Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki’s new documentary Foreign Parts, like Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass, carries within itself a stirring vibrancy and yet unfolds with patience and an unfettered trajectory, like a lovely and detailed visual elegy. Where Barbash and Castaing-Taylor took the iconic vision of cowboys driving a sea of bleating sheep through the hills of Montana as a reflection of an evaporating, essentially American landscape and workforce, Paravel and Sniadecki opt for the more direct image of the shanty town of auto repair shops that has thrived in Willets Point, Queens for years and is now being cleared by developers. The fact that these shops stands in the shadows of Citi Field adds quite the exclamation point.
But where many might seek to take a telescope to the politics of the situation and the battle between common people scraping by on very close to nothing and millionaires driven only to make a million more, Paravel and Sniadecki give the floor completely to the down-and-out residents and workers of this mighty row of auto detailing and repair stores. This is not to say that the politics aren’t there: The very image of Citi Field and its sponsors’ billboards releases a deluge of capitalistic ideals and one elderly resident of the area does attempt to attend a public hearing on the Citi Field expansion. The stadium is, however, only prominently important to Paravel and Sniadecki in terms of the film’s context. The sorrows of the interviewed residents of Willets Point, most of whom go nameless, start in far more personal settings and though they voice deserved frustration over what Citi Field, in collusion with the Bloomberg administration, is doing, they speak of the actions taken with something approaching wisdom.
Speech is otherwise used largely as a tool of clarification and nuance in the stories that are told throughout Foreign Parts. What do the images of hundreds of American-owned automobiles being stripped, gutted, and crushed lack for? They humbly represent a glut of timely innuendos, but they survive and are recalled due to Paravel and Sniadecki’s compositional know-how and the film’s tough beauty. Perhaps it’s a stretch to refer to a wall of car mirrors as a beautiful sight, but this beauty is also inherent in the touching, delicate romance between two homeless people and in the filmmakers’ relationship with one particularly boisterous beggar. The empathy and love the filmmakers have for these people, who still summon joy despite the fact that they are teetering on the edge of financial oblivion, comes to blossom when the beggar dances with Sniadecki’s camera in a small, local deli.
If she had spent the day in any other deli, the beggar would have been asked to leave but she is as part of the same community as the deli is. The auto repair row serves as a microcosm of a healthy economy and community being swallowed up by an overgrown, unregulated one, namely near-gentrified New York. But hope survives, as it tends to do, in several forms and a lack of resilience is not what holds back any of the figures we are obliged to meet in Foreign Parts.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.