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Reviewed by:
  • Barge by Ben Powell, and: Boom and Bust: America's Journey on the Erie Canal by Paul Wagner and Steve Zeitlin
  • Caitlin Rimmer
Barge. 2015. By Ben Powell. 71 min. DVD format, color. (Powell Howell, Austin, TX.)
Boom and Bust: America's Journey on the Erie Canal. 2015. By Paul Wagner and Steve Zeitlin. 31 min. DVD and streaming formats, color. (American Focus, Charlottesville, VA; City Lore, New York, NY; Erie Canal Museum, Syracuse, NY.)

Barge and Boom and Bust: America's Journey on the Erie Canal are two documentary films about working on the waterways of America. Barge, a feature-length film, follows the crew of a tugboat as they move cargo down the Mississippi River. The short film Boom and Bust explores the rise and fall of industry along the Erie Canal, drawing upon archival documents, historians, and interviews with the community of workers. Taking very different approaches, both films present the meaning of this work and tell stories of communities and individuals connected (often through generations) to the work produced on these two bodies of water. In viewing the same industry at different points in its life span, the two films tease out fascinating tensions.

Barge is vérité in its impressionistic, observational documentary style. Without narration, the visual connections between shots are lyrical and suggestive, rather than didactic. The film is beautiful, slow, and nuanced. It moves from interviews with collaborators, to long, luxurious shots of the Mississippi River, to watching people as they move about their work. Editing between these intimate portraits and the wider context builds an incredibly subtle web of narratives that illustrate the experience of working on this barge. Multiple interpretations and understandings are given space in the narrative.

Structurally, Barge presents an excellent format for representation—a means of understanding both a folk group and the ways in which individuals exist within it by using strategies like code-switching to negotiate complex relationships and concepts in everyday life. Between the asides of the crew, we see how community members explain themselves and their feelings in ways that often seem in conflict, while maintaining an overall social cohesion. This is most notable in the case of a young, white crew member who has followed his father and grandmother into the industry. His opinion of the quality of his work is, unfortunately, not shared by his captain or the Black deckhand with whom he works, who is trying to help him stay employed. In moments like this, Barge presents the complexities of race and class in America without narrating them or explaining them away. [End Page 245]

The film uses its beauty functionally; Barge underlines the significance of aesthetic communication in presenting our work as folklorists. The soundscape conveys the anxiety of crew members at work when spoken voice-overs do not. The potential to lose employment is very real, as we see with the young, third-generation crew member, but each of the collaborators describes the stability this work has given to his life. As wide shots show the river drifting by, we hear the sounds of cicadas rise above the noise of rushing water; this relative stability is as fragile as the stability of the barge itself. Long panoramas are edited with shots of the barge being constantly maintained, tied together, and kept from entropy. All staff must keep busy.

This visual style communicates the tension between the wider economic landscape and the relative stability this work provides. The slowness of the film reflects the tedious pace of constant work. The attention to detail draws out the significance of work as a nexus of action and understanding in the world; in being a source of oppression, it is also a center of meaning. Barge is a very prescient film. Premiering at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival during the Obama administration, the film's themes resonate in today's political climate as well. What Barge communicates most powerfully is that the waterways that made America have not stopped making America—they have simply been removed from the picture.

Boom and Bust: America's Journey on the Erie Canal is a...


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