New Documentary Explores the Definition of “Home,” From the Arctic Circle to Megacities

The Human Shelter, which today makes its U.S. premier at the Los Angeles Architecture and Design Film Festival, explores subjects like climate change, human conflict, and urban development.

human shelter documentary
Courtesy Creative Alliance

Home is where the heart is. But beyond apartments and single-family houses, what is home to someone living in the Arctic circle or a floating slum in Lagos? The new film The Human Shelter, which premieres in the U.S. today at the Architecture Design Film Festival in Los Angeles, explores daily life in a diverse array of dwellings and environments. In producing the film, Copenhagen-born director Boris Benjamin Bertram traveled across four continents. Ahead of the screening, Bertram spoke to Metropolis about his experiences what architects can learn from the film.

How did the film come about?

Boris Benjamin Bertram: I wanted to go out and look at how people live in the most challenging places on earth—people who are challenged by climate change, megacities, a lack of resources. Then, I wanted to show how we can learn from them. I wanted it to be an expedition film that was curious and open-minded. It’s not a general documentary film.

The film features seven vignettes shot all over the world, but your first vignette focuses on the global refugee crisis. Why start there?

To me, each vignette is like a chapter. I wanted to do a segment on climate change but I also wanted to look at how we will live in the future, so I shot a segment with NASA, showing their NASA Mars Habitat project. Each chapter represents a trend that is challenging the planet right now. I traveled to four continents—from the snow to the desert.

There are 66 million refugees in motion [right now] across the world. To look at people who have almost nothing and see how they live raises the question: How do you define a home? We wanted to create a new conversation around [the idea of] home. We need to change our perception of how we live on the planet, especially in some of these places. It’s a political conversation we need to have.

human shelter documentary
Courtesy Creative Alliance

You feature structures in Iraq designed by Better Shelter, a company in Stockholm that makes temporary shelters as part of humanitarian initiatives. What led you there?

I went to Iraq and followed the footprints of refugees of in a United Nations camp. It was particularly surprising to see how refugees decorated their shelters. One subject we interviewed was a former politician living in the refugee camp who had next to nothing. But he had seven dress suits. Putting on a nice suit in the camp helped him help other people in the camp.

I was inspired by anthropology as a definition of home. It has four dimensions; to look at home with materials, our social relations, our rituals, and lastly, the body. How can we feel at home in the body? That’s the most interesting dimension. The body is our first shelter. It’s a fresh viewpoint for architects to see this film. It has the human as the focus, it’s a very humanistic approach. [Viewers] see nomadic people saying things in the film, like: “time is not going but arriving.”

In Lagos, you visited an area that’s been called the world’s biggest floating slum. What did you discover there?

One of our biggest challenges today is loneliness. We need to create communities.

Shooting in Makoko, the floating slum in Lagos, showed kitchens going in and out of several houses. There is a strong sense of community and belonging. It was very open. We really need to rethink how we design and use materials with the challenge of climate change and lack of resources.

Middle class family homes look very similar across the globe. One in four people in the world live in slum cities. In 2050, one in every three people will live in a slum area. How do we improve these areas? We need to innovate. Many of these informal settlements have innovation and creativity we can learn from.

human shelter documentary
Courtesy Creative Alliance

How did making this movie change your own idea of home?

I have always lived in Copenhagen, but after traveling through four continents to shoot this film, I came home and decided to move out of the city and nearer to nature. It really changed something inside me, on a personal level.

As one of my crew members said, we have a strong part in our DNA as humans to explore and be in motion. Making this film, I felt like an explorer myself. This film was made by the people who participated, not the buildings they live in. Sometimes we forget.

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