“Anthropology meets Urban Planning in an old city in the Netherlands” sums it up pretty well. It explores the relationship between the people of Leiden and their old urban environment. What’s it like to live a totally modern life in a very old place? How does this old pattern of city building shape the lives of people? How does it support a sense of community or physical activity? It’s these kinds of questions Cobblestone Stories explores.
Yes and no. Cobblestone Stories is an “ethnographic documentary” so the style is a bit different than a regular documentary. Rather than talking heads and voice overs telling viewers what to think, CS uses the immersive, experiential quality of ethnographic film. The idea is to show, rather than tell, and let viewers get some real sense of what it would be like to live in the city; to let them notice things on their own, ask their own questions and search for answers in the images and sounds.
It came out of a basic disconnect in my classroom (I’m an Anthropology Professor at Oregon Tech). In a couple of my classes I raised a basic question about the American man-made environment: “Is it time to reconsider the pattern of Urban Sprawl?” Being an anthropology class, a second question then comes up: “Is sprawl a good habitat for humans?” Fun stuff and critically important, I believe. The problem was that my students had a very hard time imagining what life would be like in different urban pattern. They could learn the terminology easily enough – walkability, mixed use and so on, but they couldn’t connect the words to a lifestyle. Being Americans, most of them had grown up in car-centered landscapes and saw driving everywhere as perfectly normal. Now, when they see Cobblestone Stories, they “get it” and a new kind of conversation begins.
Everyone, of course. Well, it’s mostly for people interested in making better places for people to live. There’s a lot of that going on in America these days and I hope this film is a useful addition to that conversation. It’s also designed for students of urban design and planning; the more urban planning theory you know, the more you will see in the film. But, it’s also a good introduction to the whole topic of “livable” cities. You don’t need to know anything about urban planning to enjoy and learn from Cobblestone Stories.
The biggest difference comes from approaching the topic from the perspective of an anthropological archaeologist. When working on my Ph.D. in Anthropology (University of Arizona, 1999), I was immersed in an approach called “Behavioral Archaeology,” which sees archaeology as the study of the relationship between people and their material culture in all times and places. That means archaeologists can study all sorts of things, not just ancient civilizations. While architects or urban planners often focus on the material culture (buildings, roads, transportation) and cultural anthropologists or sociologists focus on the people, behavioral archaeologists focus on the patterns of behavior that come from the relationship between the two. Not surprisingly, this results in a different sort of film.
There are two films that stand out in my mind. The first is William “Holly” Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” (1980) which is a quirky, voyeuristic look at how people use plaza spaces in New York City. It’s a classic in urban planning circles, largely because people really enjoy watching people (which is actually one of Whyte’s big points in the film).
The second is “True Stories” by the rock band The Talking Heads (1986), which is a very eccentric “mockumentary” of life in America during the 1980’s. There’s a moment in the film where David Byrne turns to the camera and says “I have something to say about the difference between American and European cities. But, I forgot what it is. I have it written down at home somewhere.” What an unusual thing to say in a movie! In a way, Cobblestone Stories is a response to that unsaid thought.
Of course there are other influences, including a touch of Rick Steves (the “Rick Steves Europe” travel show on PBS). Trying to film people moving through tight spaces, like alleyways, was a real challenge and I got some clues on how to approach it from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” There are also influences from ethnographic filmmakers, Jean Rouch and Robert Gardner in particular. One of the greatest influences overall came from studying ethnographic filmmaking at the University of Leiden with Metje Postma and Janine Prins. The Leiden School approach is to show, not tell, and to use “plan sequences” which show whole acts from start to finish (compressed for time, of course). Their view is that you should be able to tell the story visually, without needing voice overs.
I visited Leiden for the first time in 1995 for an archaeology conference and was absolutely thunderstruck. I had been reading a lot of books on urban planning and the downsides of urban sprawl and, suddenly, it all made sense. I could actually “feel” the difference deep down inside. It just felt good. I returned several times to visit friends and each time I thought “I must try living here.” It’s one thing to be a tourist in a place and something else entirely to live there. So, to make this film, I moved to Leiden with my family and lived there for a year. This meant dealing with all the things of daily life – finding a doctor, taking kids to school, buying groceries, waiting for the cable guy, shipping packages, and so on. How would my first impressions hold up against the reality of daily living? Of course, this is the classic participant observation approach used by anthropologists and is one of the elements of the film.