Twelve Neighbours. Directed by Marianna Economou. Athens, Greece: Lynx Production, 2009. 52 minutes.

Chez Jolie Coiffure. Directed by Rosine Mbakam. New York: Icarus Films, 2019. 70 minutes.

Reviewed by Elsa Koleth

The documentaries reviewed here are valuable texts to inform pedagogy on a range of topics, including urban change, gender and everyday placemaking, difference and multiculturalism, migration, transnationalism, race, subjectivity, border studies, as well as ethnographic research methods. Marianna Economou’s Twelve Neighbours centers on a neighborhood in Athens, Greece, called Sfaktirias Street, where people of different generations and backgrounds negotiate everyday life as witnesses to the inexorable temporalities of urban change. Rosine Mbakam’s Chez Jolie Coiffure centers on encounters within a hair salon in the neighborhood of Matongé in Brussels, Belgium—a hub for African immigrant communities—and revolves around the salon’s Cameroonian owner, Sabine. Both films provide intimate ethnographic insights into the lives and stories of the people who occupy these respective urban settings, while exploring spatialities across multiple scales.

Twelve Neighbours introduces the audience to the social world of Sfaktirias Street with aerial shots of Athens and scenes of residents starting their day, including two elderly women as they make “funeral wheat” to distribute to their neighbors as part of a traditional practice for honoring the dead. Chez Jolie Coiffure opens with a brief street-level view of the salon from the shopping arcade in which it is situated before Sabine invites the filmmaker to retreat to the relative safety of the salon, the interior world that becomes the vantage from which we perceive the neighborhood and those who pass through it. Both films draw attention to the gendered nature of placemaking, with women in particular being central to both the productive and social reproductive labor undertaken to maintain kinship networks and key nodes of quotidian interaction and community building.1

Both films portray city life replete with tensions resulting from encounters between people who occupy different social locations and have differing interests as well as with exchanges of solidarity and care. Economou illustrates socialities at the scale of an urban village, in which the borders of public and private space are frequently dissolved, and where the residents (many of whom are elderly) witness transformations in their industrial working-class neighborhood through temporal registers of nostalgia—even as they contend with or embrace the inevitability of change and find ways to extend help to newcomers, such a Kurdish asylum seeker who lives in the basement of a local café.2 The more intimate setting of Sabine’s salon becomes a refuge and safe harbor for the African immigrants who frequent it, several of whom, like Sabine, suffer the precarity and anxiety of having irregular migration status or pending asylum claims in Belgium and seek solace or aid in confiding their challenges to her.3 As Sabine and her clients narrate their experiences from the narrow confines of the salon, the film vividly charts the transnational spatialities of their often perilous migration journeys across multiple continents in the quest for freedom and better livelihoods.

When viewed together these two texts serve as fruitful counterpoints for analyzing urban transformation, for example, in the context of migration and racial and ethnic diversity.4 Economou provides insight into the impacts of economic and social changes in Greece that have shaped the neighborhood and its industrial character over time.5 As long-term Greek residents narrate these stories of urban transformation, a few immigrants—all racialized men from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa—move through the film as presences rendered variously familiar (workers, asylum seekers, and residents) and unfamiliar (an unknown quantity or threat), while their stories and transnational connections are gestured to as shadows of distant elsewheres. The “others” here are still markedly strangers, even as they participate in and contribute to the everyday life of the neighborhood. Mbakam, on the other hand, masterfully inverts the white gaze to render dominant Belgian society strange. She achieves this by highlighting, for example, Sabine’s wry critique of extractive racial voyeurism from the overwhelmingly white tourist groups who gape as they walk past her salon and candid discussions among Sabine and her clients about the racism African immigrants face in the city’s public spaces in addition to the physical and structural racism of state policing and border enforcement regimes.6 By drawing out the subaltern perspectives and everyday, situated knowledges of its subjects, Mbakam’s film serves as a powerful epistemological and political critique of the racial cartographies and gendered violences of contemporary migration, displacement and economic dispossession, as well as of the simultaneous fetishization and demonization of migrants and racial difference in urban settings.

These thoughtful and complex films serve as rich resources to engage students in critical reflections on the political nature of contemporary urban transformation, border politics, the political economy and gendered nature of transnational migration, and gendered placemaking. They are also useful for instructing students on creative approaches and ethico-political dimensions of ethnographic research, particularly in the context of feminist research praxis.

1 For further reading see, for example, Linda Peake and Martina Rieker, eds., Rethinking Feminist Interventions into the Urban (London: Routledge, 2013); Linda Peake, Elsa Koleth, Gökbörü Sarp Tanyildiz, Rajyashree N. Reddy, and darren patrick, eds., A Feminist Urban Theory for Our Time: Rethinking Social Reproduction and the Urban (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2021).

2 I am grateful to Mantha Katsikana for generously sharing with me her reflections on her lived experience and understanding of this Athens neighborhood, and for suggesting the work of Dina Vaiou.

3 The term “irregular” is used in migration studies literature to refer to forms of migration, mobility, and migration status that fall outside of legally sanctioned migration regimes. This term recognizes that there are multiple and complex reasons why people migrate, and multiple routes and forms of mobility, which may or may not be “regularized” through official recognition by nation states. At the same time, the use of “irregular” deliberately eschews terms such as “illegal,” which states and governmental bodies routinely use to discipline, criminalize, and stigmatize migrants through punitive border policies.

4 For further reading see, for example: Ayse Çağlar and Nina Glick Schiller, Migrants and City-Making: Dispossession, Displacement, and Urban Regeneration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

5 For further reading see, for example, Dina Vaiou and Rouli Lykogianni, “Women, Neighbourhoods and Everyday Life,” Urban Studies 43, no. 4 (April 2006): 731-43; Dina Vaiou and Ares Kalandides, “Practices of Solidarity in Athens: Reconfigurations of Public Space and Urban Citizenship,” Citizenship Studies 21, no. 4 (March 2017): 440-54.

6 For further reading on Black geographies see, for example, Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

Elsa Koleth is a research associate at the City Institute at York University, Toronto, Canada, where she works on the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Partnership Project “Urbanization, Gender and the Global South: A Transformative Knowledge Network” (GenUrb). Previously, she was a post-doctoral fellow on GenUrb and completed her doctorate in migration studies at the University of Sydney, Australia. She is a coeditor, with Linda Peake, Gökbörü Sarp Tanyildiz, Rajyashree Reddy, and darren patrick, of the volume A Feminist Urban Theory for Our Time: Rethinking Social Reproduction and the Urban (London: Wiley Blackwell).