"Life is short, Eternity isn't." The phrase, writ large on an Evangelical Christian billboard above Detroit's skyline, is meant to proselytize to the unconverted. But it is undoubtedly singled out by director Florent Tillon in his documentary Detroit Wild City as a pithy commentary on the surrounding landscape.
It may sound simple, but it's true: Whether motivated out of curiosity, concern or kinship (real or felt) we create and consume documentaries about different places to see how other people get on with their lives. As always, the nonfiction selection at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (April 21–May 5) provides plenty of places to visit and lives to watch, but the most compelling of these zero in on locations deemed, justifiably or not, uninhabitable and/or forgotten in which people have nonetheless carried on. Whether set in Detroit, or Willets Point, Queens, or Chile's Atacama Desert, each of these films attempts to show, with varying degrees of sympathy and engagement, life being lived against the perpetual threat of erasure.
Once a bustling acropolis filled with monuments to post-war American prosperity and industry, the Detroit of Detroit Wild City is now a silent necropolis: its grand railway terminal and blocks-long automobile factories are momento mori to economic boom times, and its empty downtown skyscrapers, shuttered schools and blighted neighborhoods are the gravestones of those who long ago abandoned them.
At least that's the implicit narrative that has emerged over the past few years, which has seen an unprecedented amount of interest in Detroit among young (often European) photographers who have descended on the city to document its remains, much in the same way that men of the 18th century would visit the ruins of Rome and Greece while on the Grand Tour. In addition to Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre's website and traveling exhibit "The Ruins of Detroit," which has received the most attention, there has been Andrew Moore's photo essay "Detroit Disassembled," James Griffioen's photo series of a school's demolished interior, and Julien Temple's 2010 TV documentary Requiem for Detroit.
These representations haven't gone unchallenged, with Detroit residents and expats claiming such "ruin-porn" smacks of sensationalism and lacks a proper contextual framework. Detroit-based photographers Romain Blanquart and Brian Widdis launched the website "Can't Forget the Motor City," which focuses on scenes of residential life, with the abandoned buildings squarely in the background. Critic and former Michigan resident Andrew Sargus Klein speaks for many, perhaps, when he writes in his critique of Marchand and Meffre's photos, "What I begrudge is the feeling that it's now too easy, that urban downfall elicits such spectacular photographs."
Tillon's interlocutors—an animal control officer who chases stray pit bulls, a Howard Zinn-esque armchair historian, a hipster who acts as the director's Virgil among the ruins, a fix-it man who lives off the grid, a community gardener, an anti-blight crusader—are not meant to be a demographic sample of Detroit’s 81.5 percent African American population, however, and a brief pan across a packed Sunday BBQ and the film's closing footage of crowds on the 4th of July gives an indication that these isolated individuals are not the only ones who live in and around the empty streets, overgrown lots and abandoned real estate of Detroit.
Different in scale and scope, Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki's Foreign Parts avoids the tricky representation issues of Detroit Wild City as it presents a portrait of a community at the margins: the workers and residents of an industrial enclave of auto shops and junk yards in the Willets Point neighborhood of Queens.
The majority of the film is given over to the largely immigrant community of auto mechanics, scrappers, touts, and the homeless who live in the shadow of Citi Field stadium, and Paravel and Sniadecki's restraint as observers is probably what led to the genial rapport that's apparent whenever their subjects commandeer the camera to join in the moment, whether as an impromptu dance partner or as witness to a long awaited reunion between lovers. Paravel and Sniadecki are also not wholly immune to the aesthetic resonance of the ruins in their midst: The opening shot of a car's engine being severed from its body viscerally evokes the scenes of slaughter that Georges Franju filmed in a Paris abattoir for Blood of the Beasts (1949). What becomes clear, though, as Foreign Parts progresses is that all the overhead shots of the warren-like shops, the close studies of piled hubcaps, of workers slogging through lake-like puddles, are not meant to form a catalog of depressed conditions, but instead create a composite portrait of a place that no longer can be.
A postscript informs us that in 2008 the Bloomberg Administration approved a $3 billion project to redevelop Willet's Point, leaving the future of the film's participants (as well as the nearly 2,000 other men and women who worked in the area) unclear. In one of the film's most upsetting moments, Paravel and Sniadecki follow an irate, older scrap-yard owner, who throughout the film rails against the irresponsibility of developers, to City Hall. His protests are met with baffled stares and embarrassed silence. Unlike Detroit Wild City’s vision of a natural evolution from a post-apocalyptic present, Foreign Parts homes in on human survival in the face of forced abandonment.
Although Chile's Atacama Desert is worlds away from Detroit or Queens, in Patricio Guzmán's stunning and beautiful Nostalgia for the Light it too becomes a staging ground for memory's struggle to hold fast against history's onward march. Here, in the driest place on Earth, astronomers stare back into millennia past as they gaze at the heavens through giant telescopes, while below, women dig through the dust with tiny shovels looking for traces of loved ones whose murdered bodies were dumped here by the Pinochet regime.
Everyone in Atacama is looking for the truth of the past, which can't always be found in physical remains. Indeed, the desert—which bears the traces of pre-Columbian shepherds, 19th-century industrialization, and the traumas of Chile's recent history, and allows us to view, through something like a camera, the origins of the universe itself —only further proves that life is short, and eternity isn't. What Guzman's film drives home is that it is in the act of searching, however stubborn or inconclusive, that memory is kept alive.
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