Revisiting the monstrous Box

BEIRUT: Seven years have passed since Allan Sekula and Noel Burch released their magisterial documentary “The Forgotten Space.” Unfortunately, it’s born up very well.Broadly speaking, the film sketches a history of the shipping container – “The Box,” as the filmmakers call it – and its impact on us. It’s easy to imagine an industry-standard promotional video on this subject, harder to see it inspiring an artful film of political urgency.

Yet, like the indomitable container ships that provide its principal motif, the film’s austere aesthetic retains its structural integrity. Its critique of late capitalism courses forward with the insistence it had when it was made in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

“The Forgotten Space” premiered in the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons section in 2010, where it earned a jury nod. It screened Monday evening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil as part of “Photography at Work,” the exhibition of Sekula’s work now up at Beirut Art Center.

The film opens in Rotterdam, the Dutch port city flattened by World War II, then resurrected to become Europe’s largest port. The filmmakers pause to circle Ossip Zadkine’s World War II memorial statue – which, as critic John Berger remarked, shows “that different people can use the words defeat and victory to describe the same thing, whilst the reality which is actually suffered is something continuously developing and changing out of that apparent contradiction.”

Appropriately, Zadkine’s statue is nowadays surrounded by the city’s financial district.

Rotterdam’s been able to maintain its competitive edge, a port official boasts, by embracing technological changes that’ve allowed the industry to remove most human labor from the equation.

For crane operators, among the few remaining humans Rotterdam Port employs, mechanization has made the job so mind-numbingly taxing that it’s impossible to do it for more than four hours a shift.

The camera – lensed in various locations by Wolfgang Thaler and Attila Boa – drives past city-block-sized stacks of multicolored shipping containers while, in the first of a dozen or so poetic compressions of contemporary landscapes, the voice-over ruminates upon the scene. Rotterdam Port today, it notes, resembles a child’s game of blocks, or a gangster’s suitcase stuffed with dollars. Such asides conspire to prevent “The Forgotten Space” from being as bookish as it might be, as does the mutable accordion-driven score by Riccardo Tesi and Louis Andriessen.

Essential to buoying up what, in other hands could be a pretty leaden documentary is Thaler and Boa’s cinematography. Moving from Rotterdam Port to the adjacent Betuwe railway line, the crew encounters blond-haired laborers taking in the Dutch apple crop, to the accompaniment of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

The happy farming tableau of Dutch freeholders sitting down to take a break among the apple trees is deflated a bit when the voice-over informs you the workers are Poles who’ve migrated from half a continent away to do minimum-wage agricultural labor.

The Vivaldi’s abruptly severed by the roar of a freight train on the Betuwe line.

The crew later sets down in California (whose port facilities were the laboratory for the invention of contemporary shipping practices), then Guangdong’s industrial zones. They scrutinize Bilbao – the deindustrialized Spanish city whose principal claim to fame these days is the titanium, Frank Gehry-designed structure housing its Guggenheim museum franchise.

The camera returns several times to the Chinese container ship and its cosmopolitan crew. Finally the crew returns to the haunting landscape that provides the film’s establishing shots – the diminishing town of Doel, Belgium, which is destined to be flattened by the expansion of the port facilities at Antwerp.

The object of Sekula and Burch’s globetrotting isn’t economic infrastructure as such but the people that economies are supposed to service and the broad-canvas global narrative is leavened with human vignettes. They are interested in the stories of those whose lives have been disrupted and displaced by the contemporary global economy.

The filmmakers drop by Ontario, California, to chat with some residents of a tent city of homeless people there. The tents are set up on a strip of land between two parallel railway tracks. There three employable-looking homeless people, share their various states of confusion at having been discarded by progress. The voice-over equates these idle humans to the idled trains stowed not far away.

There are also stories of humans who have been drawn into the machinery of the industrial-transportation complex – Chinese factory workers in Guangdong; California truckers, most of them non-unionized independent contractors whose expenses-to-salary ratio leaves them making $4.00 an hour; Filipino seamen who provide the container ships’ reserve army of labor.

The crew documents a bit of inadvertent comedy. One Hong Kong-based logistics guru lauds the 14-kilometer-long spiral parking garage that truckers must scale while waiting to load and offload containers as the best way to avoid further clogging Hong Kong traffic. He admits he doesn’t know whether the truckers care for arrangement.

“They’re having trouble breathing,” the interviewer informs him.

“Interesting!” the Englishman replies in his best fascinated voice.

Among the most mordant of these “winners” tales arise when the film visits what remains of Hong Kong’s nautical institutions – still manned by white males betraying accents of the British Isles.

Founded to prepare orphaned boys for a life at sea, Hong Kong Seas School now trains the former colony’s youngsters for “an acceptable profession” in the hotel business or “the sea trades” – a euphemism for the seagoing hotel trade of the cruise lines.

“They’re seafarers,” an Irish priest smiles, nodding at a group of croupiers (gaming table attendants) staring into the screens of their laptops in the Hong Kong Mariners’ Club lounge, “but not in any real sense.” The priest pauses, then makes another attempt.

“They do go from A to B,” he smiles, then falters. “Actually not even that. They just bob about in international waters.”

For more, see “Allan Sekula Photography at Work” is up at the Beirut Art Center through Sept. 29. See

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 13, 2017, on page 16.




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