On documenting a tower block’s dying days by Christina Vandekerckhove

Christina Vandekerckhove (1985) has long been running the film circuit since her studies at KASK. From TV documentaries, theatre productions to independent films, the freelance director premiered her most recent creation Rabot at last year’s Film Fest Gent, picking up the Port of Ghent Audience Award. The documentary, a heartwrenching portrayal of urban demise and human perseverance, hit the silver screens on 17th of January to much acclaim.

The idea for my documentary Rabot first came about three years ago, when Kopergietery – a children’s theatre house in my hometown, with which I’d already made two productions in the past – reached out, asking me to make a film on the Rabot area. Named after the fortified lock dating back to 1491, this working-class neighbourhood is located in the north-western part of Ghent. At first, I wasn’t sure how to approach the subject – I was hesitant about making another clichéd or exploitative poverty porn on the 21st century demise of urbanism. So when I heard of the namesake Rabot buildings and plans for their destruction, I decided to focus my attention on that. Built in 1972, the three tower blocks were initially seen as an emblem of prestige and wealth. Yet over time the Rabot towers became worn and dilapidated, leading to a degradation in living conditions. Something the City deemed unacceptable, as they announced plans to evict all the tenants and demolish the buildings once and for all.

By the time I started research for the film, one tower block had already been dismantled, with the other two’s residents in the slow and painful phase of being relocated. I went door to door, simply asking every resident whether they’d like to participate or not, jotting down a few notes based on their responses. For those who answered yes, I made it my mission to know as much as I could about their lives, their family and backgrounds, their musical tastes, their daily rituals, their thoughts and experiences on living in Rabot, their priorities in life. Anything and everything, all through one-on-one interviews. This helped me determine the specific shots to film, and questions to ask the respective tenants. For instance, Albert has a habit of reading lists out loud, something I wanted to capture as I saw fit. Everything was so carefully planned before shooting began – for one, I never spent more than three hours when filming a tenant, as I was careful of not being too demanding or tiring. Yet despite all the colourful tenants, the documentary’s main protagonist remains the buildings itself. This required taking numerous photographs before filming to determine the right angles and lighting, as well as using a monitor to constantly check the framing and angles. So my schedule alternated between the buildings and the inhabitants, both separate and together.

I always look for a balance between the straightforward realism and the poetry of aesthetics in my work. Rabot for one focusses on the final, fleeting moments of both the buildings and its tenants: images of poverty, illness, death, racism, depression, addiction, solitude. As one of the tenants exclaims, “Nobody cries in Ghent.” We as a society would much rather ignore these pained and painful lives and realities instead of facing them head on. But beyond all the ill and despair, there are also glimpses of love and hope, dreams and desires which I gathered from their anecdotes and monologues. It’s important to stay sensitive to the human element in every narrative – which requires a touch of humour, without being reduced to the burlesque. It’s not my intention to make any grand statements through my films, or to adopt a moralising tone. My weapon of choice is art in itself, letting the frame narrative of the microcosm of the buildings and its tenants speak for itself. Capturing the repetitive rituals of mundane, everyday life. Having said that, I do still want it to be socially relevant, arguably employing methods of visual ethnography like participant observation. And, at the end of the day, I can only hope that my film will linger on in the audience’s mind.