Thresholds of cinematic space: exploring the significance of doors and architecture in film

Parikshit Nema and Nipun Prabhakar
Parikshit Nema
Parikshit Nema is a documentary filmmaker and a writer based in Mumbai, India. His work deals with performance, sound and found media to interrogate the politics of image and memory-making.
Nipun Prabhakar
Nipun Prabhakar is a documentary photographer based in Kutch and Delhi, India. He works on longterm projects on intersections of ideas, artifacts, built environments and folklore. He was the Cornell South Asian fellow 2019-20 for his long-term work on the doors of Nepal.
Red Envelope is a series of journals published by LWK + PARTNERS and is a collaborative project between the practice and Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae.

Architecture has long been used as a secondary character in films – setting the scenes by providing context, foreshadowing storylines and reaffirming tone. From staircases to doorways and windows, building features are placed with intention, and often, relied on by directors for subtle storytelling. Here, cinematic examples from the US, Iran and India shed light on the use of the door as a poignant frame.

To build a place is a fundamental objective of both architecture and cinema. While architecture lets one navigate space in three dimensions, cinema provides the same experience by the relative motion of camera, subject and place across time. This creates a virtualised third dimension into (or out of) the screen, which is best exemplified in the cinematic legend of terrified viewers running away from the screen of the Lumiere Brothers’ early film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896). Dr Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finnish architectural thinker, contends that the presentation of a cinematic event is inseparable from the architecture of space, place and time, and a film director is bound to create architecture, sometimes actively but often unknowingly. Modernity saddled both disciplines with the hopes and aspirations of societies in a state of churn and flux, obligated to craft national culture and identity.

Doors and windows are perhaps the most vital architectonic elements, especially in the Global South. The utilitarian function of circulation and ventilation are very important to non-western societies situated in the tropics. Doors in particular are also markers of identity and culture, providing an interface as well as a border between public and private spaces. Some doors invite, some exclude, some constrain and others liberate. One can look through transparent doors meant to entice you into becoming a consumer. An imposing iron door with warning signs against trespassing and a ferocious dog might ward you off.

In the physical and schematic aspect, all too familiar to a conventional architect, it’s the facade that presents the building to the world, but at the user’s human scale, it is the door that creates situations, movement, drama and consequently, feelings. In cinema, doors and frames have been pivotal in creating drama and exhibiting the situational constraints. Doors act as both membrane and barrier between what is and what could be. Doors that teleport across space and time in fantasy and science fiction genres are the most famous and literal iteration of this function.

Image courtesy of Aman Darwish

For example, in The Matrix Reloaded (2003), we are introduced to a hallway of green doors that are shortcuts for certain programmes to quickly access any part of the matrix. While in The Chronicles of Narnia (2005, 2008 and 2010), the wardrobe transports people on earth to the fantasy land of Narnia. Then there are scenes that have gone on to achieve iconic status, like Jack Nicholson’s face in The Shining (1980) peeking through an orifice in an axed door to terrorise his family, or Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939) entering the technicolor world of Oz through a door.

In dramas, doors are used to signify growing emotional distance and isolation between characters. As the classic film The Godfather (1972) closes, we see Diane Keaton’s character get literally shut out of her husband’s life when an aide of his closes the door. The scene foreshadows the character’s diminished stature and their eventual acrimonious separation in the sequel. This is typical of set-based films where architectural elements are practical props with symbolic significance.

On the other hand, the films of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami deploy and actively mobilise the on-location vernacular architecture and natural landscape of rural Iran. The architectural elements actively frame the cinematic narrative and create situations that drive the plot.

The first film of the series, Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), has a remarkably simple plot at its core: a young boy must find his classmate’s house in a nearby village to return his notebook so that the friend can do his homework and avoid expulsion from school.

The film opens with a close shot of an ajar door set to the sound of a noisy unsupervised classroom, owing to the teacher being late. The kids are soon disciplined by their teacher’s arrival. The strict authority of adults over children is a recurring theme from here on in the film, which creates the primary conflict in the plot. The door is pivotal here; in the narrative, it provides the students respite from the panopticon that they are subjected to, while forcing the viewer to assume information from aural cues as it introduces ambiguity.

Once the protagonist enters the neighbouring town of Poshteh, the scale of the daunting task of navigating an architectural maze without landmarks becomes apparent. The task of establishing a place is now central to both the character as well as the viewers, and one cannot help but feel the helplessness of the boy, staring at unfamiliar houses and doors that provide little clue for the quest. The task at hand requires the protagonist to transgress into private spaces and solicit their help in his search, and as such most encounters happen at doorsteps. There is an elevation-drawing-quality to shots that minimise perspective and punctuate space with the doors and windows. Later in the evening the lit windows project their obscura image on dark walls.

In another sequence of the same film that shifts action back to Koker where the boy’s grandfather and other men sit around and chatter, we are introduced to a craftsman who fabricates doors for a living. As part of a sales pitch, he promises to make a door so strong and enduring that it would be exhibited in a museum in Tehran. This whimsical conversation prompts questions about how changes in construction and materiality hint at social transformation and modernity. An atomising society demands greater security and separation from the commons and urbanisation fuels the rise of nuclear families detached from their roots. An elderly man in Poshteh who is also a craftsman of doors and windows, albeit those of wood and more traditional designs, then helps the boy in his quest, but without success. The film’s resolution is punctuated by four door situations – the first two at the boy’s home in Koker, and the rest at the classroom where the teacher and protagonist enter the scene. Ushered into a room where he can finally do his (and his friend’s) homework, a howling wind soon bursts open the door to dramatic effect and we are taken to the classroom the next day. The friend has seemingly resigned to his fate of imminent expulsion before the boy arrives just in time to reveal he has done the homework for both of them.

The visual and dramatic effect of doors in Where is the Friend’s Home? is akin to that of a refrain in Persian and Urdu ghazals, anchoring scenes and plot but adapting to the variety of particular themes the film touches on. Doors therefore can be seen as supportive elements to a film, and analogous to architectural frames that outline a construction.

Doors also exclude and can be emblematic of a society’s intricacies in films that portray social issues. In such films they become a site of transgressive potential. The 2010 Indian film Mumbai Diaries (Dhobi Ghat) dealt with characters skirting around social norms and entering spaces they are not supposed to, given their social status and identity. An unlikely friendship blossoms between a washerman and an upper-class photographer when she invites him into her uptown apartment instead of keeping him waiting for her laundry at the door, as is customary. In many Indian films, a sense of belonging is portrayed by involving doors, like in Katha (1984), shot in state-built community housing (chawls). The main character immediately nails his name plate on the door of his house as soon as he becomes a permanent employee at work. The door here is an expression of people’s aspirations and pride; an inscription on a hard-earned trophy in a sluggish, stagnating economy. In addition to names, doors often bear ornamentation and construction details that affirm identity. To frame something is to accord importance, leading the eye and mind to it; paintings have frames, photographic and cinematographic compositions have frames, metaphysical concepts have epistemological framings. As a significant rectangular element in living space, they have the effect a piece of art does. Thus, one is inclined to agree with Kiarostami when he says that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame.

Read more from Red Envelope.

This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the fourth journal themed ‘ARCHITECTURE + FILM’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.