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Cinema as a Vehicle for Social Integration in the City
How can film support social integration in the city? With recording equipment now more affordable and accessible than ever, Marco Trombetta writes about the rise of 'slum filmmakers' - individuals who have lived and grown up in informal settlements, and tell the story of the people and places they know best through film.
By Marco Trombetta / filmsforaction.org
Oct 12, 2015

Cinema is one of the least accessible forms of art. It demands a certain amount of financial investment into equipment for filming, lightning and sound, people like actors, assistants and editors – not to mention time. Nevertheless our digital world has opened new doors for visual storytelling through the democratisation and affordability of tools necessary for filmmaking [1].

Inhabitants of excluded spaces – those living outside the ‘formal’ city – are able to use the tools of the digital age, from mobile phones and affordable recording equipment, to online platforms for funding and distributing films, to tell their own stories about the cities they live and experience. Informal settlements are part of the landscape in many cities in the Global South, where for some social exclusion, discrimination, drugs and violence are part of everyday life [2].

Mainstream cinema has picked up these themes through films like El Elefante Blanco, Tropa de Elite and recently Trash. These films have been supported by formal studios and were able to find distribution channels into mainstream cinemas.

However there are directors living in informal settlements who have created fictional depictions of life, while adopting a more realistic approach with its basis in the world within which they live. The interesting link lies more between the cinematic representations of the city than with the story. The mise-en-scène and the urban space not only imply a cinematic setting, but also indicate sociocultural context.

The realistic mise-en-scène of these very low-budget films does not illustrate absolute authenticity but is rather the filmmaker’s articulation of their reality [3]. It is an invitation for the “outsiders” – people living in the formal sector – to understand where these dwellers live and what their perceptions of reality are.

These types of films – similar to post-war Italian neorealist cinema [4] – privilege shooting on location and adopt a style of cinematography visually similar to a documentary. The example of Cesar Gonzalez, an Argentine film director living in the informal settlement Carlos Gardel in Buenos Aires province, is relevant.

His films are a testimony to the power of art as a tool for social recognition and integration. Cesar Gonzalez found a voice in cinema that he didn’t have before when he was involved with gangs and smugglers. He directed his first film Diagnóstico Esperanza in 2013 which was filmed with the local people from the informal settlement Carlos Gardel (the film is available to watch on YouTube).

The film depicts life in a space within the city that has its own vocabulary, its own vision of the world, its own soul. As “outsiders” we walk in the streets of this unfamiliar world. His films progressed a wider social acknowledgement among intellectuals and movie critics of informal settlements not just being seen as excluded spaces, but also replete with excluded people.

His latest film “What can a body endure?” (Qué puede un cuerpo?) was made possible by crowd-sourcing funds and then released online via Youtube. It has currently more than 200,000 views. His two films so far have gained critical praise and have been screened in a very prestigious local cinema in Buenos Aires [5]. The National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) is currently funding his third film.

Cinema has been historically involved with political contexts, helping to contribute to a collective perception of reality, and reflecting the state of society at that time. As the example of Cesar Gonzalez has shown, not only can films become a vehicle for telling a story in an artistic way but also as a tool for social recognition and integration – breaking down some of the physical barriers that seem to divide the city.


Marco Trombetta holds an MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development from the Development Planning Unit, University College London. He was involved in local politics in Argentina, participating in several NGOs and international forums such as the G20. He has a passion for Cinema and he writes film reviews in his blog Red Curtain Cinema.



[1] Thomson, David (2013) The big screen: the story of the movies and what they did to us. Penguin Books, London.

[2] Amadeo, Eduardo (2011) País rico, país pobre. Editorial Sudamericana. Buenos Aires.

[3] Zhan, Zhen (2007) The urban generation: Chinese cinema and society at the turn of of the twenty first century. Duke University Press.

[4] Film Reference blog, Historical origins of Italian neorealism.

[5] Diario Clarín, 15/01/15, Los ojos abiertos del Nuevo cine villero.


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Cinema as a Vehicle for Social Integration in the City