Friday, June 20, 2014

Foreign Parts: Ethnographic Memory

This essay discusses Foreign Parts (Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, 2010) and its relation to architecture, society and cinema. Foreign Parts is a documentary on an automobile junkyard and its inhabitants. The film is important for historical reasons as it documents the Willets Point neighborhood before legislation was passed by the City of New York that planned to tear it down for redevelopment purposes. The filmmakers Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki give integrity to its residents by allowing them to speak for themselves and by presenting them in their lived immediacy. The avant-garde approach to the documentary owes to the unique methods of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab.
This essay will argue that the emphasis in Foreign Parts on oppressed peoples offers a harsh critique of American Neoliberalism that outcasts these citizens in the name of urbanization and gentrification. Furthermore, the essay will explore the ideas of the Marxist geographer David Harvey and the urban development theorist Jane Jacobs. Their theoretical concepts of the body politic and of healthy communities will provide a unique perspective onto Foreign Parts.
Finally, this essay will conclude by arguing that Foreign Parts, through its content, form, and theoretical implications, provides a radical critique of neoliberalism that offers itself as a site of resistance and empathy.

Foreign Parts: Close Analysis
Foreign Parts begins with a truck being torn apart: it is brought up into the air by machinery, its motor is taken out, yellow fluids drip from it, pieces are hanging off, its gas tank is removed, and its windows are broken. The setting is an automobile junkyard where damaged vehicles are torn for their usable parts, which are then categorized and then later sold. The rest of the car is scrapped. There are some cars that arrive to the junkyard to be taken apart while others are there to be repaired. These foreign parts and this labor are what make the 39th Avenue, Willets Point in the Queens borough of New York so unique.
Willets Point is like a wasteland. There are no sidewalks but instead just dirt and crater-sized puddles. The neighborhood is next to an inlet of Flushing Bay and when it rains there is mass flooding since it does not have a proper sewage system. The neighborhood gets really dirty. Foreign Parts takes place in the streets, cars, junkyard, auto-repair shops, offices and restaurants of Willets Point. The architecture of the over two hundred buildings is old, industrial and decaying. The storefronts are short and are made of brick. There are protective steel railings that secure the shop doors. The stores look different from each other, as some are a drab gray while others are colorfully painted. There are graffiti-designed store displays, regular business signs and large corporate billboards. The scenes of people opening up their stores and just hanging out, waiting for some business as they listen to music are reminiscent of the relaxed atmosphere of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989).
The class disparities are evident in Willets Point. A journalist who is doing a report on the neighborhood brings up how its richer surrounding communities can afford to go to the LaGuardia Community College while the residents of Willets Point cannot. The people in the neighborhood do not have many options for a prosperous future. The shop employees include a high number of uncertified and immigrant workers – the type of people that cannot get work anywhere else – and the businesses are passed down from one generation to the next. If these residents are to be displaced there is a high likelihood that they would only be worst off. These bleak social realities are in contrast to the rich visitors who go see games at the neighboring Mets Citi Field ballpark.
One of the subjects of Foreign Parts is labor. This includes paperwork and smaller trades like selling merchandise and mechanical responsibilities all the way to auto repair and the use of heavy equipment in the junkyard. The junkyard is not strictly regulated so with these tasks there comes some health concerns.
But there are larger issues surrounding labor and class and race and gender that are called into question by how they are represented in Foreign Parts. There is an older woman that walks around and begs. There is a young African-American man that works at a garage. There is Mexican cook at a restaurant. There is a young group of Jewish-Americans that pray to help their business. There are also the politicians who have meetings and write policy. The lone legal resident of the junkyard, the eighty-year-old Joseph Ardizzone, spends his time protesting the Willets Point redevelopment project. Foreign Parts even ends with the last line of dialogue on the audio track with a resident accusing the New York mayor Michael Bloomberg of being “a traitor to the American Dream.” These are just some realities that are presented in Foreign Parts and through their directness and by contrast it is up to the viewer to decide their meaning.
There is also the labor of the filmmakers who follow the residents at length. Foreign Parts was filmed on and off between 2007 and 2009. Willets Point is a rough and unwelcoming neighborhood. Police do not even go there at night. (Paravel speaks of getting Sniadecki to help her with this project for security reasons).  There are some moments where the filmmakers are even seen carrying their recording devices as they make their way through Willets Point.

Film Form: Sensory Ethnography Lab
The particular filming style of Foreign Parts is unique with its long silent observatory scenes of people performing tasks. This style allows the filmmakers to bring the viewer directly into the actions and lived experiences of the Willets Point residents. This unconventional approach to the documentary, which prefers experimental observation to standard talking-head interviews, is part of an emerging trend in documentaries that is coming out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Lucien Castaing-Taylor oversees the department, who with his fellow professor and co-director Ilisa Barbash even wrote a book on the subject, Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos. The breakout film of Castaing-Taylor and Barbash, Sweetgrass (2009), which is about the dying profession of sheep herding in Montana, can almost be seen as a manifesto or template film for this emerging school of filmmaking. This group includes Paravel, Sniadecki and also the sound recording and editing specialist Ernst Karel. The Sensory Ethnography Lab is a graduate facility and because of this more recently its students and their films have also begun to appear at film festivals with the most recent addition being Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez with their documentary MANAKAMANA (2013), which is about a variety of passengers that go up-and-down a chair lift in India.
The approach of the Sensory Ethnography Lab combines a mixture of visual anthropology with the ethnographic film. The lab’s stated mandate is to foster “creative work and research that is constitutively visual or acoustic—conducted through audiovisual media rather than purely verbal sign systems.”[1]  It is this emphasis on creating these non-verbal, purely visual and sensorial experiences that make these documentaries stand out so much.
It is interesting to bring up Paravel’s background in philosophy and her studies under Bruno Latour to discuss Foreign Parts. The French philosopher building on the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead and William James proposed a new form of Radical Empiricism. To say it simply: How do we know what we know? Paravel’s camera in its close inspection tries to take into account the basic elements of sensory data. It is almost like the camera in Foreign Parts has its own consciousness as it tries to take in all of the small details that make up Willets Point. This kind of cinematography does not try to make sense of all the visual information but instead tries to capture the objects and space in their immediacy. In Foreign Parts when the car parts are the subject of close-up shots as something is happening to them it is as if the camera is searching for the object’s mode of existence. It is through this attention to the phenomenology of objects where Foreign Parts becomes more than just aesthetic in its presentation but metaphysical in its inquiry. Objects are shown to have a multiplicity of uses and relations.[2]
In his new book American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn, Scott MacDonald devotes a chapter to the Sensory Ethnography Lab where in it he argues for the emerging importance of its innovations. For MacDonald, the lab is important in its continuation of a particular experimental Cambridge-based documentary tradition by its combination of innovation in aesthetics and ethnography. These films are unique in their ability to render sensory experience that can only be captured by way of cinema and its images and sound design, which differentiates it from the written format. For MacDonald this is important because, “These films exemplify the commitment of the SEL to a sense of culture as continuous transformation, interpenetration, and imbrication.”[3]
This form of representation can be problematic, as sometimes the subjects are not allowed to wholly communicate their realities. At times Foreign Parts can give the impression of being insensitive to the plight of the residents, as it seems more interested in the activities of the neighborhood’s machines. There are other examples of how the Sensory Ethnography Lab films disregard the personal for the social. Paravel’s earlier project 7 Queens (2008) has her walking through some of the neighborhoods along the Number 7 subway line in order to experience the myriad of ethnic communities that are serviced by the line. But through this mobile cinéma vérité perspective the local residents who are subject to complex social realities and unique personal histories become reduced to mere visual signs.
But Foreign Parts, more so than any of these other Sensory Ethnography Lab films, does not fall into this trap as it emphasizes the ethnic diversity and social realities of Willets Point. It does so by allowing for more direct access to its subjects with several interviews. It is this direct contact with its subjects that is lacking in the more visually radical next film by Paravel and Castaing-Taylor Leviathan (2012) about a fishing barge. For example in Foreign Parts there is the couple Luis and Sara who become the structural arc of the film, there is the elderly beggar woman Julia who is the recipient of the community’s charity, a young man who shows off his expensive basketball shoes, its Jewish residents who pray in one scene, and there are many other resident workers, their families and pets.[4]
             The attention in Foreign Parts to the small details and their symbolic meaning connects it to a larger documentary tradition. An interesting interpretation of Foreign Parts is that the junkyard is a metaphor for the process of filmmaking. MacDonald writes,

Paravel and Sniadecki “take Willets Point apart”—recording images that represent one or another dimension of the place and warehousing the results—then, during the editing process, they put the usable parts together into a piece they hope can move those who see the results.[5]

Its structure and editing is reminiscent of the cinéma vérité observatory documentaries of Allan King and Frederick Wiseman. For example, since Willets Point is near LaGuardia Airport there is the reoccurring motif of a plane flying overhead. This small image can represent many things. Like the fast-pace of the international world around them, a dream for the Willets Point residents of escaping to where things would be easier, and it could be seen as a film-reference to the airplane scene in James Benning’s Los (2001).[6] As well the social diversity of Foreign Parts is reminiscent of Chris Marker and in particular to The Sixth Side of the Pentagon (1968), which delves beyond generalizations and showed the real diversity of the Vietnam protesters.

Social Realities
The New York Times ran a feature article on Willets Point, “The End of Willets Point” by Sarah Maslin Nir in the November 22nd, 2013 issue. Nir highlights some of the local characters that make up its community as well as some of the benefits and drawbacks of the current state of the borough before the city starts to overhaul it with its three-phase $3 billion plan. The new plan will force its current residents and businesses to vacate so that the Willets Point Development and New York City’s Economic Development Corp. can build new apartment buildings, schools, a retail area and a park. The particular area of Willets Point in question is the space across from the Citi Field ballpark from 127th to 35th street. What the current residents like about Willets Point is its strong sense of community, a pride in their heritage, and their quality time spent together where they have fun (even though, for example, the playground is made from hobbled cars).
The Willets Point neighborhood consists of workers that are supporting themselves and their families and with this imminent migration most of them would likely have nowhere else to go. For example, there is Flaco whose job is to entice drivers to enter Willets Point for cheap and quick repairs. Also, there is the young woman Rosa who supports her family by selling food from her minivan. But the community is not perfect and there are still some problems like lower standards of living, strenuous weather conditions–the summers get too hot, and the winter is too cold–there are serious drug addictions, theft, crime, and for those that do not even have a car to sleep in there is homelessness. The development planners and the government will apparently pay up to a year of the residents’ future rent and are planning to build ‘affordable housing’ in the neighborhood. But nothing is really happening, at least not quickly enough. Since Willets Point official dislocation there have still been coalitions of business owners that have stayed and are defending their property rights with a poor success rate.

Neoliberalism and the Body Politic
This prioritization of wealth to the disregard of the lower class is just an effect of neoliberalism. In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey provides a micro-history of the political-economic developments of neoliberalism, which he defines as,

The first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.[7]

For Harvey, it is the years 1978-80 that are the revolutionary turning point in the world’s social and economic history. In the year 1978, Deng Xiaoping took steps towards the liberalization of the communist-ruled Chinese economy. In 1979 Paul Volcker, from the US Federal Reserve, changed its monetary policy and in 1980 Ronald Reagan became the American president. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected the Prime Minister of Britain. For Harvey these events of the growing ideologically conservative influence are the major steps towards neoliberalism, which favors a deregulated market with less government intervention and social planning.
The problem with neoliberalism is that it has become so omnipresent that it has become an uncontested and hegemonic discourse. It is now an Ideological State Apparatus, to use Louis Althusser’s term. Harvey writes, “It has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world.”[8] It is not innocent, either. Harvey writes,

The process of neolibralization has, however, entailed much ‘creative destruction’, not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers (even challenging traditional forms of state sovereignty) but also of divisions of labor, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixed, ways of life and thought, reproductive activities, attachments to the land and habits of the heart.[9]

Willets Point is just one example of the negative effects of neoliberalism and how it affects the regular, disadvantaged populace. In his article “The City as a Body Politic,” Harvey examines the city as an urban space and looks at it from the prism of ‘body politics’.[10] This is a useful concept to examine the condition of a city especially in regards to what Harvey defines as ‘wounded cities,’ which are cities that can be physically or economically damaged. The bleak social realities on view in Willets Point align it more towards being a wound.
             Harvey describes cities in their capitalistic form as hyperactive sites of “creative destruction,” that go hand-in-hand with incessant capital accumulation. Cities are both a vulnerable and resilient form of human organization. They can easily be damaged just as they can quickly recover from these damages. Just like how the body can be wounded by natural causes or by physical damage they can (sometimes) also be cured. The two different forms of strikes against a city that Harvey highlights are natural disasters, which include earthquakes and tsunamis (e.g. Hurricane Katrina), and strikes directed by human agency, which includes wars and environmental accidents (e.g. Irak, Kiev). But there are also economic strikes against the city created by a history of capitalism, a growing neoliberalism, and its governmental planning that disadvantages the poor.

Jane Jacobs and Urban Redevelopment
The concept of neoliberalism and the wounded city can be connected to Jane Jacobs’ theories of urbanization. Jacobs is famous for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in which she discusses the peculiar nature of cities, the conditions for city diversity, forces of decline and regeneration, and different tactics to address these problems. It is the sense of community and the relationships between the people that form there that for Jacobs is the most important. The urban downtown should be an integrated community for it to be safe and to improve its standard of living.[11]
One example that puts Jacobs’ ideas into practice is her clash with the New York City mayor Robert Moses in the 50s and 60s. Moses wanted to redevelop Manhattan by building highways for easier automobile transit and to do this Moses wanted to tear down major neighborhoods in Manhattan, which included Greenwich Village and Washington Square. Jacobs, however, posited that the infrastructure would harm the local neighborhood’s sense of community, which in reality was thriving. Jacobs became an activist for this cause and rallied public support that was able to prevent the redevelopment and would eventual lead to a landmark preservation bill a few years later.
Jacobs attacked the orthodoxy of the city planning of the times. Her voice of protest was one among the many of the period that is known for its radical spirit. The problem was not that these residential neighborhoods were poor and crime-filled, Jacobs argues, but that they were just broadly characterized as such, with a disregard to their actual living conditions, which Jacobs posited was very safe and friendly. Jacobs emphasized that the life of a city is in its strong communities and that they should not just be pushed outwards to the suburbs. This idea was in opposition to Moses who wanted to increase automobile traffic, which would only become a bigger problem as time would pass. Jacobs writes about the problems with this automobile-oriented form of city planning,

Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effects of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building. Of course planners, including the highwaymen with fabulous sums of money and enormous powers at their disposal, are at a loss to make automobiles and cities compatible with one another. They do not know what to do with automobiles in cities because they do not know how to plan for workable and vital cities anyhow – with or without automobiles.[12]

Jacobs principal argument is that cities need, “a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.”[13] There needs to be a city planning theory that accounts for its slums and city decay that emphasizes its re-integration by way of nurturing its diversity and sense of community. City planning needs to be practical and neighborhoods like Willets Point need to be better taken care of. This brings us back to Foreign Parts.

The emphasis of city planning should be on better communities. In Foreign Parts there are scenes of parents spending time with their children, groups of people playing together, children biking around, and pets that give character to the neighborhood. With a simple dismissal that Willets Point is a ‘dirty slum’ this natural life and activity is unfairly swept under the rug. Even though there are difficulties, there is a real community that has formed at Willets Point where people look out and support each other. There is the sense that this mix group of people is somehow united. There are scenes of them celebrating and doing other activities together. The fight of the legal proprietor Ardizzone to stop the redevelopment seems to be that of a communal one – this is what everyone wants. But it is not easy. Foreign Parts attempts to render the politics of this space through its attention to these acts of resistance.
            There are scenes in Foreign Parts where the sky in Willets Point is a bright blue color and everyone seems to be in a good mood. The documentary has an oblique structure where it begins at the start of a working-day and ends at dusk, the weather is bad at the beginning and becomes good by the end, and a couple encounter problems and then they unite. Like other directors that film these vanishing neighborhoods–the slums that fall prey to urban redevelopment–like Pedro Costa and Mahamat Saleh Haroun, the point of Paravel and Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts is to remember and eulogize the people and the place as it was and by picking sides with the losers of the progress of capitalism there can be a trenchant critique of its underlying motives as well as a site of resistance.

[1] MacDonald, Scott. American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn. Berkeley: University of California Press (2013).
[2] Latour, Bruno, “Reflections on Etienne Souriau’s Les differents modes d’existence.” In The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, edited by Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman. Melbourne: re-press (2011).
[3] MacDonald, Ibid.
[4]  All of the participants of the documentary are acknowledged in the film’s closing credits.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Benning’s style of filmmaking that consists of a static camera and long takes usually along with an environmental critique has a major influence on the Sensory Ethnography Lab along with the bulk of contemporary experimental cinema.
[7] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press (2005).

[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Harvey, David, “The City as a Body Politic.” In Wounded Cities: Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World, edited by Jane Schneider and Ida Susser. New York: Berg (2003).
[11] Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books (1992).
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.

No comments: