October 15, 2007

McQueen mines images of industry

In his latest film Gravesend, British filmmaker and Turner Prize–winner Steve McQueen takes a close look at the relationship between humanity and industry. The 18-minute film, presented by the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society, explores the elements of industrial process through a combination of extreme close-ups and prolonged time-lapse shots. Tempting as it is to find a political message in this work, the film is too abstract for us to draw any definite conclusions.

In the opening scene, a river-like line twists and turns across the screen, and continues for several minutes before transitioning into a scene in which an old woman uses river water to filter impurities from ore.

Later, men wearing no hard hats or gloves hammer away at the walls of a mine with tools ranging from broken shovels to rusty pipes, perhaps implying a position of impoverishment.

These scenes, accompanied only by the sharp sound of metal on rock, depict a community of hardworking, impecunious people. There is no vocal communication, and yet the miners seem to work completely in sync with one another—much like the parts of a machine.

From the mine, the film then follows the ore as it is put through the process of smelting and molding. Then there is another transition into the sterile environment of a high-tech factory.

The only signs of life within the factory are the automated movement and monotonous droning of robots as they assemble some unidentified technological product.

Toward the end, a time-lapse shot of two industrial smokestacks against a fiery sunset enforces the film’s subtle critique of industrial progress.

The absence of verbal communication is a rather brusque throwback to the silent-film era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Consequently, sharp attention must be paid to the images in order to appreciate the film’s expression.

A Renaissance Society member informed viewers after the film that the ore being mined was Coltan (also known as columbite-tantalite), a metal used in the production of computer and cell phone parts.

As more than 80 percent of Coltan comes from the Congo, the ore is now considered by many to be the “new blood diamond,” and is also the current subject of heated social and environmental debates.

However, without being given this information beforehand, it is nearly impossible to penetrate the abstractness of the film. So the question must be asked: Does Gravesend seek to serve a political purpose, and if so, does McQueen achieve this goal?

Standing alone, the film remains very open to interpretation. It is unclear whether the miners are actually impoverished, and the location and ownership of the factory are entirely ambiguous.

Even the title of the film can leave one wondering what McQueen is attempting to say. “Gravesend” could be an allusion to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which the main character sets off from the town of Gravesend on a dangerous journey along the Congo River.

Or it might be more of a historical reference to the English town where, as legend has it, victims of the bubonic plague were so great in number that they could no longer be buried in graves, and instead had to be tossed out to sea.

Perhaps Gravesend is implying that the miners are victims of a more subtle, industrial plague. Or maybe it is simply a reminder that we must still rely upon the earth’s basic minerals to support our most advanced technology.