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Last month, The National Film Board of Canada received a Special Achievement Award at Canada’s Gemini Awards. HIGHRISE is proud to be a small part of it. Here’s the citation for the Award:


Under the creative leadership of Tom Perlmutter, the NFB has become a pioneer in the use of digital technology, both from a viewing and production point-of-view.

From the advent of video and DVDs, the NFB’s vast collection of documentaries, animation and narrative films, which had been available in 16mm, became difficult to access, unless the material was repackaged from film to popular hom viewing formats. Many NFB classics were languishing in cinema vaults until an new initiative was undertaking to digitize much of what had been created over the years at the Board.

Now, over 2,000 titles can be seen online, including all the major award-winners going back to the 1940s. Last year, NFB films were seen over 20 million times — an astonishing figure — with viewings on the Viewing Room at, apps for iphone/ipad, Android and Playbook as well as on related channels on Youtube and Dailymotion.
Simultaneously, the Board has been moving forward, creating some of the most intriguing uses of documentary in the realm of new technology. HIGHRISE/Out My Window created by Katerina Cizek and produced by the NFB is a 360-degree interactive project, which offers viewers the chance to view real-life scenes and situations in locations around the world.Working collaboratively with artists, activists and residents in other countries, Cizek and the NFB have broken barriers, creating new experiences in the documentary. Along with Welcome to Pine Point and Waterlife, the website as a new form of doc is beginning to take shape.
“Seen through the Board’s long history, social media begins to look like an extension of the social doc, and the recent ascendance of the NFB into a world-player in ineracitve interfaces can br seen more as manifest destiny than dark horse success.”— Jessica Duffin Wolfe POV

“The NFB is creating and showcasing some of the most innovative content anywhere on the web. They are pointing the way for others who want to fully engage with online audiences.” — Norm Bolen, President & CEO of Cnadian Media Production Association

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Still image from recently found footage: An uncle’s self-documentation 20 years ago with a super 8 film camera in a Toronto highrise.

This remarkable footage is providing clues for Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam,  HIGHRISE community media coordinator,  in her documentary about the mysteries of her uncle’s immigration to Canada, and his struggle with mental health issues. I asked Maria to guest blog about how she found the footage, her uncle, and how it unexpectedly relates to HIGHRISE.


My father was convinced he had no films of his brother Pandi. While I was interviewing him on camera, he insisted on showing a box with a super-8 projector in it that belonged to Pandi. He had barely put his hand inside the box when he came across a smaller box, with a roll of developed film inside!

To our surprise the projector was working. We were taken aback by dizzying shot of his shoes from above. Pandi is standing on the balcony of his highrise apartment by Yonge and Eglinton. There’s a sudden  a low-angle of his face with a beautiful view of the city in the background and the CN Tower.  He appears intense and solitary, yet empowered —it was probably the first time he had ever shot with a film camera.

My father had never seen any films his brother had created, nor had never visited Pandi’s apartment.  Pandi’s life in Toronto was a complete mystery to us as he started developing symptoms of bipolar disorder. “Wow, it’s as if he’s looking at us,” cried my father in awe. Pandi is letting us in. He continues to film around his small, empty apartment, revealing a framed photo of his parents, playing with focus on a figuring of a royal mounty police bear. He must have just moved in. Like many newcomers to Canada, a highrise building was his first home in Toronto. He had moved there with his friend in 1993 to start earning a living.

Pandi had been living in Chennai, India where he was having trouble finding a job in the film industry. He believed Toronto was the city that could help him pursue better opportunities in film, but ended up working in a car manufacturing firm and working long hours. The building he lived in was privately owned,  and occupied by many Indians and Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. At the time, Yonge and Eglinton was a common area for new immigrants,  because of the low-rent apartments.

I could relate Pandi’s film to the National Film Board’s HIGHRISE, a multiyear, multiplatform initiative that explores vertical living in the global suburbs. The stories that I witnessed and participated in creating for HIGHRISE’s web-documentaries Thousandth Tower and Out My Window are private and colourful experiences inside residents’ apartments that depict the phenomenon of urban growth, not only from global but personal points of view. In Thousandth Tower, the residents we worked with in two highrises on Kipling Avenue, Toronto combined photographs, text and audio to describe their experiences of living in the buildings.

Although they all had different ideas of home, each revealed a strong connection to their cultural roots. In these particular highrises 97% of the people were born outside of Canada (Digital Citizenship Survey, HIGHRISE). Themes that arose from their photos were dichotomies of belonging and loneliness, comfort and insecurity, success and struggle.

Similarly, Pandi’s film gives me a glimpse of a transitory phase in his life, a time of a new kind of independence and personal growth. The objects he chose to highlight in his film may seem trivial, but to me, had some importance to him.  The framed photograph of his parents appears again in another film that we recently discovered of his, and in a sense becomes a personal motif—a reminder of home.

I also think about all the moves from small towns to urban centres that Pandi had made in his life, and how they had affected him. I came across a publication from Colombia University “The urban environment and mental disorders: Epigenetic states nearly a century of research has shown higher risk of mental disorder among persons living in urban versus rural areas, and that there are links between particular features of the urban environment, such as concentrated disadvantage, residential segregation and social norms, which contribute to the risk of mental illness.”

My aunts spoke to me about how difficult it was for Pandi to adjust to their new way of life in Chennai, the overpopulated capital of Tamil Nadu. They were previously living in Poondi, a small rural town where there father was working as a senior hydrologist. In Chennai, their father was under a lot of stress in a new position and struggled to provide for his family financially. Pandi who was doing poorly in high school dropped out and began working odd jobs.

This sparked me to question the increasing urbanity of the world’s population and its implications on mental health. In the Kipling highrises, we met many families that were in transition all their lives. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be constantly moving, starting over, again and again. Every time I watch Pandi’s film, I witness the meditative and liberating power of holding a camera. For Pandi, using the camera to experiment and explore seemed like a pleasant way to exercise his creative abilities and break from the daily pressures of the city.

— Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam,
director of IMPRINTS (working title)
and Community Media Co-ordinator, HIGHRISE


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In a new summer issue, Harvard’s Nieman Reports features my essay about my personal experiences with community and journalism. I trace my views on community-based story-telling from my early days in journalism and independent documentary film-making to my current work  with HIGHRISE and Filmmaker-in-Residence at the National Film Board of Canada. Here’s an excerpt:


When Community and Journalism Converge

‘… I am bypassing the predictable, often sensational headlines to explore the profound ways that digital storytelling can be a force for political mediation.’

By Katerina Cizek

I encountered journalism on the day I came to understand the word “community.”

It was my first assignment as a student photojournalist and I was behind the barricades in Quebec at what became known as the Oka Crisis. It was the summer of 1990, and the news media were watching the military showdown between the Canadian armed forces and a Mohawk community.

The confrontation involved plans to expand a municipal golf course onto an ancient Mohawk burial ground. This standoff, which some consider Canada’s Wounded Knee, lasted two and a half months. When it was over, so much had changed, including the political balance between First Nations and the federal government.

As the day turned to dusk, it was clear that I would remain at the standoff through the night. A few members of the Mohawk Warrior Society had pulled up plastic lawn chairs around a rabbit-eared television directly behind the barricade of overturned police vehicles and large branches. They were watching the evening news. They invited me to join them, and when I did I saw that Alanis Obomsawin, a First Nations Abenaki documentary filmmaker, was there to document this crisis through her own eyes for the National Film Board of Canada.

One hundred meters down the road and behind the barricades, military guns were aimed in the community’s direction and ready to be fired. Army helicopters buzzed above. Like the military, the Warriors had weapons. But there were unarmed women and children present as well.

As I watched TV with the Warriors, I came to realize how divergent the mainstream representation of this armed conflict was from what I was witnessing. That evening I heard about unresolved land claims and the abuse of power through the centuries as non-Natives encroached on First Nations lands. There were among the mainstream media some well-established members who expressed views about this mistreatment—a view I shared. Later, they were accused of Stockholm syndrome.

read the rest here.


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It’s been a busy week at HIGHRISE, with two exciting public projections.

In Montreal, to a packed audience at the gorgeous L’Astral theatre, I had the honour of  “performing” HIGHRISE/Out My Window accompanied by 3 musicians, playing a live, improvised score. Sam Shalabi on oud, electronic guitar and electronics, Alexandre St-Onge on electric bass, upright bass and electrionics, and Will Eizlini on tabala and electronics. A magical evening, all part of the DNA Symposium at Concordia University, which was a heady mix of academics and practitioners, all discussing the intersection of Database, Narrative and Archives in the context of computer-generated story-telling. Thanks to the DNA team, and esp professors Monika Kin Gagnon and Matt Soar for creating this space for us.

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Meanwhile, in Toronto…


…My colleagues represented HIGHRISE at the awesome annual Toronto the Good Party (put on by our partners and friends ERA Architects, Spacing Magazine and others). Technical Director Branden Bratuhin, Associate Producer Sarah Arruda, and Project Coordinator Paramita Nath talked all things HIGHRISE with good torontonians. They also gave a sneak peak (projected on the hallowed halls of Hart House) of our new project, One Millionth Tower, which we are describing for now, as a spacial film/web experience, built in HTML5 by Helios, popcorn provided by Mozilla Foundation.

We will be releasing a video documentary of the Montreal performance, and we’ll be telling you more about One Millionth Tower soon, so watch this space in coming weeks.

photo credits:

Montreal performance by David Dufresne,
Out My Window out DNA’s window, courtesy of DNA Symposium
Toronto the Good Party, by Paramita Nath

MORE WINS: ONE WORLD, FITC and education


HIGHRISE/Out My Window has been honoured with more awards, in very diverse worlds.

Last night, Senior Producer Gerry Flahive was in London U.K. where he accepted our prize in the New Media category at the One World Media Awards. This amazing organization, created by BBC World Services Trust, “recognizes the media’s contribution to international development, human rights, education, mobilising a global community that shares our values.”

The jury citation from One World: “HIGHRISE/OUT MY WINDOW was the richest and most innovative entry in terms of its use of multimedia and the possibility of new media. With so much emphasis in development on the rural poor it was refreshing to see the emphasis here on urbanisation. The views of people living in developing country cities were at centre stage. It was an engaging and compelling work.”

At FITC -Toronto, an award celebrating Flash and other technologies, we won the Best Audio in Flash. Grats to our incredible sound designer, Janine White, and the whole team at Imaginarius: Vincent Marcone, Natalie MacNeil as well as the programmer Bobby Richter.

In the education universe, we have picked up an Award of Merit from the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education. Congrats especially to our eduction team, Tey Cottingham and Kathy Sperberg.

ReelScreen covers the One World win here.

Congrats to the team, and congrats to all the residents living in the global highrise of Out My Window.



As the last of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green highrises comes down this month, we catch up with David Schalliol, the photographer and interviewer who brought us the moving story from Chicago for HIGHRISE/Out My Window.

“The Chicago portion of HIGHRISE/Out My Window tells the story of Donna and Brittany, a mother and daughter who are wrestling with an uncertain future in Cabrini Green, the city’s last highrise family public housing development. When interviewed at the end of 2009, their only certainty was their building was to be demolished sometime soon. They were going to have to find another place to live after a lifetime in the community. They were issued emergency eviction notices in May 2010 and moved to a housing development on the South Side less than a month later. Their old building, the second-to-last remaining high-rise, was already undergoing demolition preparation work.

Watching Cabrini Green Demolition in Progress

Now the demolition of the last Cabrini-Green high-rise is currently under way. More media attention than usual has been trained on the neighborhood, and for the first time in decades, the stories are less about crime and more about community. There is some recognition that what is happening in this near North Side neighborhood is significant, at least for community members.

When former residents turned out to say farewell to the last building on the eve of the demolition, video cameras were rolling, and TheBrigade Stamps performance was cut in with footage of people saying goodbye to their former neighborhood. The last high-rise would soon be gone.

One surprising story has been about Project Cabrini Green, an art installation that arose out of a collaboration with Chicago artists, arts organizations and Cabrini-Green youth. The project installed 134 blinking lights in the building that represent poems written by area children. Every night, the lights blink in conversation as the building is slowly erased by the demolition team.

Despite the increased media attention, at least one significant element of the demolition has been underappreciated. Many of the Chicago Housing Authority’s developments have been located in high-visibility locations. They’ve loomed over highways, hugged sports arenas, and in the case of Cabrini Green, been a short walk from the Magnificent Mile and the Gold Coast, the city’s most fashionable shopping and residential districts.

Cabrini Green and the Magnificent Mile

With each daily commute, trip to the store or opportunity to cheer on the city’s athletic heros, the highrises of the Chicago Housing Authority were a physical reminder of the stark inequalities in one of the United States’ most segregated cities.

As Close as They Get

CHA residents are much less visible now. For the few who will live in new mixed-income developments, which place CHA residents side-by-side with those paying market-rates or receiving more limited subsidies, integrated poverty will become a new fact of life. But for now, many Cabrini-Green residents are moving into communities that are located farther from the city’s centers of power and into communities with residents who share many of the residents’ demographic characteristics.

Moving Out of Cabrini Green

When the last Cabrini highrise is demolished, there is a real possibility that they will be out of sight and out of mind, forgotten by those who will likely never live in subsidized housing. Community groups and politicians will continue to wrestle with issues of public housing, but many Chicagoans won’t be reminded by the high-rises any longer.

Far from the Magnificent Mile, Donna’s family is now settled in their new home. Like so many of the remaining CHA buildings, it is a lowrise.”

Cleaning Wentworth Gardens

Award nominations: WEBBY and more


It’s award season, and the nominations have been coming in!

The awards are very diverse, attesting to the innovation on all fronts of Out My Window.

We are up for Best Use of Photography at the Webbys. Please consider voting for us in the People’s Choice awards. Our fellow nominees are National Geographic, Life, BBC and The Tiziano Project.

Meanwhile, at FITC, we are nominated for best use of sound. There’s also a People’s Choice there, please consider supporting us there too.

At the Banff Interactive Rockies, we are nominated along with 3 other NFB projects for best online program –non-fiction.

In the UK, we are also nominated for a One World Media Award, which recognizes the media’s contribution to international development, human rights and education.

Congrats to the whole team on these remarkable acknowledgments!



The NFB’s Tom Perlmutter, Christina Rogers and Joel Pomerleau accept the Emmy in Cannes, France.

HIGHRISE/Out My Window has been honoured with an International Digital Emmy Award for Non-Fiction. Here are some of our team’s reactions, that I’ve been collecting from all over the world:

“We are thrilled with this prestigious recognition for a work entirely conceived for digital platforms. It is part of our ongoing commitment to explore and determine the art form par excellence of the 21st century,” said Tom Perlmutter, Government Film Commissioner and Chairperson of the National Film Board of Canada.

“To be honoured with such a prestigious award for our efforts in pushing the boundaries of documentary storytelling, reminds us of the decades of innovation by our predecessors at the NFB, where creativity, social impact and the incorporation of new technology have always been at the forefront of what we do,” said NFB senior producer Gerry Flahive.

“It’s so great!” said Heather Frise (Editor, Story Assignment Editor, HIGHRISE Creative Associate) “Hopefully, because of the award, more people are drawn to the work, and we will have a broader reach and impact with the stories and the issues.”

“As for Chicago, the award comes at a time when the last highrise in the Cabrini-Green public housing project is being demolished,” said David Schalliol (Chicago story and photos).  “The event is a symbolic end to a major U.S. housing policy, but it’s also the end of a community. Highrise/Out My Window provides an opportunity for the world to engage how residents experienced the end of that era, and the Digital Emmy reminds us of the value of thinking about global events as anchored in daily life.”

This experience has really clarified for me what is possible to achieve when a team working collaboratively is led with a strong vision filled with trust, support and generosity,” said Paramita Nath (Bangalore story and photos, Illustrator, Participate Project Coordinator). “I feel lucky to have been part of this team and this process.”

I’ve always thought of Out My Window as an online installation piece which focuses on bringing together the stories of very different people from very different parts of the world,”  said Vincent Marcone (Chief Artist at Imaginarius, responsible for the interactive architecture and design). “We tried to create an artful way of portraying these tales in the design and specifically the 360-degree navigation of the site.”

“I’m very proud…” said Theodore Kaye (Taiwan story and photos), “I look forward to seeing and partaking in further redefinitions of the ‘web documentary’ and other new media. As internet connectivity trickles down to more countries, such media evolution is bound to take on fascinating forms and functions.”

“I think Out My Window opened a window on many minds,” said Cigdem Turkoglu (Istanbul research and story). “I also shared it with the participants of our part here in Istanbul, they were also very pleased with the news and shared it with their neighbours on the street.”

It’s projects like OMW that are the reason I got into multimedia in the first place!” said Brent Foster (Istanbul photos).

“Bring on the digital Oscars!” said Martin Potter (Phnom Penh story and photos).

“My family posted [the news of the Emmy] all over their facebook! They sent out a huge email to all our friends. My whole family is thrilled!” said Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam (Research, Editor, Sound Research and HIGHRISE Community Media Production Coordinator).

It’s the project’s music curator and supervisor, Helen Spitzer, who probably said it most simply of all: “We’re all doing cartwheels!”

Last, but not least, the NFB Executive Producer Silva Basmajian said: “I am honoured to be part of an organization (NFB) and  team that has reinvented documentary storytelling through the production of original digital content.  Out My Window is a global community with stories  that resonate with all those who enter this virtual Highrise.”

Set in 13 cities around the world, HIGHRISE/Out My Window combines interactive 360° photography, video, text and music in 49 vignettes, chronicling life inside the most common urban structure of the age: the high-rise apartment block.

Some nice media coverage of the award:, realscreen, VarietyCTV News, and Macleans.

Here’s the Emmy nomination trailer:

*OUT MY WINDOW* nominated for an EMMY


We are proud to announce HIGHRISE/Out My Window has been nominated for an International Digital Emmy in the Non-Fiction Category. Fellow nominees are:

Embarrassing Bodies: Live
Maverick Television / Channel 4
United Kingdom

Globo Amazônia: The Geoglyphs
TV Globo

Fremantle / TV2 Norway

There’s three categories for Digital Emmys, Children/Youth, Fiction and Non-Fiction. A strong global year at the International Digital Emmys: countries with first-time nominations in the digital categories include Brazil, Lebanon and Turkey. (hey, all three countries are represented in OMW!)

This is the first time the NFB has been nominated for an International Digital Emmy.



Three thrilling things on the theme of EDUCATION today.

01 Thrilled to announce a new addition to the Out My Window Universe: a set of education tools for teachers, specifically aimed at the 14-17 age set. It’s called Inside OUT MY WINDOW – Global Education Lab.  Our colleagues in the NFB education department have done an awesome job pulling this together (that’s you: Kathy Sperberg, Tey Cottingham  with HIGHRISE researcher extra-ordinaire Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam, along with HIGHRISE’s house band designers, Helios.) This is how the team describes it:

Inside OUT MY WINDOW – Global Education Lab
We’re thrilled to launch our newly developed educational space entitled Inside Out My Window – Global Education Lab. It’s an educational extension to the NFB’s  interactive project. Out My Window: Views From the Global Highrise is an award-winning immersive exploration of vertical living. It’s all about the people living in highrises and the global issues they face. IOMW targets high school students aged 14–17 and is a great tool for educators interested in creatively integrating global education into their lessons. Have your students explore Out My Window first, and then continue their learning experience through Inside OUT MY WINDOW’s four interactive screens about the project’s 13 featured cities. Download the Educator’s guide for ideas on how to go deeper into issues of urbanization and global suburbanisms.

02 Thrilled to announce our nomination for a BAKA FORUM Award 2011. Because of the amazing educational tools described above, Out My Window has been nominated for a prestigious award in Switzerland for the Cross-Media in School and Youth Education Category.

03 Thrilled to discover a high school in Korea has not waited for the education guide to come out, as they have already created an elaborate, fantastic class project inspired by Out My Window! Check out this OUT OUR WINDOWS, a thoughtful group blog from a whole class as they discover the stories of Out My Window. What a great teacher Mr.Garrioch must be.