4:13 pm Dec. 6, 2011
Throughout The Forgotten Space, a new “film-essay” by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, which screened last night in the New School’s Tishman Auditorium, the same shot recurs over and over again: the heavy nose of a cargo ship weighted down with multicolored metal containers plows through the choppy waters of unnamed seas.
The image serves as a kind of compass point for the film, directing our attention to the question of destination: from the bridge of that ship the camera aims at the line where the sky meets the water.
A bottomless anticipation, the sense of “endless horizon, the march of progress,” is what’s meant to be evoked by that shot, and by the film. That’s what Sekula, sans his co-director, said after the screening, suggesting a way to link the fragmented vignettes that comprise The Forgotten Space.
The audience—students lugging their coursework, professionals in suits, radicals with asymmetrical haircuts—murmured thoughtfully as the film cut from a muddy estuary to a shot of a silent windmill with a looming nuclear tower spewing smoke behind it. The auditorium was crowded, almost 200 people, I heard the organizers whisper, a surprisingly good turnout for a Monday night viewing of an experimental documentary about maritime commerce.
The documentary premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Orizzonti (Horizons) Jury Prize for feature film. It has continued to play smaller festivals worldwide, although it has not yet secured release in the U.S. Last night’s event was presented by the Aperture Foundation, the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, and the Photography program at Parsons The New School for Design.
As Sekulah reminded the audience after the screening, ninety percent of the world’s cargo still moves by sea, relying on a vast infrastructure to get from point A to point B. The shipping rate is now three times the rate of population growth. “The sea [is] the ‘forgotten space’ of our modernity,” the directors wrote in The New Left Review this summer. “Nowhere else is the disorientation, violence and alienation of contemporary capitalism more manifest. This truth is not self-evident, and must be approached as a puzzle, or mystery, a problem to be solved.” In order to attempt a solution, the film investigates the port cities of Rotterdam, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Bilbao, where huge container ships arrive continuously, dropping off anonymous shipping containers that are unloaded, sorted, and distributed to barges, trucks, and trains for further travels.
The movie presents the world of shipping to be something as blank, anonymous, and massive as that recurring scene. The containers, their origin, destination, and contents obscure, are meant to echo the invisible labor that runs global commerce. Only 2 percent of these containers are inspected for security reasons; the rest are totally unregulated. Like industrial spies, the filmmakers record the containers’ movements, watching from fixed vantage points above rivers, train tracks, ship decks, factory floors; below cranes, high-rises, bridges. Paired with Sekula’s narration, which describes the unfolding action in gloomy prose at times bordering on the overwrought, the effect is claustrophobic, overdetermined. As the camera moves closer, we see the people running the machines and it begins to get more personal: the dockworkers, the train conductor, the crane operator, the maintenance man. In stirring, intimate interviews, they describe their jobs, the grueling hours, the working conditions, the forces that drove them towards such work.
The filmmakers spoke with the ones that are easiest to fire, to replace, to forget: the Indonesian man who rinses rust from the cargo deck; the Filipino woman who works as a nanny to raise other people’s children; the Mexican-American trucker who rides the highways, scrambling to make payments on his rig; the Korean men who monitor ship engines; the a pair of young friends who come from the Chinese countryside to find jobs in the factory sweatshops that produce goods for American export. Their hardship makes economy possible. It’s a cliché’d abstraction given flesh and blood in the film.
Sekula, a photographer, writer, and professor at California Institute of the Arts, and his collaborator, film theorist Burch, spent ten years making the film. Sekula told the crowd that it wasn’t until the financial upheavals of 2009 that he and Burch realized that they were positioned to “take the temperature of the crisis” among the most vulnerable: the workers that exist in forgotten spaces, the isolated islands linked by the ships that travel from port to port.
The Forgotten Space prescribes no solution for ending the exploitation documented here. Instead, it offers an imperfect, impressionistic glimpse of the men and women that live it. A portrait emerges not of passive victims but of actors trying to succeed against great odds, and so a film that at its outset appears focused on a bleak, alienated world of global commerce becomes something of a vision of very human struggles. People pursue low-wage jobs in the service or industrial economy because they believe in the possibility of making a better life for themselves and their families. That dream for a better future binds them to each other, and to the infinite horizon of the sea.