Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): ****
Foreign Parts (directed by the team of Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki) has all the makings of a groan-inducing activist documentary along the lines of Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s The Garden or (worse) a ghoulish voyeur’s-eye-view of extreme poverty in America. Instead, Paravel/Sniadecki have pulled off the rare verite documentary that manages a formal grace and doesn’t patronize or fetishize its subjects.
The film is essentially a field recording of Willet’s Point, Queens, circa 2008 -2009. Also known as the Iron Triangle, Willet’s Point is a little slice of the Third World wedged in between the Van Wyck Expressway and Citi Field. It’s a “neighborhood” only in an abstract sense, consisting of a handful of auto parts warehouses (the area also served as the setting for Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop) and inhabited by only one official resident (while playing host to plenty of “unofficial” squatters, vagabonds, and societal outcasts). The area has no infrastructure or city services; heavy rains transform the streets into knee-high rivers of garbage and sewage. Willet’s Point is barely an upgrade from a landfill.
The film doesn’t bother with talking head interviews or narration. The beginning meanders, focusing on setting. Since auto salvage is the heart of Willet’s Point, the default ambience is the crunching of steel and the muttering of engines. Cars are gutted, their parts tumbling to the ground with spurts of tawny liquid. Men hammer out dents, shouting to each other in Puerto Rican over the chugging of air compressors. The mechanized rhythms, the heaps of chrome, the carefully organized racks and shelves of doors, mirrors, transmissions… the filmmakers create an almost cyberpunk, Tetsuo-style atmosphere before delving into the humans that inhabit the metallic graveyard.
These people are barely hanging on by their fingernails in an environment that – even at its most stable – is inhospitable. Willet’s Point is a microcosm of a microcosm – indigent America at the time of economic freefall. We meet the aforementioned sole official resident, Joseph Ardizzone, a spry septuagenarian. Ardizzone is a frustrated political advocate for the Point, a place he’s lived most of his life. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has more or less declared eminent domain for the area and hopes to pour millions into high-rises, shopping malls, a school, and other developments that will replace small businesses that have struggled for decades. Ardizzone is licked but not beaten, brimming with righteous anger like an Old Testament prophet doomed to be ignored while his world literally crumbles around him. He feels that all the city needs to do is give the area a chance – the same infrastructure allowed to the rest of the neighborhoods – and Willet’s Point will achieve a sort of equilibrium.
Then there’s Luis and Sara, a couple who lives in one of the many decommissioned vans littering the area. When he can stay out of jail, Luis shills for the auto parts businesses. They dream of escaping Willet’s point (though they don’t say where they would go) and one of the film’s most heartbreaking (and ironic) moments is when Sara, in her exasperation, moans “Oh if I only had a car!”, all the while standing in the shadow of a mountain of rotting automobile parts.
The filmmakers’ presence at times seems to inspire a sort of inauthentic performance in their subjects – the prospect of reality TV stardom is perhaps one of the few fading dreams the residents of Willet’s Point can cling to as a way out of the rusty backwater. But, ultimately, Foreign Parts belongs to a class of documentary that includes Dark Days and October Country; Paravel and Sniadecki have created an important, faithful document of people struggling against the tide of America’s 21st Century decline.
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