Over a period of eighteen months, José Louis Guerin shoots the construction of an apartment block in Barrio Chino, one of Barcelona’s old Chinese quarters. He shows the specific changes in the neighbourhood’s architecture and social structure and the human relationships that develop between workers at the site and people living in the neighbouring apartments.
The camerawork of Alex Gaultier is wonderful. His patient, contemplative camera registers details that make every image tell a story: a young construction worker develops a timid relationship with a young girl who lives in the building next door. It starts with an exchange of glances as she hangs out the washing on the balcony, then a smile, then a question, then a date. A story in a story.
We meet an immigrant worker from Morocco and his Spanish colleague. At first, the communication languishes a bit, but develops into conversations on philosophical issues about religion, life and death.
There’s the young couple living across the street. She is a prostitute, he is unemployed and both are drug addicts. But they love each other. These are scenes and situations of people shown in their social and geographical contexts. But the camera’s eye for affective detail infuses a little poetry into the ordinary.
The sound is as elaborate as the image: machines drilling and thumping, fragments of conversations, cries from playing children, muffled television chatter and a great little scene of a car backing in and out of the picture, its radio emitting news fragments from that particular day (NATO bombings in Yugoslavia). Or the wonderful non-verbal communication between a little baby on a balcony and a worker who waves to him and gets an enthused response and a huge smile provides moments of pure delight.
Sometimes it’s like watching a play as huge cranes lift up scaffoldings and on-site huts or a wall collapses revealing a new space that alters ‘the scenery’.
The film starts with the discovery of human skeletons in the foundation of the construction site. “We are living directly over bodies and don’t even know it,” says a woman observing the excavations. The future is literally being constructed on top of the past. By the end of the film, potential buyers visit the new apartments that are not accessible to the ancient habitants. In truly cinematic language, Work in Progress portrays the transformation of a community and a neighbourhood like an extract of modern culture.