Helene Klodawsky’s Malls R Us

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POV alum Helene Klodawsky has been busy at work since her film, No More Tears Sister aired on POV in 2006. Her fascinating new film, Malls R Us, screens at MoMA next week as part of the museum’s Canadian Front 2009 program. We asked her to answer a few questions about the film and about her career.

How did you come to make a film called Malls R Us? Why malls?
Helene Klodawsky: In 2006, while editing Family Motel (an alternative fiction film on a Somali refugee family’s journey into homelessness), I heard about a new project being developed by Instinct Films, a Montreal company. Writer Harold Crooks and researcher Terri Foxman — both of whom I hold in high esteem — were working closely with producer Ina Fichman on her idea about the global spread of shopping malls. I read the preliminary research and became very intrigued. Malls seemed such a potent symbol of how people imagine the “good life.” Now that this “dream” is being spread around the globe, there was much to question, both culturally and environmentally. The original research contained lots of gems. For example, I was fascinated by the story of Jon Jerde, one of the most celebrated and gifted retail architects in the world, who couldn’t stop saying how much he hated shopping. I read about deadmalls.com and knew I wanted to meet its young, nostalgic founders. And then there was developer Rubin Stahl — plotting the biggest “eco” mall in the world. There were formal challenges that attracted me too: For example, how to tell the 70-year-old story of these huge temples to consumerism? I definitely had my personal associations as well. During my pre-teen years I visited malls with my friends every weekend. For years I observed my mother, a Holocaust survivor, window shopping in malls. I think it helped her feel better. And today, because I live in a great walkable city, I rarely have to step inside a shopping centre. I understand the magic of malls, yet I also cringe at the thought of spending time in them.

So I let Instinct Films know that I very much wanted to direct the “mall” film. Before long, I had signed on and was spending countless hours in malls without buying a thing.

Can you tell us more about the film?
Klodawsky: Malls R Us explores the world of shopping malls, offering critical reflections and revelations on one of North America’s most popular suburban institutions. Mixing nostalgia, architectural ambition, pop culture and politics, Malls R Us travels from North America, the mall’s origins, to some of its newer hosts — Poland, Japan, India and Dubai. Along the way, the film meets Dead Mall activists mourning the loss of their crumbling hang-outs, sci-fi guru Ray Bradbury extolling the virtues of getting lost in a mall, a popular mass uprising against malls by shopkeepers in India, and a church gathering contemplating the sacredness of shopping centers.

Some of the world’s most renowned contemporary retail architects and developers are also featured. They explain how malls are the medium through which the 21st century will rebirth decaying cities, inspire monument building, unite mankind and even help the planet grow green. We see the ways in which Mother Earth — pushed over to make way for the mall — is reconfigured in air-conditioned splendor, through babbling fountains, evergreen trees and glass ceilings. Religious, environmental and labour critics gaze past security cameras onto the shrinking public space, to ask whether community can ever be born out of food courts and superstores.

Walking among shoppers and workers of many tongues and cultures, Malls R Us wonders, “Is there only one true language at the mall — the one where money talks?”

The French band AIR created the soundtrack for the film. Can you tell us how this collaboration came about? What was it like working with the band?

Klodawsky: While editing, editor Howard Goldberg and I used a lot of AIR’s music in the rough track. We felt the music captured feelings and atmospheres we wanted to communicate — the global blurring of boundaries (between nations and cultures and between nature and artificiality) and people’s search for meaning in the modern world. Since Malls R Us is a Canadian/French co-production between Instinct Films of Montreal and the Paris-based company, Point du Jour, we always intended to hire French musicians. Hence it didn’t take much for producer Ina Fichman to think of contacting AIR directly to ask about a possible collaboration.
Initially, a couple of films I directed, along with a description of the mall project, were forwarded to AIR’s agent. Eventually, Ina and I went to Paris and I spoke to AIR at length about my vision of the film, and showed excerpts of the rough cut. As it happened, Nicolas Godin of AIR had hung out in a mall when he was young and still brought his children to malls on occasion. He and his partner, Jean-Benoit Dunckel, shared a strong interest in architecture and related to what we wanted to convey in the film.

Regarding the actual process, I collaborated with AIR “long distance,” through exchanges of rough DVDs, written notes and sample music. It was a smooth and very respectful process. In the end Nicolas wrote, “I watched the DVD and it is a very smart and deep documentary. It tells more about human beings than malls and therefore should be watched by everybody to be more aware of our ‘condition humaine.’”

Your films have encompassed many different subjects (from human rights in Sri Lanka to malls). You also made a dramatic film (Family Motel) in between No More Sisters and Malls R Us. Do you see a common thread that runs through your work? What attracts you to a project?

Klodawsky: The overall goal in my work is to reveal our shared humanity and desire for justice. Each of my films has demanded a total love affair with the subject and form. Most often, it’s a significant personal event or unusual encounter that kick-starts the long process of putting a film together. With Malls R Us my challenge was to find the heart of the subject while keeping the politics up front. I was intrigued with how to formally approach a subject with so many facets as there is no single mega theory or unified story of malls. In the end, I chose to focus on people obsessed with malls (for all sorts of different reasons) instead of academics writing from an observational point of view. It is this complexity that I tried to reflect in the multi faced telling of Malls R Us.

What are you working on now?

Klodawsky: I have a number of documentary and fiction projects in the cooker, as they say. It’s still too early to say which films will rise to the top.

What are some of your favorite documentaries?

Klodawsky: There are too many to name. At the beginning of my career, I was wowed by films like Union Maids and The Sorrow and The Pity. The voices of ordinary heroes and the use of archives to tell histories were life-altering. Later, when I moved to Quebec, I discovered a documentary tradition that was unique, exemplified by such works by Serge Giguere (The King of Drums), Sophie Bissonnette (Wives Tale) and Anne-Claire Poirier (Let Me Go). Today I am enthralled by so much experimentation in form, (Manufactured Landscapes by Jennifer Baichwal) as well as on the spot dramatic storytelling (Sisters in Law by Kim Longinotto).

Malls R Us is screening at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art on Saturday, March 21st as part of the Canadian Front 2009 program. The film is distributed by Icarus Films in the U.S.

Ruiyan Xu
Ruiyan Xu
Former POVer Ruiyan Xu worked on developing and producing materials for POV's website. Before coming to POV, she worked in the Interactive and Broadband department at Channel Thirteen/WNET. Ruiyan was born in Shanghai and graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Modern Culture and Media.