Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki’s ethnological docu “Foreign Parts” follows the perambulations of various local characters through Willet’s Point, an elephant’s graveyard of car parts in Queens. Slated for bulldozing to clear the way for upscale condos, offices and malls, the neighborhood reps an imagistic canvas of urban blight (Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” was filmed there) as well as a patchwork community of jumbled ethnicities. Affording a fascinating glimpse into a hidden pocket of Third World subsistence in the midst of New York, this Locarno prizewinner could attract arthouse auds.
Watching the prongs of big machines smash windows to lift and toss aside scrapped cars so that men with giant shears can cut apart the carcasses evokes a demolition derby-style elation. Like recent docus such as “Garbage Dreams” or “Waste Land,” “Foreign Parts” reflects the new value the concept of recycling has conferred upon trash and those who traffic in it, finding something tribal in the notion of repurposing every single component, not unlike the manner in which the Native Americans legendarily dismantled the buffalo.
But since the workers in Willet’s Point deconstruct automobiles, their disassembly work necessarily mimics the assembly-line process, producing rows upon rows of meticulously labeled rear-view mirrors, wheel casings, headlights and carburetors. Sometimes, no tags are needed; one dealer proudly walks past a line of car doors, faultlessly naming each one’s make and year in Spanish.
The camera crisscrosses the junkyard landscape, often at ground level, dropping in on impromptu garage barbecues or offbeat cultural exchanges, the weirdest of which shows a couple of Hassidic Jews helping an unlikely Latino convert lace up his tefellin for prayer. Lyrical shots of passing subway cars reflected in windshields alternate with noisy scenes of dented gas tanks dragged across asphalt.
The filmmakers focus on four people in particular: Julia, a lively, speech-impaired beggar supported by handouts and treated to a loving birthday bash in a local bar; Luis and Sara Zapiain, who live in an abandoned car chassis when Luis isn’t in jail for unspecified infractions; and the area’s sole official resident, Joe Ardizzone, a newborn activist who addresses the camera to deliver several pithy diatribes about civic corruption and urban mismanagement, in between poetic ruminations about the seasonal comings and goings of sparrows.
An overheard comment toward the end of the film offers a foredoomed solution: If the city were to invest in infrastructure instead of driving out the poor and handing the area over to Mayor Bloomberg’s corporate pals, it could attract small businesses that employ the local workforce.
Paravel and Sniadecki undertook their project under the auspices of Harvard’s Sensory Enthography Lab, and the pic offers a suitable urban response to “Sweetgrass,” the Lab’s more pastoral paean to a disappearing way of life.