journalism that swims
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Flee the City!

Urban phobia on film, with a stop at ‘District B13.’

Dorothy Woodend 16 Jun

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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This ain't Jude Law's neighbourhood.

Movies about the cities of the future tend to come in two flavours: vanilla or chocolate. Vanilla-villes are gleaming, shining places populated with clones of Uma Thurman and Jude Law. Places where people wear skin-tight suits, and there are no unsightly bulges of any variety, anywhere, EVER! Sexless Star Trek cities (like The Next Generation) are PC places, no fun-zones, where everyone uses their words to solve problems. Chocolate cities, on the other hand, such as those in Road Warrior, or Escape from New York, are filled with guys like Snake Plissken and Mad Max. Everything is dirty, grimy, and generally all fucked up. Or, as they say in the new French free-fall District B13, "This isn't Monaco, this is Baghdad." A statement followed immediately by a huge gun being pointed directly at the camera. Welcome to the future, 2010 Paris.

The future is so terribly familiar. It's like the present, only with more French rap music.

District B13 is a beaten down, mobbed up, fictional arrondissement just outside of Paris. It is a neighbourhood so bad that the Parisian bureaucrats have built a wall around it, closed down the schools and the police stations, and are waiting for the naughty citizens to kill each other off. Perhaps Vancouver will try it with the Downtown Eastside one day? On District 13’s mean streets, some bad guys are chasing one good guy all over the place. Our hero is Leïto, a tattooed lean mean jumping being, who can bounce like a little leaping lapin. He is sweetly tattooed and cute as a bunny -- except when he is stomping peoples’ heads off, and that's only if they really deserve it. All our highly mobile hero wants is a nice place to live, so he steals a million Euros worth of heroin from from Taha, the local drug lord, and flushes it down the bathtub drain. In retaliation, Taha kidnaps Leïto's sister. Whatever you do, don't mess with somebody's sister; that is simply asking for trouble. But c'est la guerre, and off they go.

Le bombe

Meanwhile, in a better part of Paris, another noble warrior named Damien, single-handedly defeats an entire den of iniquity by jumping wildly in the air. Much gunplay and bone-cracking later, he is given a job he can't refuse: to enter District B13 and recover a government clean bombe (say it the French way, it's much more fun) before it make le boom, and les people morts. Damian and Leïto are, of course, paired up and sent on their way to kill bad men and defuse the device. Little do they know, things are not always what they seem. Are they ever? Mais non...

The film makes coy reference to many of the current issues that have wracked Paris, such as the burning of cars, the disenfranchisement of people of different colours, and ethnicities. Despite the cool words -- liberté, égalité, and what's the third one again? Ah yes, fraternité, that's the tricky one, Paris is not all it's cracked up to be. Urban ills are pretty much the same worldwide. But it's the very Frenchness of the film that makes it amusant. Unlike a typical American actioner, the villain is not a megalomaniacal genius, nor a corporate overlord; it's the civil servants that you have look out for. The French civil service is infamous, for bureaucracy gone bananas: a world of paper, grey faced administrators, and more forms than you've ever seen. If you'd like confirm that fact, I'm sorry, you have the wrong form, and you've been standing the wrong line for hours. Tant pis pour vous. In the case of this film, it still comes down to death and taxes. And one is more important than the other.

The film, penned by Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Professional et al) tells a familiar dystopian story en francais. Nouvelle director Pierre Morel is helped along by the film's star, David Belle, who invented Parkour, a movement, quite literally, that is about always moving forward, no matter what type of obstacle is in the way. The same can be said for the film itself; implausibility, narrative incoherence, the laws of physics -- all can be suspended for the sake of a good time. That is the entire point of action films. It looks like a great deal of fun, if you don't fall down and bonk your head, that is.

Dickens meets sci-fi

Still, despite its ham-fisted plot, Jambon-main maybe, District B13 is curious because of its commonalities with the many dystopias that have preceded it. Basically, since people started living in cities, they began making films about how bad cities are; a Dickensian leftover that has picked up the pace more recently, as so many people settle in town. "In contemporary cinema, fantasy is the antidote. From the late 90s on, there has been a marked retreat into the inner world, into childhood and away from dirty, complicated reality," writes David Clement, in an essay entitled from "From dystopia to myopia: Metropolis to Blade Runner." So yes, it's all been done to death, but that somehow matters little, we still want more.

There is something inherently pleasing about the notion of a place where ordinary rule is suspended, where the Old West meets the space age. Simple survival of the snake-hipped quickest on the draw, no more rules and regulations, a teenage haven of good guys, bad byes, urban decay, grit, guns, drugs, gangs, molls -- it's all good clean dirty fun. Back to the future as it were. But at the same time, a great deal of critical thinking and art making has also been aimed at the urban environment. Artists and filmmakers have taken as their subject the built environment, since it is such a large part of human experience. The Infra-structural Image: Urban Projections from the Bay Area and Vancouver, screening June 19 and 20 at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, is a collection of some of the more interesting experimental films about the 'Couv. So high or low, the city engages current culture all over the place -- from Arthur Erickson's Retrospective at the VAG to the WUF to more Masters theses than you can shake a stick at -- it gets a little much sometimes, and you can't help but wish for “fin” as the French would say.

To that end, Vancouver's own dystopic future has been imagined by different writers, some good, some very very bad. Even my very own mother has written a book about the drowned downtown of the future. (She gets around that woman.) Her Sunburst nominated novel, The Bone House, envisioned an Al Gore-style planet where global warming has destroyed Yaletown. Many conversations at the family dinner table involve planning for the day when all hell breaks loose. Head for Queen Elizabeth Park, it's high enough to spot approaching enemies, there is fresh water and plenty of squirrels to eat. But stay away, we've claimed this turf already for me and Snake Plissken and our chocolate clan. You vanilla-types can keep your cooperative processes, your committees and your installation-based art projects on the meaning of urban space. Give me the law of the urban jungle and a snake to share it with.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.  [Tyee]

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