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By Robert Koehler
The street—if the patch of 39th Avenue in the Willets Point section of New York’s Queens borough can be termed a street at all—looks stomped on by some giant, angry beast. When the rains come, the street, lined with junkyards, auto-repair shops, auto-body shops, and auto-parts shops turns into a flood zone, with garbage floating in pools of water that fail to subside for weeks afterward. Like most of the people who work on the street, it’s tired, cracked, worn, pockmarked, and seemingly beyond repair. When Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki place their camera for a high-angle gaze of the street, with the American flag framed in the centre, it looks like the surface of the moon; a weird mental juxtaposition occurs with such an image, with this American contemporary urban rot being compared to the Apollo 11 flag-planting on the lunar surface more than 40 years ago.
This shot occurs close to the end of Paravel’s and Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts, a work of salvage anthropology that never insists on any particular kind of political stance until after the full reality of what they’ve recorded and subsequently edited has settled in. The last line of dialogue on the audio track, at the tail end of the credits, records a speaker at a community assembly accusing New York mayor Michael Bloomberg of being “a traitor to the American Dream.” At the press screening I attended in Locarno, where Foreign Parts deservedly won the Opera Prima award for best first feature and the Jury Prize in the Filmmakers of the Present competition, the vast portion of the audience had predictably filed out already and missed this crucial slice of the film, which capped an audio montage that contained the laments of several citizens.
These complaints fill out a study of a failed corner of a corner of a country that is showing every sign of epidemic collapse, if current readings of economic and employment statistics and the sclerotic political environment tell us anything at all. While 39th Avenue provides the foreground for Foreign Parts, the background is an impending $3 billion redevelopment project backed by the Bloomberg administration that’s set to transform Willets Point into an inevitable sprawl of malls, offices, and condos accelerating the pattern of gentrification that has swept across much of New York for decades. Nearly everyone in front of Paravel and Sniadecki’s camera is far too consumed with work and/or survival to spend time fighting City Hall’s big plans, and the one guy who does—crusty, loud-mouthed 76-year-old Willets native Joe Ardizzone—shows up for meetings that fail to happen and doesn’t even own a personal computer.
At one point, Joe screams to no one in particular (to the camera, perhaps?) that when he asks questions of city officials, he gets no answers and has the distinct impression that there is no plan for Willets Point at all. But the montage of voices during the credits extends Joe’s sometimes inchoate anger into something substantial. Willets is a place that the city has forgotten, and rather than indulge in a project benefiting Bloomberg’s developer allies (and who have long constituted a significant portion of his political support), local government would do better to invest in infrastructure and basic public services for an area inhabited mostly by immigrants that more closely resembles a working-class barrio in Mexico City or San Juan than anything associated with the US. (For a precise reference point until you’re able to watch Foreign Parts, look at Ramin Bahrani’s 2007 film Chop Shop, filmed on the same fascinatingly photogenic street.)
Thus, in the final five or so minutes of their film, Paravel and Sniadecki expand a city block’s problems into a national dilemma: Willets Point’s issues are America’s issues, starting with how the country has blithely allowed its poor to go straight down the shitcan. Shot over two calendar years and the four seasons, Foreign Parts begins by impressively plunging the viewer into an overwhelming environment of detritus visible at every corner of the frame: a place where the machines that, for now, still truly make the country run—the cars—go to die, where junk is the only real source of cash. Machines may also be a form of humiliation: a Spanish-language television show blaring in a parts shop presents a husband arguing that his wife is shaming him by using a vibrator (which he refers to as “a machine”) for sex, as a substitute for him. Machines are also fragile: car motors are ripped apart with savage bluntness, hoses are cut to release noxious-looking fluids, parts are lined up like so many tombstones. But machines also rule: these people are nothing without them, from the shop owners to the freelance guys hustling customers on the street, while the homeless, such as chirpy but scrawny Julia and married couple Luis and Sara Zapiain, live in their cars. Seeing what happens to cars, and the nearby presence of car corpses, lends their existences a quality that’s all the more tenuous.
Less tenuous in this ridiculously tough environment, and in fact harder and more entrenched than ever, are class differences. Before the film delivers its most direct critique on the political sources of Willets Point’s neglect, the looming presence of the New York Mets’ swanky new home, Citi Field, mere yards away from the shit, is nothing less than an exact duplicate of the landowners’ ancient palaces looking down on the serfs. (In a dig at stereotypes, the supposedly working-class Philadelphia Phillies, the Mets’ longtime and far more successful National League East rivals, are represented on screen by a Phillies’ fan getting into a limo at the end of 39th Avenue after a game.) The country’s have and have-nots couldn’t be graphically clearer, even as the observational camera never makes a big point about it. It doesn’t need to: the simple reality is that an entertainment complex beyond the wallets of the working poor is forever in their faces, a needling, insistent presence reminding them of what they’ll never have. It’s impossible to shoot on 39th Avenue and not see Citi Field, or an airplane heading into LaGuardia, in your viewfinder. (If it’s any consolation, the Mets suck.)
These are the real Lower Depths, covered by the filmmaking pair with anthropological precision. More specifically, Foreign Parts is made through the auspices of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnographic Lab, run by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the co-recordist (with Ilisa Barbash) of Sweetgrass (2009). Comparisons to Sweetgrass are unavoidable, but they’re hardly unfounded. Paravel and Sniadecki, like Barbash and Castaing-Taylor, are a team that shun the title of “directors” (Castaing-Taylor prefers the term “recordist,” while Sniadecki’s films all end with a record of the place and time of the recording.) The French-born Paravel is a fellow at Harvard’s Film Study Center, while Sniadecki, who now lives in Beijing, is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at Harvard, and they collaborated as equals on both sound and image in Foreign Parts, rare for a filmmaking team. (Though watching Foreign Parts one cannot help but recall moments of Sniadecki’s Cinéma du réel prize-winning documentary Demolition , which focused on labourers at work and rest in Chengu, in Western China.) Like the Montana family-run sheepherding operation in Sweetgrass, the auto businesses and the neighbourhood in general in Foreign Parts are on their last legs and clearly fading away. Explanatory credits and information are deliberately kept to a minimum, with none of the “characters” who come into their own onscreen identified by face or name. Ernst Karel did the exquisite sound designing and mixing for both Sweetgrass and Foreign Parts, with a sophisticated and barely noticeable blend of direct sound and manipulated or edited sound for certain desired effects. In each, the brutish, sweaty realism of work is observed with cool yet sympathetic detachment.
In a more general way, Foreign Parts and its anthropological cinema is a key step in the movement away from a deleterious American brand of didactic nonfiction funded by the coffers of HBO, PBS, and the Sundance Institute. The award in Locarno is crucially important in this regard; a year ago, Locarno’s Filmmakers of the Present prize went to The Anchorage (2009), a film, while positioned with one foot in narrative, was nevertheless a kind of anthropological work, and also co-made by an American (C.W. Winter) and a European (Swedish photographer Anders Edstrom). Locarno seems to be becoming, after many years of floundering in an identity-less fog and dominated on the calendar by Venice, a festival where an alternative view of cinema is actually being rewarded, and with the rewards, sustained. Films such as these could easily be overwhelmed or ignored in more commercial, market-lusting festival settings, or in festivals that try to overwhelm the visitor’s sense of judgment and discrimination with sheer volume.
Foreign Parts was just right for Locarno in another sense, given that the festival—in its first year under the leadership of former Quinzaine director Olivier Père—was clearly interested in films concerned with the Lower Depths. As the title suggests, Isild Le Besco’s Competition film, Bas-Fonds, aims to take us down to the bottom of the bottom, but her drama about two zonked-out sisters and a girl drawn into their den of sex and drugs is an inchoate mess after her acute previous film, Charly (2007). Two films from Romania, Marian Crisan’s Morgen and Bogdan George Apetri’s Outbound, are concerned with people deep into the margins. Morgen finds some comedy and more sadness in the dogged efforts of a Turkish man without the means to find some way to cross the border from Romania into Hungary en route to Germany. Outbound’s heroine (the memorably sinewy Ana Ularu) is on a leave from prison to try to clean up some of the chaos in her life, which includes a young son who barely knows her. Two others in the International Competition, Oleg Novkovic’s White White World and the Golden Leopard, Li Hongqi’s hilarious Winter Vacation, take diametrically opposed approaches to characters living utterly static and dead-end lives in towns that, like Willets Point, are waiting to die. In White White World, unappealing Serbs fuck and kill each other amidst a swirl of Greek tragic melodrama limned with songs (sung on camera and with direct sound). In Li’s Inner Mongolian shithole of a burg, kids sit or stand around thinking of something to do; the Beckettian absurdity that emerges is that there is literally nothing to do, but everyone nevertheless waits around anticipating that there might be. Communities define who these people are, so it was strange to encounter not one, but two films set in the Serbian mining town of Bor, a decaying husk of a place poisoned by industrial pollution run amok. Yet, in Nikola Lezaic’s Tilva Ros, an escape hatch has been built, and its name is Jackass. Through two American exports—Johnny Knoxville’s hilariously rowdy exercises in gross-out stunts (which the film’s characters reinterpret), and skateboarding—the Bor kids create an alternative space cut off from their parents’ grinding lives, from the uncertainties of the near-future, and the steelworkers’ struggle against management. Though Lezaic doesn’t know dramatically what to do with his characters when they fall into petty conflicts with one another, he completely understands the reveries of youth, and their power to transcend any depths.
This same power pops up again and again in Foreign Parts, whose interest in life’s little pleasures becomes a sweet kind of victory over oppression. When Julia, who’s too poor to have a pot to piss in, is feted with a fun-looking birthday party, the notion underlying the American identity is impossible to ignore. The Jeffersonian ideal of the pursuit of happiness is as natural on this sad street as leaky oil cans. An ice cream truck incongruously rumbles down the street, a nameless guy bursts into a jig that resembles a bull getting ready to fight a matador, and even bitter old Joe marvels at the annual comings and goings of a flock of swallows that spend time in some nearby trees. These aren’t merely moments of relief inserted by Paravel and Sniadecki to lighten the viewers’ load: they are crucial to the film’s interest in retrieving the essentially human in an inhuman setting, not necessarily some way out, but some way inside, pursuing happiness wherever it can be found.