Amidst the shouts and murmurs that arise at mention of gentrification, how often do you hear laughter? Divine Location is the story of Dortmund, Germany and its new fake lake and marina. As a commentary on the complicated consequences of urban development, this story may sound familiar. But Divine Location is a rare, self-conscious homage to the absurdity and time lapse that suffuse the Dortmund development — and perhaps every other urban transformation. We talk to the directors of Divine Location about such transformations, class divides, and a little Mediterranean ambiance.
Rooftop Films: How did you initially come across the story of real estate development in Dortmund, Germany? What drew you to document this project in particular?
The Ruhr region is a very interesting agglomeration of cities, a former industrial region along the river Ruhr with huge, underlying transformations. Because there are longer large industries such as steel, coal, and cars, the workers who were left behind went where production was cheaper. As a result, most cities around Ruhr have to reinvent themselves by creating new jobs and a new way of living — a new identity. This particular narrative of city development reflects many regions of Europe, perhaps even the entire western world. We [the directors] are fascinated by these developments, so we filmed several documentaries about change in this industrial region. For example, Losers and Winners (2006, Rooftop Films alum) is about the dismantling of a coke plant by the Chinese, who brought the plant to China.
When we first heard about the Dortmund project, we wanted to know about all the actors in the situation, from the people behind the construction of this new lake and expensive and luxurious living quarters on a former steel plant, as well as the mostly working-class people who would be affected by the construction taking place in the midst of their quarter. Intriguingly, too, the lake was to be designed with a kind of Mediterranean ambiance in mind. Why “Mediterranean” here, in Northern Europe? we wondered. The ambiance here [in Northern Europe] is nice but not at all Mediterranean. We were curious about the desires and ideologies that were at play.
One of your previous films, Losers and Winners, in part documented the perspectives of German and Chinese laborers. Can you speak to the challenges of filming worker’s perspectives in a factory setting, versus in the real-estate conference room of Divine Location?
The challenge is the same. We try to meet people on the same level, which means being open minded and open-hearted. The main task in every setting is to create a relationship founded on trust, not superficiality. Creating this kind of relationship, though, is much easier with people with whom we can sympathize entirely.
What did you see as the role of humor in the filmmaking process?
Humor is very important, especially when making documentaries. We aim to present a serious topic with different emotional aspects to it, and humor is just one of those aspects– one facet of living. A sense of humor and empathy, both tears and laughter, informs our approach to looking at reality.
Some of the residents of Dortmund that were interviewed spoke about social unrest and class tensions surrounding the Phoenix See lakefront development. What was the tone with which you wanted to convey this side of the development story?
The subtext of our documentary is a society in which the rich and poor are increasingly divided – winners and losers, in a German context. We don’t want to present an academic analysis of that divide, though. We hope that the fate of the people affected by the lakefront development touches the viewer, while keeping the ideology of the planning people [in Divine Location] visible.
In what ways did your personal politics surrounding urban development change after making the film?
We are more sensitized to these transformation processes, which are often is very stealthy and subtle. The slow pace at which thinking about development changes…the lake project is a fitting metaphor for it. In keeping with that metaphor for slowness, we used time lapse in the film to portray the pace of Dortmund’s transformation. This process is by no means specific to Dortmund.
We ourselves lived in a very nice and big city, Cologne, but housing [prices] eventually became exorbitant so we stole away to the countryside.