If you think of Wall Street as capitalism’s symbolic headquarters, filmmakers Allan Sekula and Noël Burch more or less show us in The Forgotten Space how the sea is capitalism’s global trading floor writ large. For as much attention as Wall Street gets, the global shipping trade is responsible for the exchange of 90% of the world’s goods, but since it operates at sea it exists “out of sight, out of mind.” By focusing mostly on this invisible maritime sector of world trade, Sekula and Burch expose the invisible lives of cheap labor needed to ship these goods and how capitalism runs on people like oil. The film’s centerpiece, and most recurrent visual, is the 1950s American invention that has made so much of this possible and that Sekula, in his overtly Marxist narration, compares to resembling dollars in a gangster’s briefcase: cargo containers.
Filming in the harbors of Los Angeles, Rotterdam, Bilbao, and Hong Kong, as broad as The Forgotten Space goes to follow capitalism’s tentacles, Sekula’s narration always feels personal. It’s this essayistic quality that makes the documentary more interesting than its subject alone, injecting, as it does, a critical edge into a film partly comprised of scenes of floating boats and people doing menial labor; the documentary-like interviews are revealing, but not on a macrolevel in and of themselves. If Los Angeles Plays Itself, another critical-essay film that sharply conjures an alternative vision of a world that prizes wealth, is a personal film, it’s because Thom Andersen loves movies and is fascinated by the city he lives in. If The Forgotten Space is a personal film about the sea and the ill effects of capitalism, it’s because Sekula grew up in a harbor and is an anti-capitalist intellectual/artist, the former biographical fact responsible for his romanticism and the latter for the way he entertains the complexities of abstract economic forces and the way they shape lives. And because both men teach at CalArts, its easy to read into their films a characteristic artiness and a knack for movie clips featuring Los Angeles (Kiss Me Deadly and The Salvation Hunters are two of the three clips featured in The Forgotten Space).
As the film collages a portrait from various cities, stringing together personal stories of those who find themselves on the flipside of capitalism’s profiteers, it always returns to a POV shot of a cargo ship at sea stacked high with shipping containers. This central thread of a shot works to physically place us with the multi-colored containers, making us sit and pass time next to them above the depths of the seemingly limitless ocean which doubles as a metaphor for the unknown, the question mark that Sekula raises to how long such a destructive system can be sustained. These shots are memorable not only because one rarely encounters so many shipping containers in their daily life, but even when they are seen in movies, they are ignored for their real-world content and are instead used, as in La Havre or the second season of The Wire, as plot devices—mere vessels containing smuggled refugees or prostitutes. With this shot, Sekula and Burch remind us that the calm orderliness of these containers belies the destruction they wreak on the world: the landscapes, as with the Betuwe railway that connects Rotterdam with Germany, they must tear through to reach consumers; the laborers that are exploited for there to be a profit, as evidenced by one immigrant Los Angeles truck driver who learns that his $75K salary reduces to under $4 an hour after monthly payments, taxes, and fees; and the environment they imbalance as the oil from the ships is hosed off into the water, acidifying it.
There’s a script to The Forgotten Space that’s not immediately apparent. As freewheeling as the film seems, it’s Sekula’s equally ambitious (and out-of-print) book, Fish Story, that the doc was born from and uses as a kind of storyboard. Not only because of this, there’s a sense while watching the film that for as much as it seems to catch the world off-guard, it can feel like it’s not engaging with that world, and instead shapes it to what it already knows. This gives the subtle impression of the film somehow being the creation of a theorist who never left his armchair—a work inflated by his large ideas, bearing few marks of the accidental or unexpected that are inevitable while filming in the street.
That the filmmakers did shoot in the street and found new material during production speaks, then, to the film’s overdetermined ideas, which are thought-provoking, but, as noticeable during a scene of two young Chinese women in their dormitory in Shenzhen, can seem out of touch with, or to oversimplify, the images they’re commenting on. These factory workers are visibly content, if not happy, at their place in life which, besides allowing them to meet basic necessities, affords them to go shopping on their days off. The film wants us to imagine their lives as being one long thankless chore, but there’s something to be said for their smiles that the film ignores: Call it individual experience at the microlevel and human psychology. It’s these cracks in the film’s makeup that prove the difficulty of matching theory to reality, thought with image, to seamlessly go from the controllable qualities of still photos and text to moving images which can be harder to tame.
When Sekula turns his attention to the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, the connection to the film’s maritime focus becomes the tacit understanding that Frank Gehry’s inspiration is the fish, making the museum seem like an aquatic creature that crawled out of the sea of capitalism to assert its superior evolutionary progress and its wealth and beauty, also visible inside, where it showcases the giant steel curves of Richard Serra’s work because he himself was a shipyard worker in his youth. It’s the combination of these rather poetic connections and the more factual commentary (“Ocean shipping was the first industry to be globalized in a deliberate effort to pay the lowest possible wages. This was because of yet another post-war maritime invention of the Americans: the Flag of Convenience, which allows ships owned in the rich countries to register in poor countries”) that’s part of what makes The Forgotten Space such a multi-layered film essay, one with no easy surface to ground your feet on, angled and rhythmically unsteady, shaking us off a recognizable path and creating meanings through the reverberation between disparate scenes, visual metaphors, and suggestive narration.