Global Ghost Towns: Film Showcase

In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, empty and unfinished properties emerged across the globe, following years of frenzied construction during the “boom years”. For the month of March in 2013, I curated the Future State blog around the theme of contemporary ghost towns, exploring their socio-economic and cultural impact.

For this blogpost, I’ve brought together three very different films that reflect the problems of property-led growth in the US, Ireland and China. Other posts in this series covered subjects such as ghost towns in contemporary fiction and photography. The original version of this article can be found on the Future State blog.

Detroit: The Troubled City
Bruce Gilden (2012)

In Bruce Gilden’s series Foreclosures, the effects of the US subprime mortgage crisis are explored through short films set in Florida, Las Vegas and Reno, Fresno and Detroit. Through interviews with residents and local communities, he reveals how the proliferation of empty homes has impacted the physical and social fabric of American cities.

As seen in Detroit: The Troubled City, Gilden blends still and moving images to reflect the complexity of contemporary urban change. In his words: ‘when I arrived in Detroit I saw a city government that does not take care of its people and a lot of those people have stopped caring […] Property values go down, nobody wants to live in these areas.  To me it almost seems like [foreclosed properties] are left standing so that one day they drive everybody out and grand new subdivisions can be made’.

For more on Bruce Gilden’s work, visit his website 

Ordos 100
Ai Wei Wei (2012)

Directed by China’s most famous living artist, Ai Wei Wei, Ordos 100 is a fascinating, hour-long documentary on a huge, architectural project in Inner Mongolia. For the Ordos 100 Desert Villa project, Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron – best known for their conversion of Bankside Power Station into Tate Modern – invited 100 international architects to design 100 private villas, each covering 1,000 square metres of land.

As seen in my previous blog post, which cited the work of photographer Michael Christopher Brown, the new city of Ordos has failed to attract many residents. Often described as a ‘ghost town’, it’s but one example of the many under-populated new cities in present-day China.

In this context, the film Ordos 100 offers unique insights into the country’s political and economic ambitions. While the Desert Villa project has never been realised, it reveals the ways in which architecture is used as a strategy for economic growth. As Michael Alexander Ulfstjerne explains in the article, Creative land grabs: The Ordos 100 spectacle revisited:

‘After several visits to the idle construction site and interviews with developers, architects, urban planners and local engineers working there, it became evident to me that creativity incubation zones and developments such as the Ordos 100 are good investments even though they might never actually be built. In the initial stage, the production of images, models and plans most likely serve as feasibility criteria to convince the local government to allocate land-use rights at a bargain price’.

Plans for the proposed villas at Ordos 100 can be viewed here 

Lorcan Finnegan (2012)

The 2008 financial crisis was rooted in the collapse of property markets and urban development programmes initiated throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, countries such as China, Spain, Ireland and Dubai are now littered with many empty and unfinished construction projects.

In Ireland, so-called “ghost estates”emerged following years of frenzied construction during the Celtic Tiger boom. These aborted estates have been the subject of countless news reports, while inspiring many exceptional works of art, film and literature. One of the most haunting of these works is the short film Foxes, directed by Lorcan Finnegan.

In the film, a young couple are trapped in a remote estate of empty houses, where shrieking foxes beckon them from their isolation into a twilight world – a world of the paranormal or perhaps insanity. During an interview for Director’s Notes, Finnegan discusses Ireland’s ‘ghost estates’ and the inspiration behind the film:

‘They litter the country like graveyards. The few unlucky people who bought in these ghost estates can’t sell up, they can’t borrow to move and they still have to pay back the massive loan they took out to buy the house that is now worth very little. They are trapped. So I wanted the place to feel like purgatory, a strange suburban limbo. The story and film are very much a statement about how we live our lives today, buying into the social contract and the consequences of turning your back on the wild.’

View more of Lorcan Finnegan’s work on his website 

Paddy Baxter (2012)

At The Future State of Ireland conference in November 2012, the subject of Ireland’s so-called ‘ghost estates’ proved a fascinating and contentious topic. In Paddy Baxter’s experimental ‘horror documentary’ Vacancy, the artist hones in on one of these unfinished estates, Carrig Glas Manor in Country Longford.

Through a collaboration with the Manchester music collective Tubers Music, the film blends atmospheric soundscapes with photos and video footage. Baxter explains: ‘Vacancy became for me a fascinating lesson on the power of music in film. Fiction film invariably uses music to manipulate our emotions more effectively. The use of music in documentary can be more problematic – it allows the filmmaker to exert a huge degree of control over how we view real people and political or social standpoints.’

‘There’s no denying that this film comes from a subjective political viewpoint, however its intention is not social critique. Rather it seeks to explore in some way the embedded emotional confrontation between myself as the filmmaker and this disrupted landscape’.

Vacancy was inspired by a photo-article by Paddy Baxter on the phenomenon of Irish ‘ghost estates’. Read the article here