Scrap Yard (Casse): Berlin Review

This salvaging documentary finds some worthy nuggets amid all the debris.

French filmmaker Nadege Trebal unspooled her latest documentary in the Berlinale Forum.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” so the saying goes, and that’s no more apparent than in Scrap Yard (Casse), an enchanting fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows a handful of characters foraging for car parts in a massive French automotive wasteland. Sure to raise comparisons with the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s Queens-based junkyard portrait, Foreign Parts, this sophomore feature from director Nadege Trebal focuses on the various immigrants eking out a meager living amid all the rust and grime, allowing them to tell their own stories as they sift through the wreckage.

Premiering in Berlin’s Forum section, the film should see continued festival play and a small release in France, with possibilities for niche theatrical bids in Europe. Pubcasters and VOD outlets specializing in socio-ethnic fare will also take notice.

Set in an unspecified lot -- the movie is not concerned with facts and figures -- where abandoned cars lie in wait for teams of mechanics to come along and scoop out their entrails, Scrap Yard initially allows us to watch the men (and a few random women) scrape, screw, tug and shove whatever part of the engine, body, wheels or interior they’re looking for. Although we never really learn what they'll do with the goods, it's inferred that many of them hope to make a few bucks by reselling the salvaged material, or else save on expensive auto repairs.

After these initial sequences, Trebal soon hones in on a couple of select characters, particularly a pair of African immigrants who spend a long time diddling under a hood as they talk freely about their hard-knock lives. One of them describes how he came to France with a three-month visa and fifty cents in his pocket, and was eventually able, through sheer luck and a few connections, to find his place. The other tells a riveting tale of crossing the Mediterranean on a pirogue filled with illegal aliens, and how they were all nearly lost at sea before reaching land after almost a week of fear and prayer.

While these sound like tearjerking narratives, the men have an extremely lighthearted way of recounting them, mixing in lots of fatalistic humor and wit, along with nods to their semi-serious religious ways (most of the characters are Muslims). It’s during these intimate moments that Trebal -- who directed the oil refinery doc Bleu Petrole and co-wrote the screenplay to the soccer drama Little Lion -- manages to find plenty of good will amid all the waste, showing how in even the most desperate of places, people can come together to work, chat and sometimes have a good time.

Filmed in crisp HD by cinematographer Olivier Guerbois, the imagery shifts between fluid lateral tracking shots that reveal dozens upon dozens of car carcasses, and lots of handheld camerawork that captures the featured subjects up close. A sparse but welcome jazz score by Luc Meilland serves as a pleasant counterpoint to the film's otherwise grim setting.

Production companies: Maia Cinema, HVH Films, Neon Productions

Director: Nadege Trebal

Producers: Gilles Sandoz, Antonin Dedet, Boris Vassallo

Director of photography: Olivier Guerbois

Music: Luc Meilland

Editor: Cedric Le Floc’h

Sales agent: Doc & Film International

No rating, 88 minutes