by Adam Nayman
Dir. Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, U.S.
A deserving winner of the Best First Feature prize at this yearâ€™s Locarno International Film Festival, Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadeckiâ€™s Foreign Parts was produced with the support of Harvardâ€™s Sensory Ethnographic Labâ€”the same department that produced Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbashâ€™s Sweetgrass (Castaing-Taylor is the programâ€™s director). There are no sheep in Foreign Parts, but its relationship to the earlier film is unmistakable: not only in the sense that Sniadecki and Paravel favor an immersive yet unobtrusive documentary style, which eschews narration or contextualization, but also in its focus on a long-standing yet vanishing professional community.
Both films are concerned with American environments, but the locations could not be more different. Sweetgrass unfolds against the expansive backdrop of Montanaâ€™s Beartooth mountains, with its jagged rocks, roaring creeks and flat sight-lines, and so even in the absence of detailed exposition, the film is easily understandable as a kind of classical Western adventure. Itâ€™s a left-to-right journey across perilous terrain. Foreign Parts, by contrast, is set in an urban space: the Willets Point neighborhood of Queens in New York, a god-and-civic-planner-forsaken patch of mud and snow dotted with chop shops (and in fact the setting for Ramin Bahraniâ€™s 2007 drama Chop Shop).
The visual possibilities afforded by Willets Point are spectacular, in the sense that the sheer volume of rusted and degraded metal material stands (or teeters) as a kind of prefab industrial critique. If cars are the indeed most iconic of Americaâ€™s mass-produced products, then Paravel and Sniadeckiâ€™s images of splayed and mutilated chassis stacked as far as the eye can see register as more than mere reportage. Thereâ€™s something of Edward Burtynskyâ€™s manufactured landscapes here, and the sequences describing the fates of these wrecked and abandoned cars are positively hypnotic: metal-on-metal violence is supremely photogenic.
But Foreign Parts is a film about people, not cars. Over the course of a two-year shoot, Paravel and Sniadecki gained the trust of the community living and working in Willets Pointâ€”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 filmmakersâ€™ tactics are glancing in the best vĂ©ritĂ© tradition, permitting characters to wander in and out of the film without always establishing a clear sense of who they are and where theyâ€™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 communityâ€™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 governmentâ€”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. Thereâ€™s little evidence that the city of New York cares much about Willets Point even in light of its unique status as a â€śdestinationâ€ť for citizens from other boroughs, or at least those looking to fix or augment their cars on the cheap. Itâ€™s not the least of the filmâ€™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 disparityâ€”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). Itâ€™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-effacementâ€”a film of obvious craft and calculation that nevertheless gives the impression of being off-the-cuff.