Christiania is a squatter village in the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark. In 1971, a group of young people moved into the abandoned military base and transformed it into a thriving community with a sustainable economy. It has had a rough history, with police stand-offs and threat of being retaken by the government, but 40 years later, it still stands.
A team of filmmakers from Bus No. 8 went there in 2006 to tell its story to the world, and we had the pleasure of speaking with Richard Jackman from the team about the upcoming documentary.
TechZwn: You mention in the video on Kickstarter that Christiania really captured your heart in many ways, and there is a certain charm about it. Could you talk about this a bit – what was it you found there that moved you?
Jackman: Christiania is very different from any urban neighborhood I’ve ever seen. Many people in Copenhagen travel by bike or public transportation, and traffic is not as heavy as in most cities, but still there is the usual noise and anonymity of a big city. When you pass through the gate to Christiania, you are entering another world. Cars are banned, there is greenery everywhere, and a sense that people are engaged and interested in other people and their surroundings. Small children run free, their parents relaxed as long as they stay within sight, and dogs run free as well.
The messiness of work is not separated from the residential and commercial because it is all part of residents’ daily lives. That’s why the tourists visiting Christiania’s notorious Pusher Street first pass a cabinetry workshop and the Machine Hall, where Christiania’s heavy equipment and trash truck are maintained. Everything is at the human scale.
TechZwn: You mention the community gives an alternative to the way most of us believe capitalist societies should work. How are things there done differently?
Jackman: First and most important, individuals do not own land or buildings in Christiania. Even if you build your own house or renovate an apartment, you cannot sell it when you move out, and the local area meeting decides who will move into a vacant home. Of course you can’t get a mortgage to pay for construction, so everything happens incrementally, at a small scale.
People are constantly building and improving in Christiania, a bit at a time, as they can afford it, either with their own money or with a small loan from the Building Office. This means that Christiania has not become commercialized and it remains very affordable for all sorts of people.
Second, most businesses are collectives owned by the people that work there. They are small, friendly places that emphasize community and meaningful work as much as productivity. Money and paid work are less important in Christiania. Community engagement, personal relationships, creativity and fun are all much more important.
TechZwn: The police clashes and threat of eviction seem to be a big part of what’s going on there. I’m curious what happened, and how the people have prevailed through this?
Jackman: Christiania has always had a complex relationship with the Danish government. Christiania’s policy of allowing hash and marijuana dealing has attracted both criminal gangs and police intervention. But in the last 10 years or so, when the government was controlled by Venstre, a right-wing neoliberal party, the police attacks against the hash trade increased considerably. This of course has had little effect on hash dealing, since you can buy hash in other parts of Copenhagen as well. But it made Christiania look like a violent, lawless place, which served the government well as they tried to “normalize” Christiania.
Christiania sits on some very attractive property that must be making the state and real estate developers salivate. But a left-of-center government is now in power, and Christiania has worked out a deal to buy and lease the place from the state, so I expect the relationship to be less tense moving forward.
TechZwn: Just on a broader note, I’m curious what you hope to show people through this film? You mention you’ve been filming since 2006, so you’ve really put a lot of work into. Could you talk about this a bit?
Jackman: Actually, I spent five months in Copenhagen in 2005, studying Christiania’s building culture for my master’s thesis in architecture. So the groundwork for this film goes back to that. When Robert and I decided to make this film, we realized that few people outside of Scandinavia know about Christiania.
Christiania shows that a community can function for 40 years with very different rules than most of us are used to, so we thought it was important to let more people know about it, and start with the basics. So our film tries to give a broad overview of Christiania’s history, what it’s about, and how it feels to be there. Then if people want to learn about some aspect of Christiania in more detail, they’ll have a general understanding and appreciation as a foundation. Recently the Occupy movement has made more people aware of ideas like leaderless organization and participatory democracy, so I hope there will be more interest in Cristiania and that people seeing our film will be a little more familiar with the possibilities that Christiania holds.
TechZwn: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Jackman: Christiania is a unique place, and will never be duplicated. But learning about Christiania can also can help people envision how to change things wherever they are. Whether it’s as grand an idea as taking over an abandoned military base, or just trying to make your workplace a little more democratic, or even deciding that personal relationships are more important than material wealth in your own life, Christiania opens people’s minds and hearts to new possibilities. That’s why some people find its continued existence so threatening, and some people find it so inspirational.
[box_light]Image courtesy of Bus No. 8[/box_light]