The narrator, with a voice as pacific as the waters we see over and over again in this film, tells us: “The Flag of Convenience and the container take us back to a world of relentless toil.” The Flag of Convenience is a law, a legal loophole that allows ships from rich countries to register their business in poor ones (Liberia, Panama) and thus exploit the unfair labor laws that tax the country’s workers. Everybody knows the container. It’s the shipping industry’s Lego — that rectangular box stacked on top of itself thousands of times, overloading the shipping tankers that overload the ocean.
This concerned but oddly detached environmental documentary is full of quotes like that one, pseudo-factual, pseudo-philosophical wordplay that go as far in detracting from the movie’s argument as they do in bolstering it. So to justify the stuff about “a world of relentless toil,” we get a few words on the history of The Flag of Convenience, a few shots of workers who’ve been screwed by it, and then we’re off to another thesis. How about this, spoken by the same humorless narrator over shots of robotic container cranes lifting the boxes off of trains and onto ships: “Automation does not guarantee freedom from drudgery. It simply raises drudgery to a higher power.” What are the people watching this doc supposed to do with such statements?
The Forgotten Space is often beautiful, and it has a rhythm not aspired to by most docs. It eschews the Moore/Spurlock glibness and the CGI cartoons they use to make their points and focuses on making a kind of low-key tone poem to the disenfranchised around the world. Or the ones who have been disenfranchised by the shipping industry. Or by the rail industry. Or the trucking industry. Or the unions unable to protect them. Or the governments overly willing to invest tax money in private companies to keep infrastructure projects rolling. Or maybe by the time it’s gotten to all of these people — struggling dock workers, sailors, and drivers — it’s become a documentary on the choking-off tendency of globalization. Or maybe the film is even about the damage the industry has done to the oceans, rather than to its own workers. It’s hard to tell. You get the feeling that the filmmakers — Cal Arts professor Allan Sekula and film critic Noël Burch — were really hoping that a detached, lyrical style would translate into a powerful statement on… something to do with shipping, the ocean, globalization. You also get the feeling that they got a lot of footage of ships, trucks, trains, factories, and angry workers but didn’t know what to do with it all once they got into the editing room. That’s not an inherently inept style of filmmaking, especially if your goal is self-discovery or if the film is itself about that. But this movie has an agenda — a cool, haughty anger about the state of the world — and its style feels very much at odds with its messaging.
The strongest cue is taken from Chris Marker, the greatest documentarian in the history of film, and so not a bad de facto mentor to measure up against. Marker focuses (sometimes) on the unseen connection between subjects that are separated by continents, languages and mores; he has a poet’s eye for the humming inconsistencies in the way that human beings as a whole have organized their society and a real filmmaker’s eye for how to capture them. The Forgotten Space — and specifically the career of writer/photographer/co-director Allan Sekula — is often reminiscent of the best of Marker. But as it avoids concrete conclusions, it also steers clear of a solid philosophical ground. That is, where Marker’s films leave you positive that you have seen the world in a new way, The Forgotten Space simply casts doubt on the current way, leaving only a vague sense of dissatisfaction about it. Okay, so you’re unhappy with capitalism and the effects of globalization, and you’re smart enough not to simply ask people to get up and change the world for you (you’re not Michael Moore). If that’s the case, you’ve got to be a strong enough filmmaker to move people with your images and the meaning behind your editing. In other words, capitalism may not work, but The Forgotten Space doesn’t either.