The documentary filmmaker duo of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel specialize in films that have no apparent storyline, no beginning, ending and no script nor narration. Known as anthropological artists, their films of raw images and sounds from the chosen environments speak for themselves to the subject matter at hand.
But they are not traditional anthropologists who study cultures of ancient tribes in distant lands, nor are they standard documentarians since their films don’t have any interviews, scripts or storylines. They can however, be considered socially conscious artists who use images and sounds to highlight peculiar sectors of society and in so doing, question our own existential meaning.
In Leviathan (2012) we are taken aboard a commercial fishing boat on one of its fishing expeditions from Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts. Styled like a horror movie, it depicts a demanding, mechanical world, where the machine, in this case the fishing boat and its blaring lights, iron cages and contraptions for ensnaring, hauling and holding fish, dictate what the humans do.
Not only is it demanding; it is also somewhat of a diabolical world where the machine continuously takes and takes the bodies of fish, spewing out its head and guts. It never has enough. The humans are not spared either, as the wind, waves and water takes its toll emotionally on the crew.
Operated in darkness it is a world of chaos; disorientation from rolling waves, blinding flood lights and strange, heavy creaking sounds, they conspire to animate the machine to become something like a giant monster that somehow ensnares fish to its nets.
Dragging the haul up from the ocean, the fish are left to die from suffocation in holding pens as they await their fate; being beheaded and disemboweled by the fishermen. Strangely by this time the machine becomes strangely quiet, like it’s enjoying its moment of aural orgy. As the soupy sounds of fish bodies sliding, bumping against each other, sounds of metal blade slicing off fish flesh fills the air, the fishermen dutifully, zealously, lop off the head and toss the body into a holding pen, which is dripping with fish blood and guts.
Actually not all fishermen do this; in some countries, on certain boats, the fish are kept alive all the way until they get to the chef’s chopping blocks in the seafood restaurants. But one way or another the fish meet the same fate.
One scene shows 2 fishermen chopping off the wings of a ray, strangely reminiscent of an execution, a beheading by a terrorist organization.
A quote from the book of Job chapter 41 in the bible is shown at the beginning of the film, which describes the leviathan as this huge, armour plated creature which ‘laughs’ at any human attempts to kill, capture or even hurt it with any weapons. It is a fire-breathing monster of the oceans which just eats what it wants, and people cannot seem to do anything about it.
This monster lives on, depicted in the film, as the fishing boat and the system that supports it, with the crew feeding it with fish and their own time and energy. But several years of this work, one begins to wonder, who really is the captain of the ship? And by extension, how ‘human’ it is to live like this?
Borne from a chance encounter with a car being hoisted up on a forklift at a junkyard in Willets Point, the film Foreign Parts (2010) by Verena Paravel and J.P. Sneadecki also depicts a machine, although one much different in nature. That the place is notorious for crime, a ‘dangerous’ place that she was advised by many to ‘run away from’, also enthused Paravel to see if it really was as dangerous as advertised.
The film is an anthropological documentary of the junkyards, auto parts, repair shops and the people who live and work at Willets Point in Queens, New York. Similar to Vik Muniz’s Wasteland (2010) about neglect and ostracization at Brazil’s largest rubbish landfill, here literally in the middle of New York, right next to a brand new baseball stadium, is where all the unwanted cars and people, end up.
Similar also to Leviathan (2012), the people who work here have to cut up the product they are trying to sell; the difference is that there isn’t the silent, diabolical pleasure of gutting a live fish, but the teeth gritting work of cutting oil hoses and gutting a car of its engine.
What Paravel and Sneadecki found, interestingly, was amongst the dereliction and neglect, an ecosystem of immigrants existed. Although its culture is that of other countries, even within this mechanized environment, there is some space for entertainment.
And even in this line of work, there’s room for 3-dimensional spatial imagination and the expression of it, as the piling up of cars take on a gravity defying, sculptural quality.
The notoriety of the place; its crime, poverty and its ‘dangerousness’ is sort of created by design, as the city government never paved the roads or installed a rainwater drainage system, leaving the roads full of potholes and flooded most days of the year.
Yet inspite of this, in the midst of the poverty, misery and decay all around, expressions of hope and cheer can be found coming from some of the poorest members of the community.
So what’s this machine I was talking about in the beginning? While in Leviathan it was the fishing boat and the corporate system behind it, here, it is a system of individual machines. These machines are operated by a multitude of individuals. While in both cases people are involved, here there is in fact a little more understanding, a little more humanity in its effects.
Although sometimes there are idiosyncrasies, quirks within the machine that cause it to create ‘unfortunate’ expressions.
Yet on the whole it seems to operate with a certain amount of order, understanding and down right respect when it senses that respect is due.
What the title ‘Foreign Parts’ means is also a bit of a mystery. Since the cars are not all foreign, while 99% of the people are, the title must be referring to people. That these people are ‘parts’ means they are in fact part of a whole, even if the whole doesn’t seem to want to recognize their existence.
It’s too superficial to say that the city government didn’t do this or that for the place; the problem in fact is much deeper than that – its nationwide. Like the fans that chant USA! USA! USA! at international matches or even political rallies, whose world is defined by what’s shown on the evening news, these people just want their world to be full of people just like them; while in actual fact there are places around them that are ‘rotting’. People who are living in a bubble.
That’s not to say America is the only place like that. In fact America is diverse enough that there are many who care about inner-cities. But this picture below epitomizes why there is a Willets Point and what brought it about. A stadium of people gazing at a ball game, surrounded with a host of corporate American signs cheering everyone on, keeping everyone safe and warm, while the world outside rots with undrained, festering pools of water, dark unlit roads and people sleeping in their cars.