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NY Times February 14, 2012
Awash in Capitalism, a Changing Earth
By A. O. SCOTT
In “The Enchafèd Flood,” his resonant study of “the romantic
iconography of the sea,” W. H. Auden noted that, in the opening
verses of the Book of Genesis, the vast watery expanses of the
world served as a “symbol for the primordial undifferentiated
flux, the substance that became created nature only by having form
imposed upon or wedded to it.”
“The Forgotten Space,” an engrossing and provocative essay film by
Noël Burch and Allan Sekula, approaches the sea from the opposite
direction. Neither as chaotic nor as romantic as it may have
appeared to our ancestors or to Auden, the modern sea of this
documentary has come fully under the sway of global capitalism.
Maritime trade is almost as old as humanity itself, of course, but
Mr. Burch, a film critic, and Mr. Sekula, a historian and
photographer, are concerned with its present manifestations. “The
Forgotten Space” offers a more politically inclined, less dashing
exploration of some of the territory navigated by the journalist
William Langewiesche in his amazing 2006 book, “The Outlaw Sea.”
The filmmakers are especially interested in the impact of shipping
containers — those brightly colored, corrugated metal boxes that
have changed the way goods are transported around the world — on
land. The consequences of containerization reach into every aspect
of modern life and, in Mr. Burch and Mr. Sekula’s view, are almost
A visit to Rotterdam in the Netherlands discovers an impressively
automated port with a diminished work force, most of whose members
labor in isolation in front of screens rather than wrangle cargo
with hands and hooks. Containers are lifted by cranes onto barges,
railroad cars and trucks to be hauled inland, and every phase of
their journey seems to involve the exploitation of labor and the
degradation of the environment.
Small farms in the Dutch countryside have been chopped up to make
way for a new publicly financed, privately managed freight line.
In Southern California drivers find their standards of living
eroded, now that they are independent contractors rather than
unionized workers. The Indonesian and Filipino crews on board the
giant container ships, and the workers in the Chinese factories
that fill them, come from a vast pool of the poor and the
displaced, willing to work long hours in harsh conditions for a
chance to buy into the consumer economy they serve.
“The Forgotten Space” is unabashedly polemical and rigorously
pessimistic, a sustained Marxian indictment of 21st-century
capital. The narration, by Mr. Sekula, is at times lyrical and
rarely subtle, but the film is most graceful and moving when its
argument slows down or wanders into an interesting tangent.
At other points, like an extended rhetorical attack on the
Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, the filmmakers seem to be
riding an ideological hobby horse down a dead-end street. But they
have a good visual instinct for the sublimity, as well as the
ugliness, of the industrial and postindustrial environments, and a
patient and generous interest in what people have to say about
their own lives.
Various experts offer informative analysis, but the testimony of
seamen, factory workers and residents of a California homeless
encampment is at the heart of the film’s guiding ethical and
aesthetic principles, which have to do with the defense of human
dignity in the face of a system that so often appears hostile or
indifferent to it.
The Forgotten Space
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch; narrated by
Mr. Sekula; directors of photography, Attila Boa and Wolfgang
Thaler; edited by Menno Boerema; music by Riccardo Tesi and Louis
Andriessen; produced by Frank van Reemst and Joost Verheij;
released by Doc.Eye Film. In English, Dutch, Spanish, Korean,
Bahasa Indonesia and Mandarin. At the Anthology Film Archives, 32
Second Avenue, at Second Street, East Village. Running time: 1
hour 52 minutes. This film is not rated.
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