Making a good documentary film is a delicate task. A documentary can be so crammed with insignificant details that one loses interest in the narrative. Alternatively, an interviewer could become a barrier between the interviewee and the audience or the prescriptive voice of a voiceover might cause us to feel that we are being told what to think about the images we see rather being allowed to form our own opinions.
TV mockumentaries have become very aware of this and therefore often adopt the fly-on-the-wall technique in order to put as little distance as possible between the viewer and the characters. Famously, this method has been expertly used by Ricky Gervais in a number of his shows. He utilises the approach to allow him to extricate intricate details from his characters allowing them to be absurd yet at the same time completely believable. This is something Gervais has most recently done in Derek: many of the characters come from society’s margins and he is able to delicately deal with their complex issues by taking this detached yet intimate approach.
The documentary Scrap Yard (Casse) from French filmmaker Nadege Trebal does something similar. It documents a vast automobile scrap yard in France and the characters who populate it and whose trade it is to cannibalise the dead cars for spare parts. As it begins, we flit from panning shots of the myriad vehicles to close-up footage of the mechanics who mutter and swear as they remove doors and ease out parts of engines. It then shifts to focus on particular workers on the site and the conversations they have with one another.
These individuals are mostly economic migrants from Africa who have come to France for a better life. They chat with one another about the long and difficult journeys they have made in order to reach France and the poverty and manipulation they experienced on their arrival. However, these labourers are surprisingly upbeat as they recount these unfortunate tales, joking with one another about how well or otherwise they have integrated into French culture. It is only the French propensity towards public displays of affection that they conclude would be a cultural barrier too far for them to overcome.
Scrap Yard (Casse) imparts to the viewer very little concrete information. Aside from the fact that it is in France, no context is given to this particular scrapyard and we are not told anything about the scrapyard workers apart from what they reveal in the discussions they have between themselves. Why they are of any consequence remains somewhat unclear. Despite, maybe because, of this ordinariness, we are willingly drawn towards the various characters and their stories.
The film is able to achieve this effect by creating something uncompromisingly fly-on-the-wall. The protagonists are filmed directly as they work, not asked any questions which might direct their conversations. There is no voiceover, indeed no one who is not a mechanic makes any appearance in the film. The film neither sets out to be a public service broadcast nor a propaganda piece, it simply attempts to capture a very particular slice of French life on celluloid with admirable purity.
Such an approach goes a long way to breaking down the barriers between the audience and the content. The Scrap Yard (Casse) simply allows the camera to linger on the mechanics for lengthy periods of time as they engage in protracted conversations apparently of their own choosing, as you or I might do with people we work with. The exchanges appear to have been edited very lightly and one gets the distinct impression that after a while the subjects have completely forgotten that there is camera loitering nearby.
It is not at all an austere piece. Dispersed throughout the film is an upbeat jazz score (composed by Luc Meilland) which acts as a counterpoint to the film’s bleak setting, while informing us that the purpose of this film is not simply to represent the difficult lives of France’s disadvantaged.
Rather it is about celebrating the ordinary and familiar aspects of life which come up in the conversations and which most of us share: hard work, family and the hope of an easier future. This is clearly seen in the charm and humour with which the scrap yard workers talk about their lives and past difficulties and the warmth with which some speak of their families.
This reaches its peak in the final scene of the film where one of the older mechanics sings as he rips out various parts of an old Renault. Having completely removed everything worth taking from the car, he mumbles that “this really is a scrap yard”, instantly sidestepping into a ballroom dance, humming and counting his steps as he drags his feet over the wet concrete. The satisfaction on his tired and worn face tells us all that we need to know about how this man feels at the end of this working day.
The film is a nuanced and personal look at economic migrants, a category that in the abstract has bitterly divided populations across Europe in the recent elections. Scrap Yard (Casse) has something important to say in that debate. It encourages us to remember that there is nothing to fear in the “other”. We do ourselves no favours by making bogeymen out of people who on closer inspection are not so different from ourselves.
Another OCDF film which tackles the challenge of the ‘other’ is The Special Need, a documentary by Carlo Zorrati about his friend Enea, a fun loving 20-something with an autistm spectrum disorder. This has so far prevented him both from finding a girlfriend and having sex, two things he is particularly keen on doing. Wanting to help Enea, Zorrati and another friend attempt to engage the services of several sex-workers on his behalf, yet hesitation both on the part of the sex-workers and the band of friends sees this solution come to nothing. However, on hearing about a group of sex-workers in Hamburg who are specially trained to deal with disabled clients, they set out on a road trip to Germany in the hope of finally satisfying Enea’s desires.
At first, Enea has difficulty comprehending that although this is a place where he would be able to engage in intercourse and find companionship, he would not leave with a girlfriend or a life-partner. Nevertheless, he elects to engage in various physical activities with one of the workers but refrains from having full intercourse, something he wants to have only with the ‘love of his life’. But the experience is a positive one for him and Enea leaves more comfortable with his sexuality and with a renewed confidence about the future prospects of his own love-life.
Just like Scrap Yard (Casse), what this film does admirably is to overcome boundaries between the audience and certain groups which society often marginalises, almost before we have noticed. No more than the migrant workers is Enea with his disability to be feared. This point comes across particularly starkly in The Special Need; what we think are problems peculiar to people with disabilities quickly reveal themselves to be concerns everybody has. We all ultimately want what Enea wants: love, companionship and to be comfortable in our own skin.
While the film confronts our relationship with disabled people, what is left unsaid is how to treat the sex-workers who are an integral part of this film. The whole issue of sex-work raises another set of questions about the “other” and the way we often see people as objects rather than as human beings. The film does not answer this explicitly, but to my mind the answer is to be understood from its portrayal of Enea. It matters little what one’s profession is or how able one is: there is more that unites than divides us. Shouldn’t we all be treated with the respect and kindness we deserve?
openDemocracy is an Open City Docs Fest media partner.