Seafarers All

Benjamin Young on Allan Sekula and Noël Burch's The Forgotten Space

Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, The Forgotten Space, 2010, still from a color video, 112 minutes.

EXPLORING THE MARITIME WORLD as the unseen matrix of globalization, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space (2010) begins as an investigative documentary and concludes as a mythopoeic essay on modernity and the sea. Along with the quickening staccato of the accordion sound track, the film’s rhetorical intensity slowly builds as metaphor and allusion are interwoven with the facts and conditions of global trade.

In one of the final scenes, we learn that Doel, a small Belgian village, is being demolished to expand the port of Antwerp. In one shot, we see a street that dead-ends in a dike wall protecting the low-lying town from the ocean. The giant steel tower of a cargo crane slowly crosses through the background; like a scrim, the dike hides the ship on which the crane is being transported. To the viewer, the crane seems to stand still while the ground seems to move beneath one’s feet. It’s a disorienting effect, a haunting visualization of Marx and Engels’s dictum that, under capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air.” Only here amended: Everything bound to the earth is forced to sea.

At a folk festival in the doomed town, a close-up shows an artisan’s hands and tool as he hollows out the inside of a wooden shoe. Picking up on its shape, the voice-over likens it to a lifeboat crafted from past tradition; in a dizzying metaphoric twist, it comes to stand in for the village as whole and, by extension, all the lands of the globe that might be submerged under shifting economic tides. The film’s conclusion is torn between the manifesto-like call for “the lowly crew to seize the helm” of this provisional craft, and the open question about how to extend hospitality to those bankrupt and shipwrecked refugees who might arrive on our shores.

Through visits to four port cities, viewers learn that nine-tenths of the world’s freight is moved by 100,000 ships and 1.5 million seafarers. Rotterdam, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong are each expansive megaports that handle huge amounts of containerized cargo. Surveying their environs reveals some of the costs of ever-expanding trade, from pollution to standardization to the automation that increases productivity but keeps wages low and eliminates jobs. In the formerly industrial town of Bilbao, the Guggenheim museum exemplifies the replacement of the working port by a tourist economy that floats on a forgetting of industry and nostalgia for the sea. Its emblem is Frank Gehry’s sinuous, piscine building, whose titanium scales never rust—“a lighthouse that shines only when the sun is out” and blinds viewers both to industrial history and to the realist and modernist sculptures by native Basques and Spaniards at the city center. When ocean waves overwhelm the sound track as museum visitors wind their way through rusting, rolled steel sculptures by Richard Serra (himself a former shipyard worker), it amounts to a return of the repressed.

The film continually returns to the cargo ship on the open ocean, but it also tracks the ways goods move inland. The camera takes us inside the cramped cabs of the crane operator, the barge captain, the train engineer, and the truck driver, to listen as they explain the demands of their jobs. People are paired with machines to which they sometimes become appendages, now all part of a global, mobile factory. The voice-over emphasizes that factories have become like ships, continually moving production to countries with low wages and few environmental protections. And ships, now mammoth floating buildings, become factories and warehouses.

We also explore the domestic spaces that support this form of trade, visiting the inside of a seafarer’s hostel in Hong Kong. Security guards keep the crew from entering a homeless camp in California, so the filmmakers interview the unemployed on the sidewalk. Viewers tour the massive spaces inside a Chinese appliance factory in Shenzhen, and accompany two female workers to their tiny dorm and then out into the city as they go shopping. Despite the exploitative conditions, these women are some of the most hopeful figures of the film—not only in their youth and enthusiasm, but because of the collective power they might someday wield.

The Forgotten Space has its New York theatrical premiere Wednesday, February 15–Tuesday, February 21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Allan Sekula will be present at the opening-night screenings on February 15.