RUINA at HAVANA FILM FESTIVAL – Interview with filmmaker Markus Lenz

Ruina poster

Often called the largest vertical slum in Latin America, the Confinanzas Tower in Downtown Caracas, a 200-meter skyscraper-ruin originally intended as a bank and currently squatted by 3,000 people, is the subject of the aptly called RUINA, a new documentary film by German filmmaker Markus Lenz.

Ignored by the city’s administration and dreaded by the neighbourhood, the inhabitants of Torre Confinanzas build up their own model of a socialist micro-society in their vertical city.

Overcoming a lot of obstacles, Markus managed to persuade the media-shy community inside to, literally and metaphorically, open up…

This interview was taken on December 11, 2014 at ICAIC, Havana as part of THE 36th INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF THE NEW LATIN AMERICAN CINEMA

Dana Knight: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us what your film is about?

Markus Lenz: I’m a filmmaker from Germany and I’m presenting here my documentary film Ruina. The film is about an abandoned skyscraper in downtown Caracas, a building that was abandoned for more than 13 years before it was squatted by a bunch of people who started to create something like a socialist microcosm with apartment house buildings, thus changing completely the meaning of the building.

What sparked your interest in this story and how did you come across it?

My interest in this subject was aroused when I read an article in a German newspaper. It was about the crime situation and the decay in Venezuela and there were two phrases about this tower. The journalist was saying this was an abandoned bank squatted by people. This seemed very strange to me.

Also, this building is right in the centre of the city in an upmarket area, creating a visual contrast that is symbolical of the huge economic disparity in the country. In the film, it is referred to as a “cancerous growth” that had to be eradicated from an otherwise economically “healthy” area.

Exactly, it’s in a middle-class and upper-class area and also it’s a bank, there are banks and offices all around it. The area is like the Venezuelan Wall Street.

When did you come across this article? 

It was back in 2011. At the time I was looking for an idea for a film, I was doing research and when I came across this article I knew immediately that was my story, it was something I really wanted to do. Then some good things happened: I had the possibility to go to Bogota in Colombia on an exchange programme from the art school where I studied in Cologne. I had only one week to decide if I wanted to go, there was only one place left. Realising I’d be closer to the tower, I went and spent seven months in Bogota, I studied and worked there. At the end of my stay there, I travelled to Caracas to make this film.

Did you shoot the entire film while you were on this exchange programme?

Yes. But in Caracas I only stayed for three weeks, I filmed everything you saw in three weeks.

That is amazing, I had the impression that the film covered a longer period, of at least a year. 

No but it was really intense, I was working 20 hours a day. We had a short time and a small budget so it was not possible to stay longer.

And the people living there, how did they react to your idea of making this film?

Badly! The doors were closed at the beginning. They were like: “We are not interested in this project at all”. They were also afraid of bad media, there were already small videos on Youtube which were very harsh and critical of the community inside. So they were really not interested in another kind of negative depiction of their lives. And a few days before travelling from Bogota to Venezuela, I also met a girl who was trying to do the same thing. She said to me she had been trying to get into the tower for seven weeks, with no success. So my prospects were bad, I really wasn’t sure if I would be able to film inside.

How did you convince the people in the tower to open up and collaborate with you on this film?

After several days of the doors staying closed and them sending us away, I got this contact number for the secretary of the building whom you see in the film. So I just called her, I don’t know how many times per day but I basically stalked her. I could hear in her voice that she was kind of interested in getting to know me. And I really wanted to make this film, I was there with my equipment, I couldn’t go home without filming anything.

And she finally gave in at some point and I had a meeting with her. Interestingly enough, it turned out she saw me and my friend hanging out the day before in a neighbouring barrio in Bogota. So she immediately recognised me, she had a smile on her face and this kind of broke the ice between us.

Did you have to reassure them that you were going to depict them in a positive light?

At the beginning, yes. I said to her I was not interested in making this classic negative report about their building, there are so many of those already. I wanted the perspective of the people who lived there, the neighbours. I said I really wanted to know what is going on there and how they organise themselves.

Were you surprised by anything when you finally had a chance to witness their lifestyle or did it conform to your expectations?

The feel you get when you are inside, you don’t feel the height of the building so it’s like you could be anywhere, in any apartment building, it didn’t feel like a squat. Then I was really surprised by how clean it is inside and how organised it is. To be honest, I expected to find a mess inside and I expected this to be a place without any organisation, maybe with a lot of crime too.

Interestingly enough, they are evicting people who are using drugs.

Yes, they keep them out. Probably the first years were very hard because there were a lot of people who used drugs and were associated with crime but eventually they managed to stabilise their community.

What do you think will happen to these people in the future, will they be granted the right to live there?

They’ve been there for seven years now, they moved in in September 2007. But now they have to leave. When I finished the film in March this year, there was still no solution for them. But in the summer the government decided to resettle them, to kick them out but give them another place in Caracas outside the city centre, of course. This is a satellite city 70 km away which for a lot of people is a problem because they work in the centre and now suddenly they don’t have access to it. And I don’t know what will happen with the building, it is unclear right now.

They probably won’t have the money to finish it. If they needed 10 million to complete it 20 years ago, now the cost will be much higher. 

Yes, a lot more. The project was abandoned 20 years ago so to transform it now into a financial building, it will be very difficult. There were some negotiations with a Chinese bank that wanted to rebuild it, but I’m not sure, there are a lot of rumours in the media. Personally I think they will tear it down.

Are you taking the film to other festivals?Where are you on the festival circuit?

We premiered in Prague this year then travelled a lot, to Rome, Brussels, Istanbul. We screened at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. We had a lot of screenings in November, in 5 or 6 festivals. The next screening is in Stockholm.

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