Review: The Universe Within (Interactive Doc)

The Universe Within Kat Cizek

As urban population density ever increases in global cities, Canadian documentary filmmaker Kat Cizek offers her hyper-connected, physically separated audiences a grand meditation on life in a modern urban highrise. After 7 years, Highrise encompasses a succession of unique online interactive projects and has stood as the unofficial cornerstone of the National Film Board of Canada’s internationally lauded interactive programme. The most recent and final instalment in the series, entitled The Universe Within, takes a decidedly digital turn in looking at the hidden lives of high-rise residents around the globe, and the identities and relationships that form, bend, break, or are born as a consequence of the way we use the Internet.

Made up of 24 short documentaries from individual flats around the world, the “interactive” component of the interactive documentary genre, for which Highrise has become highly exemplary, refers to its unique and changeable structure, and the relationship any individual user may have to it. Unlike a feature film screening, which may be made up of sections purposefully placed in meaningful order, interactive documentaries (or “idocs” as they are often called) allow the user to choose which scene they would like to see next, how long they would like to see it, and often, add to the content of the documentary itself. Now, as a work that examines contemporary, digitally influenced and often facilitated lives and lifestyles, the use of an online exhibition style that would have been near inconceivable even 10 years ago becomes particularly apt.

An ethereal, original music score and a starrier sky than one would ever see from any urban locale ushers the user into this interior digital universe. Three fluid, fidgeting masses of pixels (or are they a mosaic of apartment building windows seen from a distance?) loom over a generic skyline of grey towers to form figures; guardians of the project’s interface who, when clicked, self-reflexively explain their contractedness as apparitions, algorithms, or actors, but assure the reality of each of the stories included in the site. Following any one figure launches the user in one of three directions through a branching structure of film clips. The figure asks a question, and the user selects an ‘answer’ which begins the presentation of one short documentary on that theme, from one particular part of the world. Each of these miniature documentaries is a montage of video footage and still photography, accompanied by interties and a voiceover, often in a foreign language.

The interface itself is seductive. The pixelated figures are continually in flux, waiting for the user to make their choice. The progression of the entire documentary seems to depend on your individual, important answer. When you hesitate or walk away to make a cup of tea, the character blurts, “Are you still there?” creating the illusion of a mutually dependent relationship between the digital and human. The variety and scope of stories available is impressive – the research team must have worked dilligently to collect such hidden narratives.

The project is definitely an innovative exploration of the relationship between highrise lifestyles and digitality. But how much of a succinct idea or perspective The Universe Within pushes forward is relatively ambiguous. The Highrise team has produced its most aesthetically and technologically sophisticated interface, but are the few pithy interactive segments where users are invited to plot their own global familial relations or urban commute path on a map against those of other users enough to keep our near-goldfish level digital attention spans focused for long? That remains to be seen.

Discover the universe for yourself at

Sonya Suraci

Sonya Suraci

Sonya Suraci is a dedicated cinephile and screen culture vulture from Toronto, Canada. She is currently studying her Masters in Film and Screen Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, with a focus on the intersection between interactive documentaries, gamification and social activism.

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