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by Pedro Velez
Steve McQueen, "Gravesend," Sept. 16-Oct. 28, 2007, at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 5811 South Ellis Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60637

Steve McQueen’s Gravesend is a rather dull, 17-minute-long semi-abstract film about savage capitalism, neo-imperialism and the ways that multinationals mine riches from war-ridden, corrupted and otherwise ravaged countries around the globe. Sound familiar? A huge production, the film backfires conceptually and sadly makes oppression seem fashionably exotic.

Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, McQueen’s new short film shows men in deep trenches, who pick, shovel, dig and with bare hands vehemently seek out in the dirt tiny bits of a valuable raw ore -- stuff that looks like chocolate chips in hardened cookie dough. During the film we also get a close-up of the edge of a blade cutting slowly through stone (the screeching sound of this operation permeates the entire film like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard), clean machines operating automatically without human aid in a high-tech lab, a vivid animation and an orange sunset over smokestacks sequenced in what could easily be an iPhoto effect.

Coltan, a black mineral used in cell phones, computers and other electronics as a conductor, is the main character. Eighty percent of it comes from the Congo. I’m no expert in mining but this I got from reading curator Hamza Walker’s long essay, which compares McQueen’s film with Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers (1849-50) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), as inspirations and precursors of McQueen’s meditation on injustice and neo-imperialism. I couldn’t help but think on its similarities to Doug Aitken’s Diamond Sea (1997), a strikingly dense visual poem that gives an exotic capitalist topography to corporate might. Filmed in the same corner of the world, Diamond Sea is set in the highly secretive guarded region in the Namib desert in southwestern Africa known as Diamond Area, a 40,000-square-mile plot considered to be the world’s largest and richest computer-controlled diamond mine.

McQueen does manage to create a moment of impact. Sandwiched between the miners and the high-tech machinery is an animation in black and white of what seems like a birds-eye view of an expanding crack, river or topographical map. This section is the most lyrical because it flows with ease and speed, and for a moment we forget the shaky camerawork, weak editing and the feeling we are watching a PBS documentary with faulty audio.

Unfortunately, the art experience doesn’t last long, as we are presented once again with sweaty anonymous workers in trenches. Real people, used first as disposable labor and now as an esthetic excuse. The workers are presumably completely and utterly alienated from the economic or intellectual value this piece finds through its exhibition in the glamorous and academic confines of art institutions. We will never get to know these men.

A little comparison helps here. In dramatic contrast to Gravesend is Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), a 107-minute-long documentary by filmmaker Hubert Sauper -- shown at film festivals all over the world and nominated for an Academy Award -- that explores the result of introducing the predatory Nile Perch into Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The fish quickly destroyed the native ecosystem, and yet is a profitable resource, with tons of premium-priced fish being shipped to Europe every day. Sauper’s film does a great job of revealing the real-world contradictions that preserve a deadly status quo.

Very little of the profit goes to the local villagers, however, who are part of an ecological catastrophe and a subculture of survival that includes extortion, prostitution, militarism and corruption. A Russian cargo plane responsible for transporting 55 tons of filleted fish to Europe may also bring illicit arms to Africa on its way back.

The film includes one of the most striking visuals I’ve ever seen, an image of barefoot villagers walking through muddy rows of hanging fish heads, a sort of makeshift market of cheap leftovers from the processed fillets. You can almost smell the acidic stink. The film shows how homeless kids use the heads for fish stock and how they sniff a gluey intoxicant cooked out othe trash packaging material from the factory. In a scene straight out of Goya’s Disasters of War, a one-eyed woman who works at the market explains how the acidic fumes from the dead fish hurt her eyes and coordination.

Revealing interviews with the Russian plane crew, their prostitutes, local factory owners and local people all convey a complicated reality of regret, contempt and desire for a better life. Darwin’s Nightmare is all Gravesend could not be, beauty in tragedy and collective histories that are too intricate to be disclosed in rhetorical essays for academia. Here, everyone gets their say for the record. Sauper photographs long pauses in the landscape and makes subjective statements that linger in time and provoke questions. That’s what makes it great art.

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an artist and writer living in Puerto Rico.