An Interview with Véréna Paravel and J. P. Sniadecki

Photo by Kenneth Dellaquila, licensed under CC BY NC.

Foreign Parts is an eighty-minute documentary filmed between 2008 and 2010 by Véréna Paravel and J. P. Sniadecki, produced with the support of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. The film explores the auto repair strip at Willets Point, Queens in New York, a land of scrap parts and home to an unconventional community destined to disappear. Willets Point, located behind New York’s Shea Stadium, will be demolished to make way for new residential zones, retail spaces, a convention center, hotels, and office spaces. This ethnographic film, which is mostly observational, eschews many documentary conventions as it takes the viewer through the lives and fragments of Willets Point and its residents.

Interview with the Filmmakers

Patricia Alvarez Astacio: How did the idea for the film come about? How did you find the site and what made it interesting for you?

Véréna Paravel: I was in the middle of making my first short film, 7 Queens, which could perhaps best be described as a kind of antiethnographic stroll. I walked for about fiften miles under the number 7 subway line in Queens, New York, recording fleeting moments with people I encountered along the way. At some point, I found myself in front of a huge maze of auto shops: the junkyard of Willets Point. Some people tried to scare me away from it because it has a reputation as a particularly dangerous place, but I was immediately captivated by what I saw before me. As I wandered around the junkyard, I felt as if I was entering a weird combination of spaces—at once a gloomy cemetery, a grandiose cathedral, a huge open-air museum, a grotesque den of thieves or “court of miracles” as we say in French, a tiny feudal village in the shadow of the overbearing castle of the Mets stadium, a Third World country’s potholed and unpaved streets, a chaotic postindustrial microcosm. Right next to an infinity of car chassis and parts in various states of disrepair were hundreds of people frenetically running around trying to solicit the attention of people driving through in search of spare parts or to get their vehicle repaired. The sound was overwhelming, the energy of the place kinetic, almost explosive.

As I started talking with people, I realized that many of their lives were as damaged as the rusting cars themselves, and I began to get a sense of the hardscrabble, resilient community that had grown up there over many years. Affectively, aesthetically, and politically, this material was more than rich enough to make a film about. From the outset I knew I wanted to make a film that would try to reflect the fragility and violence of the place, the beauty and squalor that reigned, its chaotic ordering. The tiny, bounded urban locality also encapsulated much larger narratives in the history of the country—such as postindustrialization, immigration, political violence, environmental decay, and the breakdown of democracy.

J. P. Sniadecki: At that time, I was shooting a film and conducting research in Sichuan, and Vérena was working with Lucien Castaing-Taylor in the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard. She had seen the films I had shot in China—Songhua and Chaiqian—and wanted to work together. So, toward the end of the summer, Lucien contacted me to ask if I would be interested in possibly working with Véréna on a documentary in Willets Point. Since a lot of my film work has to do with urban ecologies, recycling processes, and transient populations, I was immediately interested. So Véréna and I got in touch over email and decided to head down to New York together when I returned to Cambridge that September.

That first day we had an amazing time filming together, passing the camera back and forth, discovering the offbeat beauty of the people, labor, and environment of Willets Point. It was a completely natural and organic collaboration—both between Véréna and me and between us and the people of Willets Point—that we ended up staying in the junkyard until late into the night. In fact, the first shoot set a precedent: we never wrapped up before nightfall.

As anthropologists, we are both receptive to allowing the particular dynamism and life rhythms of a place to shape our filmmaking. Observant of the imbrication of human and machine—as well as the meaning of labor—in this place, we both felt early on that we wanted to make a film that gave equal attention to the auto parts and the people of Willets Point. We didn’t want to overemphasize the psychology of characters, nor did we want to simply aestheticize the junkyard and the auto recycling trade. We were drawn to the poetry of the place but also wanted to balance that against the political backdrop of the city’s abuse of eminent domain law.

PAA: One of the festivals where you showed the film cited the way that it "embodies the conflicts of the American Dream." Do you see your film as critically addressing this topic? If so, in what ways?

VP: Yes. The American Dream is a myth, one that has assumed different directions and taken different detours over time. And Willets Point epitomizes the way that the U.S. national ethos, with its promise of unlimited success and self-realization, is often compromised in reality. For while the junkyard is from one perspective a model of free enterprise, with around two thousand people working there, those people have also been totally abandoned and even persecuted by the city—all in the name of development. It simultaneously embodies and negates the American ideology of freedom. Of course, automobiles loom large in narratives of American culture with the putative prosperity and freedom they offer, but they also represent a curtailing of a collective public culture, the social atomization that goes hand in hand with American individualism. In the junkyard, thousands of cars are taken apart and put back together as hybrid assemblages with parts moving promiscuously and often surreptitiously from one vehicle to another as they are salvaged and reclassified; recycled and reused; stolen, loaned, bartered, bought, and sold. They also serve as shelters, as homes, as toilets, as crack shacks, and as back rooms for sexual encounters. The way the cars are being de- and re-membered, so to speak, puts into play many of the contrary themes that lie at the core of this country—on the one hand, conquest, freedom, and individualism, and on the other, rejection, abjection, and detritus.

For me, while Foreign Parts critically addresses all of these themes, it doesn’t do so through overt finger pointing. The film doesn’t wear its politics on its lapels. It proceeds instead through a sharing of the sensible by way of its commensal sensory engagement with the lives of its subjects. After a few months of filming alone, I asked J. P. to collaborate with me. All in, we spent the better part of two years living in the junkyard, hanging out with everyone there, sharing much of their lives, dancing and drinking with them. Denunciation in the fashion of militant politics, a hallmark of many documentary films, is easy: as easy as any other form of propaganda or bien-pensant liberalism. Or critical anthropology, for that matter. It’s much more of a challenge and a deeper form of political engagement to come up with a portrait of a community that has been abused and rendered invisible in so many ways, such that viewers can sense some of the texture of its daily existence, which renders its shared humanity palpable.

JPS: Foreign Parts was made in the very heart of the economic crisis of 2008, when the entire world was made to suffer under corporate power and unbridled capitalism in deeper and more glaring ways. The film was also made in Willets Point, a place under threat by a redevelopment scheme that would force a viable model of small-scale capitalism to be swept away so that the city's elite could profit on land and development contracts. And there was no plan for relocation, despite the fact that these junkyards are a source of income and remuneration not only for citizens but also for thousands of immigrants seeking some shred of the American Dream. Like car parts being eviscerated from a chassis, the hard-working individuals of this community will be ripped from their livelihood and their labor. The film definitely addresses these issues through the voices of the people of Willets Point (Joe as the most vocal and active), through metaphor (the new Citifield Stadium as a Kafkaesque castle of capitalism looming in the near distance), and through purely visual means (the penultimate panoramic shot of the potholed intersection of Willets Point, with the American flag whimpering to a halt in the foreground of the frame).

PAA: Can you comment on the choice to avoid many of the conventions associated with documentary film (e.g., commentary, interviews, textual explanation)? What does a more observational approach to filmmaking allow for that a more traditional documentary format may not?

VP: The conventions you mention typically aim at a kind of discursive clarity that is close kin to journalism but a far cry from the thick description that anthropology aspires to or from the role that aesthetic ambiguity plays in the best documentaries or in art. Very few films that are considered significant in the history of documentary use them, except at times in an ironic form of reappropriation. If documentary, like ethnography, seeks to convey a sense of what life is like for the people who live it, very few of us go through life in a state of certainty and clarity. Far from it. So there’s a kind of performative contradiction in films (and texts) that promulgate a series of black-and-white propositions about the world. In Foreign Parts, we sought above all to bring to the screen the lifeworld of the junkyard—not just of the human subjects but also the ecology of the auto parts, often in some liminal state between life and death or animate and inanimate—rather than to tell viewers exactly what they should think and feel about the place. Film is much more of a sensory medium than the written word, and showing is a very different endeavor (aesthetically and cognitively) than saying. By abjuring voiceover commentary and succinct interview testimony, and also by not telling a strict or singular story, we free viewers from their habitual dependency on authoritative narration, which in mainstream media is so extreme as to be almost pathological. Third-person voiceover narration is a form of semiotic coding and decoding that disembodies the world and cuts off viewers from the profilmic world in the very act of seeming to provide them with authoritative knowledge about it. Eschewing narration affords viewers greater freedom to confront the real and to make sense of the film on their own terms. For some viewers, this is liberating; for others, it may of course be disconcerting.

While the style of Foreign Parts may perhaps be characterized as observational, it certainly isn’t so from a purist’s point of view. It’s a far cry from a “fly on the wall” approach, in which the filmmaker tries to be completely invisible and inaudible, as if they’re some kind of all-seeing god who has no real relationship with the subjects in front of the camera. Our own presence and relationship to the subjects is made manifest on a number of occasions and in a variety of different ways, both in front of and behind the camera. To my mind, films should enact and embody an encounter rather than just report on one after the fact.

JPS: With the absence of commentary, textual explanation, or voiceover, the film allows the viewer more freedom to experience and explore the images and sounds on-screen and more license to interpret for themselves the social dynamics and cultural diversity of the junkyard. In short, our approach in Foreign Parts asks the viewer to be an active participant in the film's meaning rather than a passive recipient of information. In the course of the film's eight minutes, the world of Willets Point unfolds gradually and so the viewer has the space and time to develop their own relationship to the place, the people, and the film itself.

PAA: Can you comment on the use of sound in the film?

VP: I was lucky enough to work on Foreign Parts and others of my films with Ernst Karel, an anthropologist, musician, and phonographer with very subtle ears. He listens to the world like we all do, only far more attentively to its minutiae. I think what thickness there may be to the representation in Foreign Parts comes in a significant measure from the carefully crafted soundtrack, all of which was recorded on location in Willets Point. Extradiegetic music, by contrast, which is common currency in most documentaries, for the most part amputates and alienates us from the real world, rather than attaching us to it. I remember when I first entered the junkyard how I felt literally shaken by all the different sources, frequencies, timbres, and volumes of sound that surrounded me. Even the film’s spoken sound is a far cry from that commonly used by direct-address interviews in documentaries, where you’re encouraged to attend to the mere meaning of what is being communicated rather than its acoustic materiality. Most of the vocal utterances in the film are guttural, interjections, touting, singing, or rants (especially by Joe, who spouts a litany of complaints about how the city is treating the neighborhood). But nonhuman sounds, just like the nonhuman images of car parts, are if anything a more important element of the film’s soundscape—broken glass, airplanes flying overhead, trains passing, cars being crushed and demolished, the music emanating from the diner. All of this cannot best be apprehended, affectively or even merely intellectually, by a discourse about it but rather through its acoustic cacophony, the density and superimposition of all these various sound sources in all their opacity. Our choice to keep the soundtrack loud and grating and at times assaulting was out of fidelity to the junkyard itself, but it was as much a political choice as it was an aesthetic one. Many of the ambient sounds are so blaring that it’s often hard or even impossible to make out what people are saying. The soundtrack thus functions as a metaphor of our subjects’ situation, one that in many ways renders them mute and in which they have to shout to have any chance of making themselves understood. But at the same time we took pains to ensure that they were not wholly unintelligible; it’s rather in the concert of all these sounds, vocal and nonvocal, human and nonhuman, that we sought to give sense and form to the place, to do it justice.

JPS: Sound has an allure all its own, and the industrial, musical, and multilayered soundscape of Willets Point was definitely one of the most seductive dimensions of the junkyard. In terms of equipment, we used a Sennheiser ME-66 hypercardoid microphone with a Mid-Side stereo microphone mounted on top, and these were run through the Panasonic HVX200 camcorder. We also did field recordings of various natural sounds, some ambient and environmental, others solo and isolated. Combining these in postproduction with Ernst, we built a soundscape that approaches a musical score while also maintaining a kind of minimalist, natural aesthetic.

Overall, in every project we pursue we are equally attentive to sound and image. And, as our filmmaking is often motivated by a sense of place, our approach to representing and constructing a soundtrack is influenced by the sound's relationship to place. I am thinking here of Steven Feld's observation that sound-making (and recording) is also place-making; sound both flows from and floods into bodies and environments, forming a kind of sonic orientation and meaning that attunes human beings to space and place. In Foreign Parts, the soundtrack itself is certainly a character, just as the place itself may be said to be the main character of the film.

PA: Would you classify Foreign Parts as an ethnographic film?

VP: Of course, like any other fiction film.

JPS: Sure, why not?

PAA: In her recent article in Cultural Anthropology, Anna Grimshaw writes that “exploring the visual as a medium of inquiry has always been a more difficult and challenging task. Frequently subversive of the expectations and assumptions of textual anthropology, the intellectual legitimacy of this kind of work has long been contested.” As anthropologists, do you see your visual work as a mode of anthropological inquiry? Can film and other forms of nontextual ethnography be understood as legitimate modes of anthropological inquiry?

VP: While I have no desire to argue for or against the anthropological legitimacy of my cinematic work (a form of disciplinary demarcation that seems defensive and without interest, betraying the threat to word-bound scholarship that anthropologists sometimes seem to feel in front of anything extracanonical), my training in anthropology surely affects the kind of fieldwork I do and by the same token imparts a particular texture to my films. First and foremost, I am invested in the vagaries and plenitude of lived experience, in all its messiness and open-endedness. In my work I try to privilege the magnitude of human existence over discursive efforts to pin it down or assign a set of circumscribed meanings to it. Humans are imagistic creatures before we are linguistic ones, but most of social science would have us forget this. Anthropological monographs rarely give you any sense of what it’s actually like to live in the cultures they study. The challenge for filmmakers, as opposed to anthropological scriveners, is to reach beyond what can be said. Good fiction films do this the whole time, of course, but documentaries tend to be too timorous and too beholden to the conventions of broadcast journalism. Whether the results are perceived as legitimate by the anthropological clerisy doesn’t bother me overly and, in any case, isn’t really for me to say.

JPS: I definitely see nontextual ethnography as a legitimate mode of anthropological inquiry. Anthropologists who find value in the ability of the visual to advance a unique form of experiential knowledge work in image and sound to render what is often left out in a written manuscript: the ambiguity and contingency inherent within the felt flow of experience; the plenitude of meaning contained within an image or sound; the sensual weight of lived duration conveyed by time-based media; and all the varieties of existential imponderabilia that Bronislaw Malinowski lamented in Argonauts of the Western Pacific have gone largely untreated in anthropological writing.

Your question about the legitimacy of the nontextual as well, as the quote from Anna Grimshaw, indicate a kind of tension within the discipline. It has been argued that some anthropologists feel threatened by the image, for example, because its open-ended nature expands rather than restrains the possibilities of interpretation. This fear hinges not so much on the facile and apparent meaning of the image—Roland Barthes’s studium—but rather on its excess of meaning; the image’s multivalency calls the viewer to make sense of it on their own. Furthermore, if everyone could engage social complexity and cultural difference on their own terms, drawing conclusions for themselves, then anthropologists would no longer be necessary, or so the argument goes. But I don't see it as an either/or proposition; there is no hierarchy between image and word. And, clearly, there are numerous works of media anthropology that subvert and linguify the power and autonomy of image and sound, wrapping images in verbal exegesis, like many ethnographic films do when they employ voice-over to explicate the social phenomenon on-screen. Relatedly, there are models of written anthropology that embrace ambiguity rather than seek the final word, as Michael D. Jackson has shown with his commitment to writing in a style that is both poetic in its evocation and analytic in its insight. Ultimately, it is a question of how each approach—visual or verbal—is used.

PA: What were some films that served as an influence for Foreign Parts?

VP: I wouldn’t say that there were particular films that directly shaped Foreign Parts. Personally, I am more invested in fieldwork and where that takes me, without any parti pris, than I am in cinephilia or any filmic intertextuality. But that said, I did spend two years during the production and postproduction of Foreign Parts working in Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and screening films at the Harvard Film Archive, and a lot of what I saw can only have affected my work. To name just a few, Kidlat Tahimik's allegorical Perfumed Nightmare radically blew me away with its audaciousness and postcolonial playfulness. Jean Rouch's Jaguar had a huge impact on me, and I think it’s more surreal and revolutionary than anyone yet realizes. Jana Sevcikova's Old Believers almost made me believe in God for a moment, the closest cinematic analog to seeing spirit that I’ve experienced. Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen is a close second. Robert Gardner's Forest of Bliss was, for me, ninety minutes of sheer transcendental bliss. I also remember The Nuer, which he worked on, and the scarification scenes struck me as some of the strangest and strongest film sequences I'd ever seen. And Vincent Monnikendam's archival Indonesian film Mother Dao the Turtlelike is a masterpiece.

JPS: It was mostly the people of Willets Point who influenced the tone and structure of this film. Our encounters and relationships with them held more sway over Foreign Parts than any previous film. Of course, our approach to filmmaking definitely has cinephile influences, as we both find inspiration in a wide range of experimental, nonfiction, and fiction work. We could give you a list of names of directors whose work we love, but it would be an incredibly long list.