Hidden in Plain Sight: Alan Sekula and Noel Burch’s The Forgotten Space

By June Lee

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Out of sight, out of mind is an unfortunate yet true adage about the reality of our global economy. But, what are the forces behind the movement of goods from one continent to the next? And what happens to the local environment in the process? These are questions which directors Alan Sekula and Noel Burch explore in their documentary The Forgotten Space (2010). Sekula narrates the film and includes the perspectives of local residents, truck drivers, homeless people, corporate staff, factory workers and ship crew members, who speak on camera. The effects of the global trade system on these people reveal lives that are very far from the utopian promise of capitalism. These are the lives hidden amongst the maze of shipyard containers.

The Forgotten Space documents the repercussions of consumer culture from the perspective of a shipping container, which travels from Rotterdam to Los Angeles, to Bilbao, and finally to China. Ironically, throughout this voyage, we realize the growing preference for destination over journey. The once adventurous occupation of seaman, man of salt wind and water, is increasingly diminished by the crushing demands of increased efficiency and speed. The romance of the ocean is replaced by a professionalism which demands that every decision is made to increase profits, while wages stay the same.

This devastating effect is not felt only at sea. Sekula reveals how the duty of delivering cargo in general falls subject to the rigorous demands of fast-paced capitalism. According to a train conductor who transports shipping containers from Rotterdam to Germany, his employer, the Betuwe train line, has become a behemoth of barriers and bells. The filmmakers compare the line to a wooly mammoth, ‘extinct before its time’. The conductor longs for the days of the steam engine, when conductors were ostensibly less concerned about schedules and more interested in the landscape. The residents of Rotterdam seem just as unhappy as the train driver, as one of them recounts the departure of her neighbors, who moved to escape the noise of the train.

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The global transport system has yet another side effect: populations conglomerate around a single point, leaving quasi-urban, unused spaces and people in between. Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Vancouver, a few of the many hubs of centralized urbanization, marginalize the misfits of society through gentrification. Sekula interviews homeless dwellers in Ontario, California who have fallen victim to increasing real estate prices and pushed out from their homes to the borders of cities. In my experience, downtown Vancouver and East Hastings is similar to the cities in the film. Surrounded by train tracks and undeveloped plots of land, tent houses and cemeteries monitored by minimum wage security guards increase as well. These forgotten plots are mirrored in the maritime world: idling ships, stranded in the water with empty cargo boxes, waiting for the next shipment. The film records many examples of these forgotten spaces, as products of the capitalist ideal we have decided to pursue.

There are countless problems with the global transport system that are ignored by all of us simply because we don’t interact with them. How many times have we seen a passing truck and thought about its driver, his wages, his hours, or his rights? Or, for that matter, about the Chinese-made products in our homes, and who made them, and what they used? We take for granted the vast number of imported products on the shelves of our stores, but they have histories and consequences of their own. These products depend on an exploitative system of cheap labour, and are moved by workers who are largely invisible. The real question is: who does the global economy really serve? Sekula’s film begins to uncover the answer, displaying hidden tragedies of the material world we consume, which are normally packaged neatly in anonymous metal shipping containers.

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