Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Foreign Parts (2010)

by on January 5, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Jan 11 at 7:30 at Exit Art — Q&A with co-director Véréna Paravel [Program & Tix]


Matt Freundlich, the programmer behind Exit Art gallery’s weekly “Digimovies” screening series, has lined up an intriguing slate of new urban documentaries this January. The upcoming Wednesday-night screenings include The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a reexamination of the infamous public housing project that became an object lesson in failed civic planning; and Detroit Wild City, a portrait of urban renewal that’s been enthusiastically praised for its photography of Michigan’s post-industrial landscapes.


This week, co-director Véréna Paravel will present her two-time Locarno prize winner Foreign Parts, recipient of the 2011 Opera Prima award for best first feature and the Jury Prize in the Filmmakers of the Present competition (one of the festival’s msot prominent sidebars). Edward Champion has an mp3 of the NYFF press conference with the directors on his site.



Nick Schrager for the Village Voice:

No more than a stone’s throw away from the New York Mets’ new, heavily commercialized Citi Field stands Willets Point, a muddy strip of junkyards and garages where immigrant hucksters and hustlers eke out a living by hook or crook. Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki’s documentary captures this Queens locale (also the subject of Ramin Bahrani’s 2007 Chop Shop) in 2008–09, while on the precipice of foreclosure to pave the way for the Mayor Bloomberg–sponsored business and residential redevelopment. The impending obsolescence feels natural in an area defined by both automotive scrap and residents who, like the dogs and cats that roam its streets in search of sustenance, are societal strays. Gentrification, economic inequality, class conflict, and the rusty reality of the American Dream—here epitomized by the opening, symbolic sight of an impaled Chevy van bleeding fluid—are omnipresent concerns, given profound weight by the directors’ patient, attentive approach. As with Sweetgrass, another recent sterling New York Film Festival selection produced under the auspices of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Foreign Parts engages in sociological inquiry without narration or contextual handholding, utilizing incisive, striking aesthetics (a panorama of hanging side mirrors, worn shoes trudging through grimy puddles) to elicit potent subcultural immersion.


Keith Uhlich for Time Out New York:

The observational spirit of Frederick Wiseman hangs over the initial scenes of Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki’s heartbreaking doc about the auto shops and junkyards of Willets Point, Queens. For roughly 15 minutes, it’s all fly-on-the-wall reportage: A car is torn apart, its fluids spurting like blood from a dismembered corpse; a mechanic trudges down a line of cars, gruffly asking drivers what they need. It’s only when a homeless woman (there are no identifying titles) turns to the camera and discusses this decrepit locale’s sense of community that the film’s distinctive emotions begin to seep through.

True to its working-class sympathies, Foreign Parts keeps to the streets, chronicling the lives of people who eke out a mostly below-the-poverty line existence. But lurking in many of the images is the imposing Citi Field, home to the New York Mets. It stands sentinel like the 2001 monolith—a beacon of forward-thinking change, though as usual, progress comes with a price. Rather than just clean up Willets Point (adding necessary amenities like sewage systems and streetlights), the Bloomberg administration is out to raze the area and build mixed-income housing and a convention center, in the process sweeping away a vibrant community. New Yorkers and those who’ve been following the neighborhood’s plight know exactly how this ends; at the very least, Paravel and Sniadecki have preserved the memory of what was. Sometimes, that’s the most you can do.



Chris Cabin for The House Next Door:

Foreign Parts carries within itself a stirring vibrancy and yet unfolds with patience and an unfettered trajectory, like a lovely and detailed visual elegy.
Speech is otherwise used largely as a tool of clarification and nuance in the stories that are told throughout Foreign Parts. What do the images of hundreds of American-owned automobiles being stripped, gutted, and crushed lack for? They humbly represent a glut of timely innuendos, but they survive and are recalled due to Paravel and Sniadecki’s compositional know-how and the film’s tough beauty. Perhaps it’s a stretch to refer to a wall of car mirrors as a beautiful sight, but this beauty is also inherent in the touching, delicate romance between two homeless people and in the filmmakers’ relationship with one particularly boisterous beggar. The empathy and love the filmmakers have for these people, who still summon joy despite the fact that they are teetering on the edge of financial oblivion, comes to blossom when the beggar dances with Sniadecki’s camera in a small, local deli.
If she had spent the day in any other deli, the beggar would have been asked to leave but she is as part of the same community as the deli is. The auto repair row serves as a microcosm of a healthy economy and community being swallowed up by an overgrown, unregulated one, namely near-gentrified New York. But hope survives, as it tends to do, in several forms and a lack of resilience is not what holds back any of the figures we are obliged to meet in Foreign Parts.


A.O. Scott selected it as a “Critic’s Pick” for the New York Times:

Ms. Paravel occasionally appears on screen, and many of the people who appear on camera are comfortable talking to it, which means that the filmmakers are not concerned with rigorous obedience to the conventions of cinéma vérité. But they are more interested in observation than in interpretation, and in preserving above all a visual and aural record of the texture of life in a place that might well be destined for oblivion.
Without sentimentalizing the neighborhood or its people — and in spite of having only a single legal resident, Willets Point feels, in this film, very much like a neighborhood — Ms. Paravel and Mr. Sniadecki cast an appreciative eye on its beauty. It is not just the compositional artistry of the camera work or the clarity of the high-definition video images that reveal this quality. The persistent puddles (Willets sits in a flood plain) and the body shop signs evoke a venerable, rough, workaday New York, the polyglot poetry of which can be heard in Spanish, Hebrew and English dialogue that is frequently drowned out by the noise of tools and automobile engines.
Embedded in this compact movie are stories of drug addiction and poverty, hard work and jail time. Like the cars, these tales are encountered in fragments. People talk but don’t say too much, and as curious and thorough as Ms. Paravel and Mr. Sniadecki are — “Foreign Parts” is the result of many months of patient filming — they are too polite to pry. But their tact adds to the richness of their film, which discovers a busy, complicated world within the space of few unlovely city blocks.



Adam Nayman for Reverse Shot:

Over the course of a two-year shoot, Paravel and Sniadecki gained the trust of the community living and working in Willets Point—a combination of immigrant and itinerant individuals. Gradually, these persons moved from being figures in a landscape to actual subjects, which is not to say that Foreign Parts actively narrativizes the lives onscreen. Quite the opposite: the filmmakers’ tactics are glancing in the best vérité tradition, permitting characters to wander in and out of the film without always establishing a clear sense of who they are and where they’re going. Some become familiar: Sarah and Luis, who live together in a van and dread the onset of winter (and the possibility that Luis will return to prison); Julia, a diminutive homeless woman oddly disconnected from any sense of misery even as her ragged person testifies to plenty of experience with same; and Joe, a lifelong Willets Point resident who functions as the community’s de-facto mouthpiece. At several points in the film (including, crucially, the final passages), Joe rages sincerely, and entertainingly, about plans to gentrify a community that has previously been ignored by municipal government—and is thus expected to be evicted without much of a fight.
Insofar as it strives to catalog specific sights, sounds, and experiences in a place that is considered to be an impediment to an institutionalized sort of progress, Foreign Parts is a political film. It turns its gaze on an environment forged not out of intention but systematized neglect, and the structuring absence is structure itself: more specifically, even a rudimentary sense of infrastructure. There’s little evidence that the city of New York cares much about Willets Point even in light of its unique status as a “destination” for citizens from other boroughs, or at least those looking to fix or augment their cars on the cheap. It’s not the least of the film’s ironies that the 39th Avenue neighborhood is dominated by a structure located just beyond its purview: Citi Field, a potent symbol of 21st Century redevelopment (it replaced Shea Stadium as the home of the Mets) and also a pretty obvious signifier of economic disparity—a literally and figuratively concrete metaphor for a two-tiered social system.
Paravel and Sniadecki resist the temptation to editorialize too much with their cameras (one lapse: a coy tableaux of ruin with the stars-and-stripes at its center). It’s all too easy to imagine a version of Foreign Parts that evinced more obvious pride in such austerity measures, or one that manipulated the footage into a hymn to hardscrabble existence. Instead, what we get is a carefully modulated exercise in directorial self-effacement—a film of obvious craft and calculation that nevertheless gives the impression of being off-the-cuff.



Robert Koehler for Cinemascope:

These are the real Lower Depths, covered by the filmmaking pair with anthropological precision. 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.
Foreign Parts‘ 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.

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