He who controls the sea, ruins the world



The Forgotten Space

Year: 2010

Type: A Film Essay (Duration 112 minutes with English subtitles)

Directors/script: Allan Sekula and Noel Burch. Narrated by Allan Sekula.

Producers: Frank van Reemst and Joost Verhey

Production Company: Doc.EyeFilm in co-production with WILDart Film Vienna


Watch the trailer


The sea is the forgotten until disaster strikes. (Source: The Forgotten Space, 2010. Link)

If you think of Wall Street as capitalism’s symbolic headquarters, filmmakers Allan Sekula and Noël Burch more or less show us…how the sea is capitalism’s global trading floor writ large. (Source: Henley, 2012 link)

Its lessons start with the staggering but elemental fact that over 90 percent of the world’s cargo still travels by sea (Source: Rosenbaum, 2011 link)

The subject of the film is globalization and the sea, the ‘forgotten space’ of our modernity. Its premise is that the oceans remain the crucial space of globalization: nowhere else is the disorientation, violence and alienation of contemporary capitalism more manifest. But this truth is not self-evident and must be approached as a puzzle, or mystery; a problem to be solved. Sea trade is an integral component of the world-industrial system (Source: New Left Film, 2011 link)

The Forgotten Space …investigates global maritime trade: visiting everyone from displaced farmers and villagers in Holland to underpaid truck drivers in Los Angeles and Filipino maids in China. Sekula and Burch offer a sobering portrait of workers’ conditions, the inhuman scale of sea trade and the secret lives of port cities. (Source: Tate, 2012 link)

The Forgotten Space seeks to understand and describe the contemporary maritime world in relation to the complex symbolic legacy of the sea. The film follows the container transport aboard ships, barges, trains and trucks, listening to workers, engineers, politicians and those marginalised by the global transport system. (Source: EYE International, link)

…Seafarers aboard mega-ships shuttling between Asia and Europe, and factory workers in China, whose low wages are the fragile key to the whole puzzle. And in Bilbao, we discover the most sophisticated expression of the belief that the maritime economy, and the sea itself, is somehow obsolete. (Source: The Forgotten Space, 2010 link)

The film’s signature scene is of a massive container ship, quietly plying the sea to the amplified sound of wind and waves. No human life is visible across this desolate artificial landscape of cubical containers differentiated only by corporate logos. (Source: Leon, 2012, link)

Sekula and Burch remind us that the calm orderliness of these containers belies the destruction they wreak on the world: the landscapes, as with the Betuwe railway that connects Rotterdam with Germany, they must tear through to reach consumers; the laborers that are exploited for there to be a profit. (Source: Henley, 2012 link)

[it] examine[s] the sea, the ‘forgotten’ space in our modern era, in which – albeit out of sight – globalisation is leaving its most pressing visible mark…the common thread is the relationship between sea-borne transport flows and the spread of globalisation. The film reveals the creeping advance of an industry that has managed to spread to all corners of the globe, and is no longer the exclusive realm of the Western world. (Source: SKOR, 2010 link)

A visit to Rotterdam in the Netherlands discovers an impressively automated port with a diminished work force, most of whose members labor in isolation in front of screens rather than wrangle cargo with hands and hooks. (Source: Proyect, 2012 link)

We also explore the domestic spaces that support this form of trade, visiting the inside of a seafarer’s hostel in Hong Kong. Security guards keep the crew from entering a homeless camp in California, so the filmmakers interview the unemployed on the sidewalk. Viewers tour the massive spaces inside a Chinese appliance factory in Shenzhen, and accompany two female workers to their tiny dorm and then out into the city as they go shopping (Source: Young 2012 link)

Small farms in the Dutch countryside have been chopped up to make way for a new publicly financed, privately managed freight line. In Southern California drivers find their standards of living eroded, now that they are independent contractors rather than unionized workers. The Indonesian and Filipino crews on board the giant container ships, and the workers in the Chinese factories that fill them, come from a vast pool of the poor and the displaced, willing to work long hours in harsh conditions for a chance to buy into the consumer economy they serve. (Source: Scott 2012 link)

This film reinscribes the sea as a crucial site within complex networks of global capitalism. Sekula and Burch intertwine this with narratives of the stories of people working in the world’s major harbors. (Source, 2011 link)

A system that builds train tracks through residential areas, forcing people who have lived there for decades out of their homes. (Source: Ferdman, 2011 link)

He who controls the sea, ruins the world (Source: SKOR 2010 link)


Water has always played a large part in the photographer Allan Sekula’s life.  (Source: Sandhu 2012 – link)

If The Forgotten Space is a personal film about the sea and the ill effects of capitalism, it’s because Sekula grew up in a harbor and is an anti-capitalist intellectual/artist.  (Source: Henely 2012 – link)

Since then much of his extraordinary body of experimental work has been devoted to chronicling the social, economic and political dynamics of life on the oceans. His latest exercise in hydropoetics, [is] a cine-essay entitled The Forgotten Space. (Source: Sandhu 2012 – link)

The idea for The Forgotten Space came about from a photographic book Sekula published in 1995 called Fish Story, and in particular one essay in it called ‘Dismal Science’, which in turn led to lengthy discussions with Burch about perceptions and ideologies of the sea. Gradually, as the film was shot and assembled over the course of six to seven years, in several countries including China, Holland, Hong Kong, Spain and the US, a script and a thesis emerged: the story of a logistical system – globalised capitalism – enabled by the explosion of mechanised trade on the oceans, using cargo as a broad political category.   (Source: Corless 2012 – link)

‘A range of materials is used: descriptive documentary, interviews, archive stills and footage, clips from old movies. The result is an essayistic, visual documentary about one of the most important processes that affects us today. (Source: The Forgotten Space July 2010).

The Forgotten Space is not simply one work but it’s a whole series of works that develop over time. (Source: Guillen 2011 – link)

It was also about inventing complex forms, structured ambiguities, about getting away from a certain linearity, common I felt to standard documentary and “Hollywood” alike.  (Source: The Forgotten Space July 2010)

“Show enough effects and an audience will deduce the causes” is a basic tenet of filmmaking, but neither Sekula nor Noël Burch seem all that interested in effects, which are final products; The Forgotten Space is about the state of being effected, before an effect is finalized.  (Source: Vishnevetsky 2011 – link)

This central thread of a shot works to physically place us with the multi-colored containers, making us sit and pass time next to them above the depths of the seemingly limitless ocean which doubles as a metaphor for the unknown, the question mark that Sekula raises to how long such a destructive system can be sustained.  (Source: Henely 2012 – link)

The other central characteristic of this image of a ship at sea, beyond the minimalist structure of the metal box, is the panorama… A clouded sky cast in late afternoon light hovers above a gently sloping horizon line that marks the receding edge of a pallid sea…The film-makers use the panorama not only to position their work within a history of work about the sea, but also to highlight the representational logic of capitalist expansion. (Source: Burris 2011 – link)

Sekula’s narration always feels personal. It’s this essayistic quality that makes the documentary more interesting than its subject alone, injecting, as it does, a critical edge into a film partly comprised of scenes of floating boats and people doing menial labor; (Source: Henely 2012 – link)

[The film is] a good visual instinct for the sublimity, as well as the ugliness, of the industrial and postindustrial environments, and a patient and generous interest in what people have to say about their own lives. (Source: Scott 2012 – link)


Epic in scope, intellectual agility, and the potential to induce panic and despair, this documentary exploration of global trade as an emblem of economic apocalypse avoids (just barely) doom-mongering by virtue of its compassion and visual grandeur (Source: Holcomb, 2012 link )

I‘m sure that I learned a lot more from The Forgotten Space…than I did from any other feature that I saw last year, fiction or nonfiction. In more ways than one, I’m still learning from it, and its lessons start with the staggering but elemental fact that over 90 percent of the world’s cargo still travels by sea—a fact that seems all the more important precisely because so many of us don’t know it….Is The Forgotten Space a documentary or an essay? Ultimately it’s a bit of both. The far-flung visuals show us people and places across the globe: documentary subjects. Yet one could argue that the true subject of the essay is what drifts and doesn’t drift through our consciousness in relation to those subjects—the diverse theme-park rides, including those of the Internet, that we and our culture invent and keep running in order to rationalize or screen out the more pertinent displacements of people, processes, and goods. The documentary shows, but the essay explores, stimulates, and provokes (Source: Rosenbaum, 2011a link)

In short: a secretly hopeful film on an obviously dispiriting subject, made by soft-hearted hardliners (Source: Vishnevetsky, 2011 link)

A penetrating examination of global transportation systems that make profits for Walmart while destroying the fabric of civilized life (Source: Proyect, 2012a link)

an apt illustration of the concealments and shiny surfaces of the globalized economy itself (Source: Rosenbaum, 2011b link)

The Forgotten Space, itself a resurrection of a realist aesthetic as much as an attempted excavation of the social relations buried within these containers, or “coffins of dead labor power”. Within (and sometimes despite) the dense narration, vivid cinematography, and unfortunately abrasive score, unfolds a remarkable portrait of a global productivist economy and the liminal spaces at both the center and the edges of its bounty (Source: Story, 2012)

In some ways the sea becomes a mirror of the financial world, with similar invisible, destabilising flows and currents across the globe making it impossible to grasp in any totality; in fact Burch and Sekula were soon able to make explicit reference in their narration to the financial crisis, which unravelled during the period they were filming (Source: Corless, 2012 link)

It’s no small feat to convey the unfathomable complexity and overlapping scales of global capitalism — and, in the process, to portray this actor-network as simultaneously gorgeous and hideous, as sublime. The film does precisely this. We might say that The Forgotten Space unearths the physical and virtual “skeleton” of global transit and trade (Source: Mattern, 2011 link)

But this movie has an agenda — a cool, haughty anger about the state of the world — and its style feels very much at odds with its messaging…it avoids concrete conclusions, it also steers clear of a solid philosophical ground. That is, where Marker’s films leave you positive that you have seen the world in a new way, The Forgotten Space simply casts doubt on the current way, leaving only a vague sense of dissatisfaction about it….capitalism may not work, but The Forgotten Space doesn’t either (Source: Peterson, 2012 link)

it doesn’t depict a failed world, merely one failed by capitalism (Source: Vishnevetsky, 2011 link)

What we fear we create. Mr.Sukhdev Sandhu and Mr Sekula have limited to no understanding of economics, either mircro or macro, so they lash out endeavoring to somehow demonize capitalist economies. Their lack iof understanding is sad when it drives them to such a fear. Get some real knowledge, lads, then try to comment when you know that of which you speak (Source: Augustine2, 2012 link)

Straight from the Adam Smith Institute (Source: Imrama, 2012 link)

Sekula’s most recent work “The Forgotten Space” is a film essay which uses the Marxist analysis of going underneath the surface; in this case the idea of the shipping container, the global trade, to show the reality that the sea is the most forgotten space of all…In this film he is truly looking toward making an overtly Marxist film, “to show that the crisis tendencies of capitalism are on the table” and to show the unseen ‘Labor’ – something that is always functioning but always invisible (Source: Boylan, 2012 link)

It’s a disorienting effect, a haunting visualization of Marx and Engels’s dictum that, under capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air.” Only here amended: Everything bound to the earth is forced to sea (Source: Young, 2012 link)

Sekula’s overwritten narration, with its fair share of whoppers, does his argument no favors, overwhelming genuinely interesting statistics…This “film essay” will quickly fall into a forgotten space of its own (Source: Weissberg, 2010 link)

one of the most explicitly Marxist documentaries of this or any other age. (Source: Proyect 2012 Link)

“The Forgotten Space” is unabashedly polemical and rigorously pessimistic, a sustained Marxian indictment of 21st-century capital. The narration, by Mr. Sekula, is at times lyrical and rarely subtle, but the film is most graceful and moving when its argument slows down or wanders into an interesting tangent. (Source: Scott 2012 Link)

this timely film asks: is capitalism the Trojan horse that turns on its investors? (Source: hotDocs 2011 Link)

Sometimes it would have been better to simply let the images speak for themselves. And the 113-minute running time feels overlong. The film indulges in spinning its own wheels, suggesting that this entire project could have been condensed. (Source: Ferdman 2011 Link)

Yes, it is an old-fashioned, newly fashioned, Marxist movie, with its eye set square on the labourers. In other words, on the body, the cost of the body, the bending and reshaping of the body in an era of global capital. (Source: Hoolboom 2010 Link)

The film wants us to imagine their lives as being one long thankless chore, but there’s something to be said for their smiles that the film ignores: Call it individual experience at the microlevel and human psychology. It’s these cracks in the film’s makeup that prove the difficulty of matching theory to reality, thought with image, to seamlessly go from the controllable qualities of still photos and text to moving images which can be harder to tame.  (Source: Henley 2012 Link)

The question that remains is, are we willing to hear these voices if it means higher prices on our goods manufactured in other places, transported here by cogs in the forgotten machine of sea trade? If it means less speed, less flow? Will we place the human above the flow? (Source: Beth H 2011  Link)

At other points, like an extended rhetorical attack on the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, the filmmakers seem to be riding an ideological hobby horse down a dead-end street. But they have a good visual instinct for the sublimity, as well as the ugliness, of the industrial and postindustrial environments, and a patient and generous interest in what people have to say about their own lives. (Source: Scott 2012 Link)

The whole thing is held together by Sekula’s adventure-happy, politically astute, partisan commentary, which itself is a masterpiece of nonfiction. (Source: Ferdman 2011 Link)

Like all ideological tracts, Allan Sekula and Noel Burch’s “The Forgotten Space” turns complex situations into simple, even simplistic, overstatements. Will it come as a surprise to anyone that workers don’t control the means of production? An excellent idea — exploring the forgotten spaces of maritime trade, specifically the sweeping revolution brought about by the shipping container — is drowned amid very tired Marxist theory (Source: Weissberg 2010 Link)

The longer this unfocused screed goes on, the thinner your patience wears. (Source: Uhlich 2012 Link)

The film essay form isn’t a documentary, though it kind of feels like it at first. You have to get yourself to see the art in it, rather than expect it to be a documentary. That is what Sekula and Burch are after – the Brechtian “distanciation” that comes from the discontinuities, the illusion of the documentary. (Source: Beth H 2011  Link)

Not only one of the most striking essay films of recent times, it’s also the most sobering and farsighted film I’ve yet come across on the deleterious effects of globalisation on both individuals and nation states – an epic subject, tackled here through the prism of containerisation and maritime trade.

But is it art? (Source: Corless 2012 Link)

The best thing you can do is go see “The Forgotten Space” and tell your friends about. (Source: Proyect 2012 Link)

As often happens when expectations run high, I was disappointed by The Forgotten Space. There is no doubt that the film is interesting, and its discourse on the “forgotten space” of the industrial world — here exemplified in the transportation of cargo by container ships — that nevertheless is still the lynchpin of post-industrial, global capitalism is an urgent critique…Ultimately, the Marxist intention of the film, to document the deterritorialization of the human, and the eradication of manual labor via an image of containers locked onto a cargo deck as it sails the oceans, is ingenious. (Source: Guerin 2011 Link)

…the film doesn’t always know what it wants to be. The Forgotten Space is torn between being a film about the maritime world, about the demise of the shipping industry, about the human fallout of global capitalism, and about the myth of post-industrialist beliefs. The film’s connection to the maritime and the sea seems to be a purely narrative ruse or prism through which to deliver the critique of global capitalism’s fantasies of standardization. (Source: Guerin 2011 Link)

However, the question I came away with was whether the film’s limited success and limited release, might actually be due to its unevenness as a film, rather than the result of any damage it might do to the economic and political empire.  (Source: Guerin 2011 Link)

The Forgotten Space, I think that could be seen as an example of negation as it negates the ideological fascination about globalisation. Yet, it manges only to acknowledge and lift up the intellectual recognition of that. The emotional process remains repressed. Although, we as audience have realized the human catastrophe that globalization causes, yet after the film, we continue our daily life as it was. With all my respect for Sekula, I think the film is unable to cause a rupture precisely because that emotional process remains unacknowledged. (Source: Didaar 2012 Link)

All this will either lead to a moment of perfect clarity (everything is related!) if you buy in to Sekula’a and Burch’s point of view or to many moments of irritation if you don’t. (Source: Boslaugh 2011 Link)

The film’s conclusion is torn between the manifesto-like call for “the lowly crew to seize the helm” of this provisional craft, and the open question about how to extend hospitality to those bankrupt and shipwrecked refugees who might arrive on our shores.(Source: Young 2012 Link)

In the end, it’s the images that tell the story and invite the viewer to make the connections between history and the present day and what their role is in a system in danger of tipping further out of balance. (Source: Cooke 2012 Link)

This is a work that is carefully conceived and constructed, and its laments are worth listening to. (Source: Ferdman 2011 Link)

No prescriptive pandering is offered, thankfully. But by methodically exposing the physical impossibility of perpetual growth, the film reveals how absurdly self-defeating human and ecological exploitation through mechanization has become. Capitalism can’t help but eat itself, Sekula and Burch suggest—we might just have to endure “a world of relentless toil” before the chewing stops.(Source: Holcomb 2012 Link)

Though Sekula and Burch do not suggest any potential solutions to our problems, they are adamant that something must change (Source: Ferdman 2011 Link)


In Barcelona last year, a gallery that screened The Forgotten Space was visited by many of the indignados who were protesting nearby. In Oakland, Occupy activists planned to show a pirated version of the film on a temporary screen they installed after blocking some of the streets in the port area. (Sandhu, 2012 Link)

This kind of resistance reminds Sekula that his collaborator Noël Burch had “hoped the film could ‘be completed by other means – and of necessity it would have to be completed by different means’. (Ibid, Link)

Much of the films impact, as with the essay film at its best, derives from being privy to the flux and digressions of thought in process, in action. The argument put forward by Sekula’s voiceover is sophisticated, engaged, attuned to details as well as the bigger picture; woven into the mix are archive, film clips and interviews with workers, unemployed people and others directly affected by developments in globalised trade. There’s no attempt at spurious BBC-style balance or objectivity. (Corless, 2012 Link)

I wish Allan would work on a second film which would deal with the consumers. Us, as recipients of the goods of the container because I think there is a certain dimension of passivity that lets the consumer get away with not being recognised…responsible for their participation in the process. (Burris, 2011 Link)


References/Further reading

Anon a. (2012) Visiting artists and scholars lecture series, San Francisco Art Institute ( last accessed 3/11/2012)

Anon b (2012) Allan Sekula and Noel Burch: The Forgotten Space,

Augustine2 (2012) comment on Sandhu (2012) Allan Sekula: filming the forgotten resistance at sea, The Guardian, 20 April ( last accessed 29/10/2012)

Boylan, J. (2012) comment on New Tactics (2012) What does cultural resistance look like in practice?, 16 September ( last accessed 29/10/2012)

Boslaugh, S (2011) Hot Docs Film Festival ’11 ¦Day 6 11 May ( last accessed 27 October 2012)

Burch, N. The Forgotten Space (2012) (last accessed 29/10/12)

Burris, J. (2011) Material Resistance: Allan Sekula’s Forgotten Space,, 24 June, ( last accessed 27 October 2012)

Cine City Festival (2012) 25-Nov Frogotten Space.mpg, youtube 6 Febuary  last accessed 3/11/2012)

Corless K, (2012) The World at sea: The Forgotten Space 19 June ( last accessed 29 October 2012)

Cooke, S (2012) The Forgotten Space probes global effects of container traffic, The Chronicle Herald. 10 April ( last accessed 28 October 2012)

Didaar (2012) Negotiation of Forgotten Space 13 May ( last accessed 29 October 2012)

Eye International (2012) The forgotten space last accessed 29/10/12

FACT (2012) The Forgotten Space, (Last accessed 29/10/12)

Ferdnam, V (2011) Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space at LACMA: What Happens When Young, Cheap, Exploited Chinese Workers Say ‘No’?. LA Weekly, 7 October ( Last accessed 28 October 2012)

Guerin, F (2011) The Forgotten Space, dir. Allan Sekula & Noel Burch, 2012, 4 December ( last accessed 27 October 2012)

Guillen, M. (2011) The Disposable & The Discontinuous: Interview with Jonathon Rosenbaum, Twitch, 19 March ( last accessed 27 October 2012)

Beth H (2011) Film review: The Forgotten Space, or On Modernity, Globalization & Space, 10 October ( last accessed 29 October 2012)

Cinecityfestival (2012) 25-Nov Forgotten Space mpg. (Last accessed 29/10/12)

Harvey, D (2011) Forgotten Spaces: A film screening and conversation with Allan Sekula and David Harvey last accessed 29/10/12

Holcomb, M (2012) The Forgotten Space, The Village Voice, 15 Febuary ( last accessed 28 October 2012)

Henley, K (2012) The Forgotten Space, Slant Magazine, 12 Feburary  ( last accessed 26 October 2012)

Hoolboom, M. (2010) The Forgotten Space by Allan Sekula and Noel Burch 112 minutes 2010, Mike Hoolboom ( last accessed 29 October 2012)

HotDocs (2011) The Forgotten Space, ( last accessed 28 October 2012)

Imrama (2012) comment on Sandhu (2012) Allan Sekula: filming the forgotten resistance at sea, The Guardian, 20 April ( last accessed 29/10/2012)

Leon, J.K (2012) Spaces of Capital. The Brooklyn Rail last accessed 29/10/12

Lichter-Marck, R. (2011) ‘The Forgotten Space’: Documentary brings a human face to the faceless industry of global shipping. (last accessed 21.10.12)

Mattern, S.C. (2011) Books, Barges, Bones and Material Biographies, Words in Space, 15 December ( last accessed 29/10/2012)

New Left Film, (2011) The Forgotten Space; Notes for a Film ( last accessed – 29/10/2012

Peterson, A. (2012) The Forgotten Space, Tiny Mix Tapes ( last accessed 29/10/2012)

Proyect, L (2012) The Forgotten Space, Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist 12 Febuary ( last accessed 28 October 2012)

Rosenbaum, J. (2011a) The Displacements of the Forgotten Space,, 8 April ( last accessed 29/10/2012)

Rosenbaum, J. (2011b) The Forgotten Space, LACMA, 8 October ( last accessed 29/10/2012)

Sandhu, S. (2012) Allan Sekula: filming the forgotten resistance at sea. The Guardian, 20 April (  last accessed 27 October 2012)

San Franciso Art Institute (2012) Visiting Artists and Scholars Lecture Series. (Last accessed 29/10/12)

Story, B. (2012) The Forgotten Space by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, Antipode, 44(4):1575-1578

Scott, A. O., (2012) Awash in Capitalism, a Changing Earth, The New York Times  14 Feburary ( last accessed 27 October 2012)

SKOR (2010) Allan Sekula en Noel Burch; The forgotten Space last accessed 29/10/12

Tate (2012) Allen Sekula and Noel Burch The Forgotten Space, (29/10/12)

The Forgotten Space (2010) Home page last accessed 29/10/29

Uklich, K (2012) Critic reviews for The Forgotten Space, 14 February ( last accessed 29 October 2012)

Vishnevetsky, I. (2011) Neither Point A nor Point B: Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s “The Forgotten Space”, Notebook, 1 May ( last accessed 29/10/2012)

Wiessberg J (2010) The Forgotten Space, Variety, 26 September( last accessed 29 October 2012)

Young, B 2012 Seafarers All, Art Forum 14 February ( last accessed 28 October 2012)