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An atmospherically immersive and unfussily informative portrait of working lives in an obscure corner of the Bronx, Bx46 introduces a pair of strong documentary talents in French duo Jeremie Brugidou and Fabien Clouette. Premiering in the domestic competition section at nonfiction-skewing FIDMarseille, this U.S.-France co-production will prove a popular catch for festivals and small-screen outlets seeking edgy, urban ethnography.
Working with hand-held cameras and in close collaboration with editor/co-cinematographer/co-producer Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli, Brugidou and Clouette plunge us into a corner of New York City that’s a very long way from the well-beaten tourist tracks and usual cinematic locales. The closest recent parallel is Verena Paravel‘s and J.P. Sniadecki‘s Foreign Parts (2010), which found a similarly rich seam of human experience in Willets Point, a redevelopment-threatened cranny of Queens.
There are persuasive reasons for most folk to avoid Hunts Point, a noisy, grimy, river-front, largely industrial zone just across from Riker’s Island. The Fulton Fish Market relocated here — amid some controversy — from Manhattan nearly a decade ago; a “waste-transfer facility” is nearby, while permanently moored in the East River is the Vernon C. Bain Center (VCBC for short), a modern equivalent of the “prison hulks” familiar from Dickens and the world’s largest operational prison ship.
Among the products processed by the waste-transfer facility are huge quantities of human feces, which have helped develop a notoriously large, numerous and aggressive strain of mosquito. It takes a particular kind of resilience to labor in such an neighborhood, and the filmmakers find no shortage of colorful, garrulous “Noo Yawkers” — mostly middle-aged men — eager to share their experiences. Indeed, the film works best as a celebratory oral compendium of first-person testimonies: individual stories accumulate into a vivid tapestry of 21st century labor that’s geographically very specific but has obvious wider implications.
The bulk of the running time focuses on the fish market, with occasional forays into the more automated, sepulchral world of the waste facility — indicative of the level of access evidently enjoyed by the filmmakers. The VCBC, however, remains off-limits throughout, and is represented by periodic cutaways to the looming, brutally blocky “barge,” which gives no indication of human occupation or interaction.
Carefully self-effacing, Brugidou and Clouette eschew overt editorializing — no voiceover, no expository title cards — but their points are eloquently conveyed in a film that can seek and find beauty in the most unlikely of places. Colors are an eye-catchingly bold array of pungent primary hues, harshly illuminated by electric light in strong contrast to the night skies which look down over these round-the-clock enterprises. The directors’ eye for revealing detail and telling incident is sharp — as when a barrel of crabs is knocked over, allowing its crustacean inmates a desperate, brief, doomed break for freedom.
The directors pull off the tricky feat of presenting their chosen milieu with a consistent, distinctive aesthetic that resists the overpoetic aestheticization of hardscrabble “dog-eat-dog” environments. They know when to keep their cameras still and when to opt for more fragmentedly impressionistic, smudgy imagery, with editor Rovinelli assembling the results into an engagingly rough-edged collage. Bx46, named after a bus route that passes through Hunts Point, succeeds in making the viewer feel more curious, eavesdropping traveler and respectful explorer than exploitative tourist: The ride may be a little bumpy, but the destination is unambiguously worthwhile.
Production companies: Les Plans du Pelican; JDR
Directors-Screenwriters: Jeremie Brugidou, Fabien Clouette
Producers: Jeremie Brugidou, Fabien Clouette, Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli
Cinematographer: Jeremie Brugidou, Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli
Editor: Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli
Sales: Les Plans du Pelican (@FilmsPelican)
No Rating, 78 minutes
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