories, animated discussions on random topics and philosophical ruminations on human nature. Fragments of these conversations formed the audio track of the film. The non-linear narrative wanders through several loosely connected themes: the city’s peculiar character and geography, its post-industrial economic decline, racial segregation, crime, everyday challenges and enjoyments of urban life – all reflected through the narrators’ individual experiences. The layered tapestry of their fears, hopes, dreams and fantasies reflects the collective consciousness of the city.

Like the audio, the film’s imagery comes from different sources. Two local videographers, Emily Newman and Sofia Sandoval, working independently from each other, used cellphone cameras to record urban views, streets scenes, and small incidents of their daily routines. Their imagery is supplemented by Youtube and community forum videos documenting a public address at Pennsylvania university, Occupy Pittsburgh camp during nighttime, an urban explorer’s tour of an abandoned house, etc. Finally, the film features several time-based digital drawings created by artists Brian Balla, Leslee Fraser, Anya Groner and Alex Sheriff.

The various video and audio elements in the film are combined and overlaid to create emotional and poetic resonances between different and often contradictory mindsets and sensibilities of the many people contributing to the project. The resulting work reflects many darker aspects of contemporary American life: the growth of parochialism and xenophobia; racial, ethnic and gender prejudice; the sense of disillusionment brought about by the decay of former industrial centers, and the increasing political and social polarization within the country. But the film’s positive message is that behind the anxieties and fears of people’s everyday lives there lie rich layers of imagination and hopefulness, which form a parallel reality to the uncertain present of today’s America.

Life and dreams in the Burgh, still images, 2016

Life and dreams in the Burgh, HD video, animation, total running time 45:29 min., 2016