'Ruina': Film Review.

Courtesy of Markus Lenz
Deft debut doc delineates direct democracy

German documentarist Markus Lenz's debut explores how an unfinished Venezuela office-block became Latin America's biggest vertical community

The sky's the limit for the enterprising squatters in Markus Lenz's stimulating, vertigo-inducing documentary Ruina, which persuasively celebrates a high-rise community labeled a "vertical slum" by politicos, architects and some of its neighbors in downtown Caracas. Premiering at Prague's One World festival in March, this briskly accessible slice of socio-economic reportage has since popped up at a scattering of niche events around the circuit, but deserves wider exposure and renown. Festivals and channels favoring political, current-affairs and human-rights themes should certainly check it out.

Devotees of Showtime's Homeland will already be familiar with the 623-foot, 45-story, elevator-less Confinanzas building in the heart of the Venezuelan capital, as it formed the setting for the third-season episode "Tower of David"—filmed in Puerto Rico. But the sympathetic portrait accumulated here by Lenz, downplaying hazards and discontents, is a world away from Homeland's sensationalized vision of gun-toting mercenaries. And it forms a welcome corrective to the kind of high-rise claustro-dystopias familiar from movies like Dredd and The Raid.

Instead, Lenz shows how the 2,700 residents, occupying levels up to the 29th floor have gradually transformed a colossal avatar of financial disaster—construction was abandoned twenty years ago amidst a banking crisis—into a functioning "legal co-operative with an elected board."

Indeed, the picture fascinates as a depiction of an unusually direct democracy, one in which rights are upheld but duties are enforced—those who don't pull their weight may find themselves without electricity. Details of such sanctions emerge when Lenz eavesdrops on one floor's lively council-meeting supervised by gregarious Gladys, who's as close as the film comes to having a principal focus, and whose concrete-box apartment has been transformed into a brightly-colored haven of bohemian chic.

The dominant human presence, however, is an individual who probably never set foot in the Confinanzas tower: Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's firebrand left-wing president from 1999 until his death in March last year. Although ailing, Chavez is very much alive throughout the period covered by Ruina—he's heard on radio and television extoling the virtues of his revolution, comments which form a wry counterpoint to the hardscrabble realities on view here. 

The refreshingly music-free soundtrack features narrated extracts from an plaintive open letter written by the residents petitioning their beloved "Comandante" and defending their turf. Because while the tower's rebirth could be hailed as an example of the leader's Chavismo philosophy—resourceful, defiantly self-reliant, community-spirited achievement—it's clear that the residents' tenure is imperiled by forces more pressing than the ever-present low-level danger of earthquakes.

Unsupported and even opposed by local government, the dwellers feel under constant threat of possible forced relocation, with commercial forces eager to expunge what the tower's own designer calls "an eye-sore... a cancer-wound." While clearly much more engaged with his subject's human rather than material aspects, director/editor/co-cinematographer Lenz crafts boxy 4:3 compositions which emphasize the soaring angles and stark modernism of the building's exterior. His no-nonsense approach to montage recalls the architectural surveys of his veteran compatriot Heinz Emigholz—not a bad master for any neophyte to emulate.

The newcomer maximizes the lofty perspectives afforded by South America's seventh-tallest building, surveying the lights of dusk and the city's hill-bordered landscape as a body-builder pumps iron with requisitioned industrial scraps. "You gotta be inventive," remarks the weightlifter—a motto whose current applications and implications extend far beyond the Caracas horizon.

Production companies: KHM (Academy of Media Arts, Cologne)
Director / Screenwriter / Producer / Editor: Markus Lenz
Cinematographers: Markus Lenz, Leonardo Acevedo
Sales: KHM

No Rating, 73 minutes