The 2018 Architecture and Design Films Showcase at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts runs until July 1. More than fifteen films covering these important topics are being shown in the YBCA theatre; including Dream Empire, which won the top prize at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival last year and was produced by the Danish Film Institute and Sundance Institute. Dream Empire is a boom to bust story about the real estate hyper bubble in China – the economic event that has created the most world-renowned, architecturally significant, destination airports. The final screening of this film at the YBCA is on Sunday, June 24 at 3 pm.
Dream Empire chronicles wealthy real estate investors using finance capital to fill remote towns in China with opulent, Vegas style condo megaplexes – one is shown that even has its own underwater museum. It was shot by David Borenstein, an American director who also narrates parts of the documentary. But the film is mostly narrated by its star, Yanna Yang, the female co-founder of the “foreigner rental agency” that employed the director – as a “white monkey” he says – when his anthropology scholarship ran out. Yanna sells shows – international acts – to real estate developers who feature costumed foreigners as entertainers – and, even, props – at massive condo sales events. The stunning architecture of the brand new developments provide a lush backdrop for the difficult circumstances being navigated by the two.
After finding out the fate of the agency in a peak at the ending during the opening scene – which lends a bookend effect to the documentary that is reminiscent of an essay – Yanna is then seen recruiting David, on the streets of the thriving city of Chongquing, during the early years of the company. Her business partner, Jimmy, takes meetings with investors and she also, separately, makes sales presentations. Together, Jimmy and Yanna chronicle the growth of their company in videos of their expanding office space over the years. Yanna, a rural migrant, struggles financially when the firm’s margins thin. She sells her stake in the firm to Jimmy, because she has no money, and tells him that she’s taken a unique economic perspective following her tenure as a co-owner of their business.
The environment is festive as David documents his experience as a performer at “the most eye catching projects not only in China but in the entire world” according to one investor interviewed on-screen. Sexism in the industry is briefly highlighted when Yanna tells David about an early career experience with a male investor that led to her to seek the protection of a male business partner. As she states reflectively, during one of her narratives, “The things I have experienced have completely destroyed my way of seeing the world.” Cultural appropriation is also writ large when David’s camera observes an expo attendee – likely a prospective home buyer – petting one of his co-workers as he stood as a prop – and the co-worker communicating his disdain. Then, the expo was interrupted by protestors – a group of buyers of the dream homes that were now, largely, empty towers. Panning shots of these dark and lifeless structures at the end of the film contrast sharply with the big parties and exuberant declarations made by China’s President Xi Jinping years prior about China’s economic power to bring any beautiful thing that could be imagined into existence. Dream Empire allows the viewer to witness China’s architectural renaissance.