En Construcción (Work in Progress), 2001

Something of a cross between the organic essentiality of Johan van der Keuken’s ethnographic documentaries (most notably, in I Love Dollar) and the disenfranchised cinema of Pedro Costa, José Luis Guerín’s En Construcción anticipates Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life in its understated, yet bracing portrait of economically imposed dislocation, class stratification, and cultural erasure. Ostensibly a chronicle of the construction of a condominium as part of a multi-phased, residential development project intended to revitalize the working class Barcelona port town of El Chino (whose name had been derived from its once bustling commerce as a trade port to Asia), the film is also a provocative and poetic document of marginalized, discarded lives lived within the constant flux of demolition and construction, urbanization and depopulation in the pursuit of an economic renaissance that comes with the process of gentrification – the people on the figurative other side who are slowly being pushed away from these transforming communities: the migrant, day laborers (usually foreigners or people from rural provinces) who work on the construction site without the security of continued employment after the project is completed, and impoverished townspeople who look on at the construction activity from the windows and rooftops of their own worn down tenements (often scheduled for future demolitions themselves), unable to afford the price of an apartment unit in the new building. This underlying dichotomy is tersely encapsulated by the plight of a young couple, Juani and Iván who, as the film begins, have been given a notice of eviction by the landlord after falling behind on their rent (as well as receiving underhanded threats to implicate Juani’s mother in a lawsuit if they refuse to comply). Juxtaposing their impending homelessness against a shot of a wrecking crew throwing out the contents from a room of a gutted apartment building with a graffiti bearing Juani’s name (while passersby rummage through the contents of the dumpster and retrieve a painting that had once been hanging on the couple’s wall) in preparation for clearing the site for new construction, Guerín subverts the notion that area redevelopment creates a new economy, but rather, merely supplants the old one.

In documenting the discovery of ancient relics from a suspected Roman-era catacomb at a demolished building site (a theory that is acerbically rebutted by an elderly bystander who is convinced that the corpses had instead been buried there during the dark days of the Civil War), Guerín not only expounds on the film’s prefiguring images of cultural disposability and substitution, but also underscores the theme of inorganic structure as testaments of “living history”, a preoccupation that resonates with Alain Resnais’s early cinema in his recurring expositions on architectural memory. This idea of human imprint as encapsulated (and inerasable) records of history is visually reflected, initially, in the establishing shot of a large, four panel graffiti mural of eternal eyes that is mirrored in the children’s chalk drawings at the construction site, then subsequently, in the foreman, Juan López’s correlation of a building’s structural framework to an inanimate soul – the hidden substance that defines an object’s underlying integrity. Within this metaphysical analogy, the indelible images of deformed silhouettes as passersby invariably peek through the canvas enclosure along the perimeter of the construction site to watch the activity that is also evoked in the exaggerated shadows cast on adjacent walls as laborers work through the evening may also be seen as metaphoric figurations of transcended bodies. It is in this aesthetic representation of spaces as interchangeable, transitory containers for human existence that Guerín’s haunting exposition ultimately converges towards the displaced spirit of Chantal Akerman’s cinema, where concreteness of place is an untenable illusion, and the idea of home proves to be arbitrary and elusive.

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