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Resident Video 20: Rust Belt

Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to films from emerging artists. This month, we bring you an early look at Charles Cadkin and Rob Hunt’s Rust Belt.

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Located from the Northeastern to the Midwestern United States, the ‘Rust Belt’ refers to the largely abandoned and decaying industrial sector that used to be the heart of American production. These areas have recently seen economic and population decline, leaving the old steel and coal factories dilapidated and empty. Health issues have also been raised, such as the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan in 2015.

Charles Cadkin and Rob Hunt’s Rust Belt portrays the fallen factories of these cities using minimalist techniques, comparable to the style of Chantal Akerman’s film Hotel Monterey. Rust Belt features static shots of rusted and old machinery, pipes with the sound of water droplets, and factories left in a state of rubble. These elements give it a gray and gloomy aesthetic, while the lack of people contributes to an almost ghostly tone.

In the following interview, we speak with filmmaker Charles Cadkin about Rust Belt.

Rust Belt depicts the collapsing industrial core of the U.S., something that we’ve been dealing with for quite some time as a nation, but has been brought back to the center stage by the Trump administration. To what degree do you see your film interacting with this larger political conversation, and how, if at all, has your relationship with the project changed from its inception to now?

That’s a tough one. I’ve never really been politically minded, but it’s hard not to be now. I definitely wasn’t thinking about this in the context of our current political climate at the time and never thought in a million years that Trump would actually get elected. From what I know, it seems like Trump is attempting to create new domestic jobs that are in complete contradiction to this country’s decline in Industrialization throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Trump seems to be appealing to people who have been out of work because their jobs have been replaced. He’s completely ignoring the fact that this country has moved away from certain industries in favor of more green ways of living. People who only know how to do one thing need to adapt.

Trump also seems to be pushing projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline because he has a financial stake in the pipeline. He’s doing things like this to benefit himself rather than doing what is best for our nation. His oversight in safety and environmental impact is extremely frightening. The area of the U.S. known as the Rust Belt was historically significant, but since its decline we’ve learned how we’ve negatively impacted the environment and moving back in the direction of industrialization is not right.

The area around Buffalo, NY and upstate New York has had numerous chemical spills and environmental disasters because of the industry that once ruled that area. The Love Canal incident, for example, occurred when chemical waste was dumped into an abandoned canal. The property was later bought out and a school was built. Over time, the chemicals seeped out and with the combination of rainwater, created puddles that children often played in. The chemicals also flowed into ground water and drained into basements, which allowed people to be exposed through the air. The incident led to a high level of people being diagnosed with cancer, children born with birth defects, and a high rate of miscarriages, among many other problems. We’ve seen incidents like this too often. Finding lead in the water in Flint is the most obvious recent example and I know testing for lead in water has become ubiquitous since.

I think documenting the Rust Belt is important because it’s a relic, but we’ve moved forward and we need not ignore our past mistakes. Fetishizing these remains is fine, but I’m definitely not saying, “I miss the good old days.”

A few years ago there was a lot of talk about “ruin porn” and the urban explorers who broke trespassing laws to document the collapse of abandoned buildings. There’s usually a somber, if not creepy, tone surrounding these images. Maybe because they are a premonition of what our cities will look like once we’re gone. Rust Belt definitely exists within this format on some level. Can you talk about the process of finding and choosing the particular locations for the film? Were there any difficulties that you ran into when accessing the locations or setting up specific shots?

In my head, Rust Belt has always been a process oriented project, in that we weren’t exactly sure what we were going to get almost every step of the way. I spent probably close to a month researching different locations and areas in central and Northern New York state. I was looking on many sites where enthusiasts post their pictures and videos. There are plenty of forums full of people who have documented these locations really well. Most of my choice of locations came from pictures and how interested I was in visiting each location. Then it came down to logistics–which cities were nearest to us and had the highest density of locations that we wanted to visit and which were the easiest to get into.

In the end, we traveled to Buffalo, Rochester, Utica, Binghamton, and surrounding areas. Keep in mind that we did all of our shooting over two of the coldest weekends of that winter. We were battling the weather, which made shooting extremely unpleasant. The first day of shooting was so cold that our camera battery wasn’t fully powering the camera and unbeknownst to us, our film was running slower than sync speed and was being overexposed.

Other than weather, there were a few locations that were really tightly sealed up and our tips for getting in were coming from anyone I could get information from on the internet. We weren’t doing any damage or breaking and entering, though. Fortunately, we only had one run in with the police in Utica, but unfortunately it was one of the locations that I had most hoped we could photograph. We had to scrap going into this beautiful abandoned mall, but we drove around for a while and found an equally beautiful abandoned coal plant.

The shooting itself went as smoothly as shooting in sub-zero temperatures can go. Our biggest challenge came when we got our film back from our lab. We thought we had completely lost a large portion of our film. The untouched images that we got back were barely visible. As I mentioned before, this whole project was very exploratory and with that in mind, we had purchased all expired Fuji and Kodak Vision film, some of which was untested. After we began color grading our footage we realized we could pull back much more detail in the image than we originally thought. We figured out how to structure the film and realized that the condition of the film that we purchased was a perfect fit for the type of project that we were creating.

Rust Belt is very minimal. You’ve noted that Chantal Akerman was an inspiration, and we definitely see a lot of James Benning and even hints of Masao Adachi’s AKA Serial Killer in there as well. This style is in stark contrast with your other films, like He Miss Road, which border on absurdist pastiche. Like if John Waters took some acid and watched Possibly Michigan and Trash Humpers at the same time. Did you have to sacrifice any elements or content to maintain the minimalist structure in Rust Belt?

I think you hit the nail on the head when describing He Miss Road as absurdist pastiche. It was a film that had been in my head for a very long time and just about every line and action is some sort of homage. At the time that I actually began production on it, however, it became more politicized in my head. I was in my second semester at Ithaca College and the majority of films that I saw being created by other students angered me. Most lacked insight, technical competence, and brought absolutely nothing new to the table. I wanted to create a film that people hated. I wanted to make a film that was a series of actions that lacked any narrative and had no resolve.

Most of my recent projects have attempted to be bold and subvert expectations in one way or another. He Miss Road took influence from Harmony Korine and primarily Gummo in its form. Rust Belt took influence from a completely different kind of cinema. So, I wouldn’t say that anything was sacrificed in comparison to other projects of mine; my mindset was different going in. Duration, most obviously, and the power of the cut were things that were constantly on my mind. In Nathaniel Dorsky’s book Devotional Cinema, he talks about a balance between the length of a shot and the timing of the cut. He compares the shot to a soap bubble that pops and how if timed correctly, the shot comes into fullness and perfectly establishes the next shot. The precision of shot length and timing of cuts in Chantal Akerman’s work has always astonished me. When I watch films like Les rendez-vous d’Anna or Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles I feel something building and I feel the power of every shot. Every movement and cut feels so bold and perfectly timed, as if no frame were wasted. That’s what I was striving for.

What’s next for you? Do you have anything you’re working on or excited about starting?

That’s probably the hardest question of all.

Right now, I’m slowly shooting a very diaristic film on Super 8 that hasn’t completely taken form yet. That will be a long-term project for sure, as I’ve slowly been shooting it since this past June. It feels really personal and ephemeral, so I don’t want to rush my way through it as I feel like the passing of time in my own life is an important element to the project.

I’m planning a documentary about weather and tornadoes that I’d like to shoot this summer. Ideally it would be a film originating with the fascination of capturing this incredible phenomenon and its impact on residents in the Midwest/tornado alley, while also deviating and meandering. I really want to create something as beautiful and moving as Peter Mettler’s Picture of Light in combination with something like George Kuchar’s Weather Diary film series.


Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain. Forever.

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