Running on Empty

in 60th Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival

by Esin Kücüktepepinar

Returning to his home town, to recession-era Ireland, an unemployed middle-aged man makes the headlines in a local paper in Parked: Running on Empty. The title alone is a point well-made, since this homeless watchmaker has to live in a car. Overall, the film underlines how we try to survive in these difficult times. Not only is the working life itself, but also the valuation of work is now threatened with extinction. His old car is simply a shelter for him, rather than a valuable commodity. Ironically, ‘living in a car’ becomes this poor man’s lifestyle as stylish car ads proudly announce. Irish filmmaker Darragh Byrne’s directorial debut feature Parked, which won the main award from the international jury at the 60th Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival, gently points it out that we all live like a car engine that keeps running despite the fuel gauge showing ’empty’. The protagonist is a decent person in every sense, but still he has fallen through the social net. Because he has no permanent address and is a traveller, he gets no social support, nor is he allowed an apartment. But this ‘bureaucratic detail’ does not make him fall-out from life. He might appear to have no energy reserves to be able to continue what he is doing but there is also the strong sense of surprise and wonder that he can do this. This sweet and charming movie is mainly about solidarity. Along with the young junkie ‘neighbour’ in the car park, both are trapped in the system which increasingly fails to recover and maintain human dignity, but he finds his way out… At least a bit.

In this globally drastic economic crisis, three titles in the main competition, including Parked, focus on the human condition. They are empathetic tales of survival. With different stories, styles and narratives, they tell us about the same thing: unemployment, misery, anger, struggle and despair. More importantly, they tell us about ourselves more than the protagonists. What is so important, one might ask, as we ourselves are probably also experiencing it desperately at first hand.

These movies have various answers in so many strata. Overall, they underline how we forget to relate to each other directly as human beings. Under capitalism and the global economic push, we’re failing to recognize how it’s become almost fashionable to ignore human relationships and the value of labour behind commodities.

Ironically, The Salesman (Le Vendeur), which got the FIPRESCI Prize and Special Award of the main jury, reveals it since our main protagonist is a good-natured car salesman with a fatherly attitude. He calls his customers ‘a friend’ and tries to convince them that he wants to make them ‘happy’! Often selected the ”salesman of the year,” the 67-year-old (a fantastic performance by Gilbert Scotte) tells/sells stories to the consumers in a car showroom on the edge of a small snow-covered glum town in Northern Quebec, Canada. He knows the best, old, simple trick — he transfers ‘idealistic’ messages and stories into parts, gadgets or colours of the cars. Therefore, as we know very well, we buy more than a car or a commodity. An impressively poignant portrayal of an ordinary man, this debut film from young Canadian Sebastien Pilote, subtly underlines how we voluntarily buy fabricated dreams and stories. These are dreams which make us ignore that we live in a society in decline both personally and socially. We buy a fetish rather than a car, somehow ‘believing’ it will bring us prosperity and wealth. Therefore, we completely detach ourselves from the real value of commodity, and most importantly the value of labour and human relationship behind it; which means we are detached from each other in all ways possible. Despite the increasing decline of his fading industrial town threatening to plummet people into an unfriendly reality, they don’t resist this ‘idea’, even though they know very well that they don’t need a new vehicle, they are ready to be convinced that it is inexpensive to buy a new car if ”you crunch the numbers right”. When he tries to convince a customer to change his choice of colour, this simple effort becomes a great example of how we are told what we desire and need before we have even realized it. He does the job in a community whose major source of employment, the factory, is on the verge of closure. We see the workers outside of the factory waiting desperately in a bitterly cold weather, hoping to start work again after 241 days without work. We notice a man among them who earlier just bought a new car. This ironically simple vicious circle makes your head spin. In Parked, at least they manage to trick the system in their favour even in a small way. But in The Salesman, both sellers and buyers get numb while they are wasted in the habits of corporate business. The spring’s approaching in town, and so are the brand new cars.

Another movie in the competition, Industria Argentina by Ricardo Diaz Iacoponi has a similar theme and scenery. A car component plant in the metal-working industry is an example of the economic crisis in Argentina. Again, for several months, the workers have not been paid. What to do: Go on strike or occupy the factory? This Argentine movie enthusiastically brings up class-consciousness and reminds us that we now live in a globalised world of labour in which not only the work, but also the valuation of work, is threatening to disappear. In the movie, one of the workers says it all: ”the value of a factory is not just down to the building and the machines. A factory — that also means the workers. It is only the workers that get it to function.” In reality, unfortunately, it is not even enough to make headlines.