The Forgotten Space
Directed by Allan Sekula and Noel Burch
As The Forgotten Space points out, the sea has always been mysterious and largely unknown to humanity, despite the fact that it takes up the majority of the Earth’s surface. However, 90 per cent of commercial transport occurs in this “forgotten space,” meaning that actual obfuscation may accompany the mystery of the sea. The film’s project is to undo some of this forgetting; it develops from a comment on maritime commerce into a sweeping examination of systems and stories that global capitalism blinds its consumers from witnessing.
The political documentary is an essential form in this kind of pursuit—bringing the forgotten and obscured into detailed view in order to up transparency and, sometimes, provoke action. The form has potent potential to respond to faceless, marginalizing forces by chronicling actual human experiences with depth and rawness. In doing so, documentaries must triumph the specific over the general.
This is the ultimate pitfall of The Forgotten Space: it chooses to look out at the capitalist system rather than turning inward to human experience. In its voyage with the global shipping system, it depicts a number of local situations—in Rotterdam, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Bilbao—with insight and often heart-rending interviews and clips. However, the potency of these accounts is diminished by the film’s over-ambitiousness. It often strays from the broad subject of shipping to the even broader and more ambiguous subject of capitalism itself. Indeed, it addresses many of the crises of late capitalism—such as excessive globalization, the dominance of multinational corporations, the gambling of market investors, and over-mechanization—independently of shipping. More problematically, the local stories begin to appear secondary to broader ideological concerns.
The personal accounts, which are too numerous and treated too quickly, become lost. The Forgotten Space seems an attempt to depict global capitalism in its totality, almost forgetting one of the reasons the system is troubling to begin with—it is too widespread and pervasive to ever be accounted for.
Stylistically, the film is certainly well-executed, if at times a bit polished and self-conscious. Allen Secula’s narration effectively captures the bleakness of his subject matter in a droning but always insightful tone. At times, his words resonate poetically: “in the outskirts of Rotterdam’s shipping yards, the little human labor that remains has become a literal appendage to the machine.” Elsewhere, they comes across as smug and cynical, such as when he describes “the free play of the mind and the muscles” at a Rotterdam day care as “spirited rehearsal for the automatic future.”
The film bears a strange resemblance to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in that it communicates a sense of impending doom with beautiful images. The Forgotten Space contains refined shot after refined shot, giving grace to vessels, shipping yards, meandering trains and interview subjects alike. However, one must question the politics of such aesthetics. Is watching, and perhaps learning, enough? There is a faint call for action at the end, but the film is less a political catalyst than an aesthetically refined portrayal of something widely known to be vast and faceless.
Opens February 15 at Anthology Film Archives