Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Taipei Film Festival.
The fiction debut of Portuguese documentarian Pedro Pinho, The Nothing Factory (A Fábrica de Nada 2017) has difficulty shedding documentary elements in favor of narrative staples such as an arc, backstory, emotional stakes, or even differentiated characters. Instead, the film captures each scene in a naturalistic, equanimous non-style, assuming incorrectly that they have the requisite attraction to motivate the film.
Perhaps misled by a joke line in the film, Boyd van Hoeij calls The Nothing Factory a “neorealist musical.” There’s music in the film, to be sure, but much of it is incidental, and only two scenes, brief in the context of the almost three-hour running time, could be considered part of a musical. What the film is, rather, is a faux-documentary comprehensive paean to the white male European working class experience; think The Florida Project (2017) minus the narrative arc. José Smith Vargas (the film uses non-professional actors) is called away from his partner, Carla Galvão, in the middle of the night to the factory where he works, to find that someone is taking away their assembly-line machines. It slowly dawns on these honest, hardworking men and (a couple) women in the following days that their company is asset-stripping the factory, closing it down, and laying off everyone. Some take the severance package and are heckled as they leave, while others buckle down and do anything they can to save their (now nonexistent) job, including occupation and, just maybe, self-ownership.
The film devotes time to every aspect of Smith Vargas’s life: (what remains of) work, Galvão and her family, his fishing hobby, his heavy metal garage band, and his interactions with interloping communist documentarian Danièle Incalcaterra. The film sometimes follows around other characters, one of whom is Incalcaterra, who wanders around while listening to recordings of someone pontificating (in impenetrable jargon) on the “state of exception” that is the “sustainable crisis” of contemporary capitalism. The most insightful scene of the film, the one that rises apart from Pinho’s straightforward documentary instincts, is when we find Incalcaterra at a dinner party with other leftist intellectuals, including the pontificator heard beforehand. It’s painfully obvious that, for all their erudition and opinions, they have as many solutions to the discontents of capitalism as anyone else—none. But the film hesitates to advocate praxis over theory, ending just as the workers decide to attempt self-ownership.