What if Walt Disney was actually able to build his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) and establish its own governance, economy, and community? Then, when completed, he abandoned it and moved on to the next project. Welcome to Brasilia, the federal capital of Brazil and an architectural wonder. If you go to the internet and look up the city, it’s one beautiful photo after the other highlighting the city’s unique architecture. In A Machine To Live In, artists and filmmakers Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke present both its beautiful side and its warts.
Brasilia was earmarked to be Brazil’s capital in 1960, moving from Rio de Janeiro to this central location. As portrayed in the film, Brasilia was built based on the city of the future (by 1960s standards). But, unfortunately, it just sits there and decays in the middle of a dystopian wasteland. It looks like what happens when futurists, philosophers, and artists are given too much influence. In the end, practical design and utility fly out the window.
It’s a quirky city too. Brasilia’s mascot appears to be a Sputnik satellite. The city is divided into sectors for hotels, banking, commerce, sports complexes, and worker dormitories. The filmmakers find interesting ways to contrast the lives of the poverty of the lower class versus the government elites.
Goldstein and Zielke’s approach to the story of A Machine To Live In reminds me of the Indian fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. They look at the city from several specific perspectives and paint a broader picture of it from these accounts. For example, the architectural structure of the city’s buildings is based on the sacred geometry of triangles and symmetry of lines while employing flowing curved lines such as circular windows, domes, and perimeters. It’s believed that this unique city design is why the citizens of Brasilia have the highest rate of cataracts in the country.
“…the city of the future…just sits there and decays in the middle of a dystopian wasteland”
The documentary also explores the city’s metaphysical wonders. The Masons play a significant role in the city, but many believe the city has Ultra-Terrestrial influences, while others are convinced there is also an inter-dimensional play at hand. Then there are those who refuse to buy into the city’s upper-class art and philosophy and are merely trying to survive day-to-day, such as the motorcycle gang circling the city with middle fingers extended in defiance.
A Machine To Live In has a unique appeal as a documentary. I’ve seen my fair share of travel documentaries, and Goldstein and Zielke choose not to employ standard techniques. There are rarely any wide-angle drone shots. Instead, the city’s vistas are computer-generated and integrated into the city’s lore. Eighty percent of the film is shot at ground level, through the eyes of its citizens, in an almost cinema verité fashion. The narration is poetic and philosophical in nature, with a heavy emphasis on the language of Esperanto.
The film’s appeal is just how strange the city is, and the writers/directors embrace this weirdness right from the start. It’s pretty glorious how they captured the city’s quirkiness, and the cinematography’s artistic shot composition transfixed me. I have zero issues watching subtitled films, though I struggled with the philosophical nature of the narration, which seems to be rarely accurate in its translation.
The 89-minute runtime can feel long at times, but I like weird, and it was worth going on this sometimes slow journey. The fact that Brasilia exists and an entire community of citizens is so invested in making it work is fascinating. For this reason alone, A Machine To Live In is definitely worth checking out. Thanks to Goldstein and Zielke, there are a lot of other reasons to enjoy it as well.
For more information, visit the official website of A Machine To Live In.
"…pretty glorious how they captured the city's quirkiness..."