Tag Archives: gated communities

La Zona (2007)

“When my son grows up , how will I explain why we live behind a wall?”

Transport a Shirley Jackson story to modern-day Mexico and you have La Zona, a 2007 film from director Rodrigo Plá. The film opens in the beautiful clean streets of an affluent community as neatly dressed, uniformed school children march off to a private school. The camera pans through the immaculate streets and across the enormous homes and well-manicured lawns. A veritable paradise? And then the camera pans to huge walls topped with barbed wire and security cameras. Beyond the walls we see a vast sea of poverty and squalor–dilapidated, ramshackle homes and mountains of trash. These opening scenes of this  affluent, secured housing are powerfully constructed and yet at the same time, nothing is overdone.

Those living inside La Zona appear to share common concerns and similar values, and they have the money to buy the sort of lifestyle they want in order to raise their children and live securely. La Zona is protected–not just by walls, barbed wire and security cameras–but also by a team of security officers led by Gerardo (Carlos Bardem). La Zona, set in Mexico City, screams segregation with the lucky few on one side of the wall with the much less fortunate on the other, and with such a striking contrast in material comfort within just a few feet, of course, the inevitable happens, and one night during a freak storm, a billboard collapses and three young men climb into La Zona to steal….

The next day, Comandate Rigoberto (Mario Zaragoza) arrives at the gates of La Zona after complaints of gunshots. His questions are met with disdain and an offer of “50 pesos” to away. Enraged and humiliated, Rigoberto is determined to continue the investigation–even though he gets signals to let it drop. As events play out, the residents of La Zona are defiant and in blatant violation of legal and moral law. Meanwhile Rigoberto ploughs ahead with his investigation even though he butts heads with his ‘superiors.’ 

The rest of the film concerns what happened the night of the break-in, but also, and much more significantly how the residents react. Following the break-in, rumours explode and paranoia reigns, and the servants of La Zona families are subject to extra scrutiny. One scene shows an ad-hoc posse of teenage boys within the gated community hunting for a crook. Armed with golf clubs and even a harpoon gun, the boys swarm over the beautiful golf course and into a wooded gully. There’s so much space, and again off in the distance, outside of the walls, we see a hillside crowded with shacks–no space, nothing green–just squalor and poverty. Holding special emergency committee meetings in which the majority rule, the more aggressive members of La Zona dominate over those who are ambivalent or unwilling to take a moral stand. Ultimately, we see a series of moral mis-steps with either people too weak to stand up and voice their opinion, or people barreled over in a system so corrupt that everything can be bought for a price.

One of the main characters is teenager Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), the film’s moral centre, and in one scene, Alejandro’s father, Daniel (Daniel Giménez Cacho) explains to his son why he chose to live in La Zona and how he lost his faith in the Mexican justice system. Exactly why Alejandro choses to defy his father (and his values) and stand apart from his peers is unclear. In spite of this slight flaw, the film works very well indeed, and the final result is a film that asks some important questions about the right to security, the ability of the rich and powerful to command special dispensations, and once those dispensations are granted, just how far should they extend?

Director Matt Ehling made a short documentary film a few years ago about gated communities called Forbidden City, and one of the points the film makes is that gated communities are a sign of “increasing polarisation” between the rich and the poor. Mexico has the largest number of gated communities in the world, and some, like La Zona, are completely autonomous with their own electricity and water systems. Crime will always be one major argument for gated communities. With kidnappings on the rise in Mexico, at least one company offers sub-dermal transmitter implantation. Wealthy families are, of course, targets, and so it’s probably logical that the wealthy band together and pool resources in order to establish a safe environment. (I’ll add here that it’s not just the wealthy who are kidnapped–I read one case of a child of a shepherd who was killed by injected bleach when his parents failed to come up with the ransom).  The plethora of gated communities springing up worldwide is a symptom of a malfunctioning society, the ever-expanding gaps between the very rich and the very poor,  and the failure of state mechanisms which are, in theory, supposed to provide protection. In La Zona, we see a group of wealthy people attempting to establish a utopian community–a community which is occupied by people with similar social positions, values and wealth. Having established the community they desire, they operate it with a manual of by-laws, and when a showdown occurs, they feel justified in exacting punishment. It’s at this point that some residents reject La Zona (in their evaluation, it’s no longer a utopian community), and others return happily to the established status quo.

La Zona is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s Foreign Film Festival.

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Forbidden City (1997)

“Well for our purposes we define gated communities as any residential are where normally public places are privatized by restricted access.”

The Forbidden City was the name of the Chinese Imperial Palace–an impressive compound of 100s of buildings located in the centre of Beijing, and the term forbidden referred to the fact that no one could enter without the Emperor’s permission. Surrounded by walls, guarded by towers and accessed only by a number of fortified gates, the Forbidden City was a city within a city–exclusive, protected and segregated from the riff raff.

How appropriate that Matt Ehling’s short documentary film examining the phenomenon of gated communities in America has the title Forbidden City, and it doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination to connect the implications of the ancient Forbidden City to the gated communities popping up all over the country.

The film, made in 1997 is just under 30 minutes long, and that’s not much time to pack in all of the aspects & history of gated communities, but in spite of the film’s brevity, there’s a lot of information here, and a great deal to mull over long after the film concludes.

Concentrating on a handful of gated communities in Las Vegas and Southern California, the film explores the features that draw people to buy these homes–the buzz words used in the sale catalogues, and the idea that there’s a “type” that lives there. The film was made over 10 years ago, and of course, we’ve since had the real estate bubble (and are now experiencing the subsequent collapse of the market), but the film mentions in several places that homes within these communities begin at 300,000 and soar to over a million. No doubt that seemed like chicken feed during the gluttonous housing boom.

Using the comments of salespeople, gated community homeowners, employees and experts, the film offers a fascinating look at this growing housing trend. As the film points out, gated communities are nothing new, but they are sprouting up at an alarming rate all over the country.

If you think safety is the only argument for gated communities, then think again. Funnily enough, and this was something that gave me a good laugh, there are gated communities within gated communities. So if you own a multi million dollar mansion, not only are you assured that the street riff raff can’t riffle through your dustbins, but you can also feel extra exclusive knowing that the yahoos whose homes cost a mere fraction of yours are locked out of your more exclusive zone.

Gates within gates is perhaps one of the most fascinating ideas within this documentary. After all, this throws the raison d’etre of the security aspect of gated communities into question. All the houses are already walled off, and people can’t enter without permission, so why do you need even more gates from your less-well off, but let’s remember, still exclusive neighbours? Of course, the answer is the notion of hierarchy. The gates within gates reinforce the notion of hierarchy.

I don’t live in a gated community–I probably wouldn’t last a week before a resident called security to haul me off, but I could certainly see that if someone has been the victim of violent crime, they would be drawn to live somewhere with added security. Of course, this idea leads to even more questions–what’s our society like if we have to take refuge inside vetted communities so we can sleep at night? What about us peasants who live outside the walls? Has the state malfunctioned to such a point that it’s necessary for the affluent to pay for private security compounds? The residents of these gated communities have, in essence pooled their collective resources to buy protection–what does that say about life on the other side of the walls? Are these communities a good thing? They emphasize the fact that the rest of the outside world is an undesirable, unsafe place, and these walled compounds certainly create segregation.

One of the interviewees, Mary Gael Snyder, the coauthor of Fortress America, funded by the Brookings Institute notes that gated communities are a symptom and a sign of the “increasing polarization” between rich and poor. Synder, who interviews very well, explains the attractions of gated communities and the underlying message of lifestyle, prestige and image.

The film also draws analogies between gated communities and military bases, and I think the filmmaker has a point. I’d never thought about comparisons between the two before, but after watching the footage, I could see the similarities.

After the film concluded, curious, I did an internet search and looked at homes for sale in Lake Las Vegas “resort.” I picked this ‘community’ simply because it seems somewhat absurd with its golf courses and 320 acre lake slap bang in the middle of the desert. There are currently 19 neighbourhoods with a range of prices–at the low end, houses range these days from just under 500,000, a mere bagatelle for a modest little abode to 14 million for an ostentatious mansion in the posher section that might very well belong on the Vegas strip. But it looks as though, in spite of the walls and extra security, a flood of foreclosures have breached the walls here too.

Forbidden City is available at www.prolefeedstudios.com

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