Graveyards of the Rusted Automobiles
Answering questions about her first feature, Véréna Paravel said she “hadn’t know at all it was here,” a working enclave city-within-a-city at Willets Point, Fort Totten, northeast Queens, New York, cheek by jowl with shiny Citi Field. Some guy warned her not to go in, among those “bad people.” Camera in hand, she did. Thus was born Foreign Parts, birthed over 2008-09.
She could not do it alone, commuting from Boston, so fellow anthropologist J.P. (John Paul) Sniadecki joined her as co-director, -cameraman, –sound engineer, -editor and -producer. Boiled down to an hour and a third from a hundred fifty, the documentary seems leisurely, unplanned and non-committal but is crammed full with the human element and, though only one older subject voices direct complaints, makes an eloquent statement. “This film became a political object that we didn’t want [and is] not the conventional poor people versus the rich.”
The implicated mayor’s staff got wind of it and asked to have a look before release but refused to allow the denizens of the area to come along and comment, “so we didn’t.”
Shown at the 2010 Locarno, Vancouver, New York and other international film festivals and at the Museum of Modern Art, it is the second of Exit Art’s four digital documentaries in “Remaking the American City” urban development considerations. By coincidence, Spike Lee’s self-financed undistributed Brooklyn-gentrification Red Hook Summer is scheduled as his first-ever Sundance appearance.
No voice from offscreen prompts the subjects who act naturally or pose for or speak to the lens. No subtitles identify these common men and women, and the names that come up in their talk are hard to pinpoint. Only once is the observing presence noticed, when, impatient for news of her just-released-from-jail man Luis, Sarah needs a filmmaker’s cell phone and help using it. Such fly-on-the-wall non-invasiveness is American Direct Cinema, slightly different from French cinema vérité and recognizable as following the tradition of Leacock, the Maysles, Wiseman and Baichwal.
Unnoticed until city fathers’ 2008 approval of a three-billion-dollar “business and residential” makeover -- and still today, as amused but wary fans head for their parked cars after night baseball -- the seventy-five acres offer employment to two thousand-odd in two hundred fifty scrapyards-cum-used parts and repair shops around Marco’s diner. Sixty years without adequate sewage, drainage or pavements -- now being installed in preparation for urban renewal/development -- the undulating “streets” are puddled and pitch black with trampled grease, oil, gasoline, fuel and antifreeze.
Few live here -- where they do is not an issue -- and some of them make good livings, enough to have fought and stalled wrecking and construction crews for several years now. One young man wants out, but among the majority who do not leave (except for prison), in their small van-home Sarah claims to be the only white woman. Most who appear are Hispanic, some of them black, with a smattering of African-Americans and even Jews who pray with phylacteries in their shop and then drink and converse with bearded Orthodox coreligionists.
Quite the contrary of the guy’s warning, these are good people, rough-edged but pleasant, depicted while not romanticized. They know and help one another, barbecue on the spot, act as guides to customers. And some drink and do dope despite others’ cautions and are not shy about it with the intimate camera. A police car moseys in, alien and apart but not shown as a problem.
Occasionally noting low-flying jets from nearby LaGuardia Airport, the improvisational camera records whoever turns up at a particular moment, giving the sense of life as a haphazard affair rather than linear and chronological. Then there are the equally planless takes of forklifts raising gutted auto bodies or chassis and pans of labeled shelves of parts foreign to the laity, the same hypnotic machine-wasteworld as in Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes (about Edward Burtynsky’s stills of industrial degredation) and J. Henry Fair’s “industrial scars” photos.
Balance exists between the recycled metal and the people who in movement or speech converse with the silent confidant handheld. A strange environment grows to feel like home, ignored by an elevated highway and monolith stadium. In this ungated community where only a couple spend the nights, streets are empty by early evening under a lowering sun. Willets Point has been snowed under, flooded by rain, boiled in summer heat, and it is time to go. Where? is another question, unanswered here.