Monday Editor’s Pick: An Evening with Allen Sekula & The Forgotten Space (2010)

by on February 7, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Feb 13 at 7:00 at Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]
Followed by a week run at Anthology Film Archives, Wed Feb 15 thru Tue Feb 21 at 6:45, 9:15 daily [Program & Tix]
MoMA’s weekly celebration of “innovation on screen” hosts photographer/historian/critic/filmmaker Allen Sekula, who will present his latest essay film (co-directed with Noël Burch), winner of Special Orizonti Jury Prize at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, The Forgotten Space. Anthology Film Archives follows up with the New York theatrical premiere run of the film, Feb 15 thru 21.

Olaf Miller in Film Comment:

To say that the subject of The Forgotten Space is the global transformation of labor caused by container cargo shipping is like saying that Wagon Master is a Western. Noel Burch and Allan Sekula’s essay film is a journey around the world, to the ports of Rotterdam, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Bilbao-each a trove of stories, encounters, and observations at times angry and at times wry. The whole thing is held together by Sekula’s adventure-happy, politically astute, partisan commentary, which itself is a masterpiece of nonfiction.

Jonathan Rosenbaum for Moving Image Source:

I’m sure that I learned a lot more from The Forgotten Space than I did from any other feature that I saw last year, fiction or nonfiction. In more ways than one, I’m still learning from it.


Rosenbaum continues:

What emerges is a free-ranging film essay with a lot of fresh documentary material about what globalized sea traffic does to the lives of some workers around ports in Southern California, two separate regions of China, Holland, and the Basque region of Spain. The film’s most haunting and persistent image is the multicolored and anonymous rectangular steel containers loaded on the ships, evoking giant versions of children’s building blocks while never betraying what their actual contents might be—an apt illustration of the concealments and shiny surfaces of the globalized economy itself.
Is The Forgotten Space a documentary or an essay? Ultimately it’s a bit of both. The far-flung visuals show us people and places across the globe: documentary subjects. Yet one could argue that the true subject of the essay is what drifts and doesn’t drift through our consciousness in relation to those subjects—the diverse theme-park rides, including those of the Internet, that we and our culture invent and keep running in order to rationalize or screen out the more pertinent displacements of people, processes, and goods. The documentary shows, but the essay explores, stimulates, and provokes.



A Directors Note from Noël Burch:

When it occurred to Allan and I to make a film drawn from “Dismal science” the main essay in his Fish Story, of which I had become enamoured while translating it into French, we both had in mind something along those lines, mingling little fictions, and even surrealistic “collages”, with cinema-vérité reportages, library shots, etc. This proved a difficult agenda for all sorts of practical reasons and because of various artistic and ideological frictions within a complex co-production structure.
I think what principally remains here of the basic concept of the essay film is a rather rambling structure, very largely discontinuous and often digressive. It is certainly a film which should keep spectators on their toes but is, hopefully, nowhere opaque. Subject-matter such as this, the evils of productivist, “globalized” capitalism, even if looked at solely in terms of maritime shipping and adjacent activities, is so vast that it can only be sampled… in such a way, we hope, as to suggest the extent of the horror… and the logic of the problematic mutations under way… It is a film which has to be continued by other means…



Sekula in conversation, as transcribed by the blog Landscape Suicide:

We wanted to make an openly Marxist film, to really redeem, in the discourse of film, that critical way of looking at the world. The crash has put basic analyses of the crisis tendencies of capitalism back on the table in a way that they weren’t previously, so it’s strange that there are films that seem to have fallen into the crime genre in order to explain what has happened. I’m thinking of Inside Job, which takes the form of a kind of detective novel, presenting a rogue’s gallery of criminal financiers. But at the same time it’s a film that suggests, perhaps incorrectly, that there was a golden age of Keynesianism, as if a kind of Keynesian utopia has been destroyed by neoconservatives, none of which helps us understand the cycles of capitalism, or the intractability of the problem of crisis. So much as we might now want to see more Keynesian policies pursued, there’s also a need to understand these things in a deeper way than the culture of the popular documentary film allows, even though it has opened itself up in a good way to current political problems. We felt the need to make a tougher film.

A problem with documentary is that there’s this extraordinary need for embodiment, for telling the story. Our producers would ask us from time to time, in a nervous way: what are all the little stories that you want to tell? And while it’s true that we have all these stories of individuals who work at different sites along the supply chain — or are excluded by it, caught in the interstices, jettisoned by society — my response was that what we’re struggling with here is the big story. And no-one thinks they can tell the big story anymore. Everyone’s given up. They’re feeling hopeless, and of course I see that — I teach in an art school, so I know how difficult it can be for younger people to feel like they have the ability to tell this story. Perhaps it’s similar, in a way, to the recent turn in economics away from macro- to microeconomics: tending your little garden while the whole earth is trembling…



Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for MUBI:

Considering how overloaded with invective and metaphor-chains (“a velvet glove for the iron fist” is typical) Sekula’s pamphlet-ready narration is, you’d expect a certain degree of pat neatness from the film. But The Forgotten Space refuses to be compartmentalized; its parts, unlike its subjects, are not self-contained or ready-to-assemble, but are instead incomplete sections that play off of one another. These pieces become themes to be re-introduced and re-arranged. Furthermore, for a film about transcontinental drifts—not just of container-laden ships, but of the economic practices that come with them—The Forgotten Space has no clear start or destination; it’s a series of midpoints, every scene beginning in media res and offering no prognosis (whether within the shots themselves or within Sekula’s narration) for a future conclusion.
“Show enough effects and an audience will deduce the causes” is a basic tenet of filmmaking, but neither Sekula nor Noël Burch seem all that interested in effects, which are final products; The Forgotten Space is about the state of being effected, before an effect is finalized. The Super 16mm camerawork, with its emphasis on geometry, scale and shape (all seemingly made with the editing in mind; one early cut shows just how easily “nuclear cooling tower” visually rhymes with “windmill”), has a sort of arty journalism to it, but, unlike co-cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler’s work with Ulrich Seidl, it doesn’t depict a failed world, merely one failed by capitalism.
This is an important distinction: unlike Seidl, who over the years has gravitated towards a view of human beings as malfunctioning machines, poorly served by their instincts and their society, Sekula and Burch seem to actually like people and the cultures they’ve created for themselves, and are capable of depicting all sorts of mundane pastimes—guitar-playing, bingo, reading newspapers, basketball, riding bicycles, sight-seeing—without a patina of sticky, self-serving sadness. The title of a film Thaler photographed for Seidl, Import/Export, could easily be the title of this one; it isn’t, and the title Sekula and Burch have chosen suggests an old-fashioned romanticism. The Forgotten Space laments and damns so much, yet it’s ultimately a romantic film, born out of romantic ideals—a love of landscapes, local architecture, the sea and of the human capacity for work. In short: a secretly hopeful film on an obviously dispiriting subject, made by soft-hearted hardliners.



Edward Dimenburg introduces an interview with Sekula for BOMB Magazine:

Allan Sekula is one of the most thoughtful historians, critics and practitioners of photography working today. For more than three decades his images and writings have shifted the terms on which the medium is understood and has influenced a generation of artists and scholars. Whether articulating a semiotics of the photograph in his classic study Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photoworks 1973–1983 (1984) or investigating maritime space in the books and exhibitions comprising Fish Story (2002), Sekula is always in motion. His extensive travels to many of the world’s seaports are matched only by his enlightening journeys across history, politics and aesthetics that through their consummate intelligence transform and connect domains usually considered separate. Thus it is only fitting that in recent years Sekula has begun to make moving images alongside his still photographs, producing an investigation of the Tokyo fish market Tsukiji (2001) and The Lottery of the Sea, a densely woven work-in-progress on globalization and its political and ecological discontents. The courage and outspokenness of his interventions lend them an integrity that recalls the work of Hans Haacke and Krzysztof Wodiczko. Sekula’s generosity toward students and younger artists has done much to mitigate the crasser tendencies of the Los Angeles art world, just as his presence at local events inevitably instills debate and leaves me feeling less isolated and bereft of community; the eternal Los Angeles condition.

Excerpt from Sekulas TSUJIKI (2002):


Sekula discusses his work for Documenta12:


Veronika Ferdman for LA Weekly:

Transportation. Globalization. Capitalism. Exploitation. Poverty. Ginsberg’s words in 1956 still ring true in Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space, which is about the places and people whose existence the capitalist machine would like to forget. Or better yet, exploit.
Though Sekula and Burch do not suggest any potential solutions to our problems, they are adamant that something must change. There is an anti-industrial strain to the film. A stand against a system that either exploits people to no end or else gets rid of human labor in favor of machines carrying out tasks. A system that builds train tracks through residential areas, forcing people who have lived there for decades out of their homes. The filmmakers are wistful for the abstract idea of the seafaring days of old. But, the recurring image of a behemoth barge carrying multi-colored rectangular containers of cargo set against the sea and bright sky has its own queerly industrial sort of romanticism. It works to offset the increasingly gloomy tone of the film.
This is a work that is carefully conceived and constructed, and its laments are worth listening to.



Mike Hoolboom for his blog:

A doc essay on global trade with a special eye on shipping containers, and the global underclass that serves them. From the nearly human-free port facilities in Rotterdam, to the middle-aged homeless in Los Angeles, the filmmakers are careful to weigh the cost of producing wealth. The handsome Dutch rail line dedicated to commercial produce was an ecological disaster and displaced countless farms, and the filmmakers zoom in to ensure that this is also part of the progress report. The exploitation of undocumented Latino drivers in the United States turns out to be part of a systematic import transportation greed network that pays this uninsured underclass less than half the minimum wage and pockets its burgeoning profits.
The filmmakers favour wide shots, it is in relation that their subjects come alive. Trains pass, ships float through endless horizons of ocean water. Bored workers shoot baskets on deck, or rounds of poker down below, trying to keep the numbers from appearing on their faces. Even here, the filmmaker’s voice-over interjects, like a harsh parental reminder, a knife cutting through the naturalness of these unnatural scenes, that the rice these largely Thai and Indonesian workers are eating comes from California, where it is heavily subsidized. This same rice has driven farmers around the world into bankrupted despair, unable to compete with the avalanche of cheap, state sponsored freedom rice. The artists are able to look at each scene, bristling with industrial banalities, and extract some moment of global truth, some salient factoid that unwraps the operations on display and reveals the looming underclass written inside each frame. Yes, it is an old-fashioned, newly fashioned, Marxist movie, with its eye set square on the labourers. In other words, on the body, the cost of the body, the bending and reshaping of the body in an era of global capital. If the new rulers are more distant than ever in their corporate boardroom finery, the costs are only too familiar as entire generations are condemned to numbing cycles of poverty and racism. In a kind of King Midas inversion, everything that this industry of industries touches is turned into shit, every aspect of human interface has been converted into something less than human, and chronically underpaid, and cruelly repetitive. Outsourcing means a race to the bottom, a hollowing out of manufacturing sectors at home, and devastated environments and bad pay abroad. Filipino nannies don’t have time for a personal life. Hong Kong’s boy factories feature products that are married to the clock all day and night, orphans disciplined from an early age for employment in the service industry.


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