This through-the-seasons documentary study of daily life in a New York recycling center is a full-length adaptation of a 2018 short.
The sort of documentary that sheds light on a hidden little world in a major metropolis, The Fourth Kingdomtakes us behind a redemption center in Willliamsburg, New York — the snappily named, pre-Obama “Sure We Can” — and finds that not only empty beverage containers are being redeemed and recycled there, but human beings as well.
Attractively gentle in tone, snappily paced and busy with intensely human stories, Fourth Kingdomfocuses tightly on the life-damaged inhabitants of Sure We Can, along the way finding time for much sly social commentary and, in its later scenes especially, more than a little pathos. Further festival screenings surely beckon following its win at Madrid’s recent documentary festival.
“The kingdom of plastic,” an old TV voiceover tells us at the start, “is designed for practical and gracious living.” That doesn’t quite describe things in this film. Spanish missionary Ana Martinez de Luco founded the organization in 2007 as both a recycling center and a community space, making a home for people who’d previously been living rough and who now volunteer there.
Ana is now a mother figure to these lost men, for example giving one of them money when he wants to take his girlfriend to the movies. But the main focus is on Mexican Rene, a former alcoholic far from home and with no real prospects of returning. A character of an almost unbearable gentleness, Rene sadly watches cellphone videos of children back home who we assume are his, diligently following AA’s 12-step program to recovery.
A major strand, perhaps somewhat overplayed, involves the radio shows about UFOs and aliens that the characters listen to. The metaphorical power of this is made explicit when someone complains that “they don’t call us immigrants, they call us illegal aliens”. But witty visuals are also generated by the theme: Guatemalan Walter, for example, fashions special glasses that indeed make him look like a visitor from another planet. “Everything depends,” he tells us in one of the film’s many quotable moments, “on the color of the glass you use.”
Perhaps inevitably, given that these characters all have troubled histories and uncertain futures — Walter walked a cool 3,000 kilometers to get to New York — an air of melancholy hangs over their exchanges, which tend toward the existential. We learn, for example, that “loneliness is the biggest disease in the whole world” and that “sometimes, it’s better to go to sleep.” Following the aliens theme, the origin of the universe is discussed, and there is a general belief in, and dependence on, God.
But there are also moments of joy, as when pianist Pierre treats us to a few bars of boogie woogie, and of humor — annoyed at how Chinese clients are failing to pick up their garbage, Rene tries using a voice translation app to get his message across to them, with hilarious results. And as if the day-to-day of life in Sure We Can isn’t surreal enough already, it’s also a rehearsal space for the experimental Dzieci Theater, celebrating their head-spinning, beautifully voiced Fool’s Mass as Rene looks on, bewildered.
Aliaga and Lora use exclusively fixed camera to capture a location that’s striking in its otherworldliness, a large area piled treacherously high on all sides with mountains of sacks full of plastic and drink cans, chaotic but precariously ordered, and sometimes even beautiful, as when it’s all covered with snow. American Eugene’s job is to tend the compost, so that plants can grow among all the plastic, while further life is found in the cats and kittens that scamper about, there to kill the rats and raccoons but also providing much-needed moments of tenderness. So often used as an image of post-industrial spiritual sterility, plastic is here brilliantly allowed to take on the opposite meaning.
There is little that feels spontaneous about the pic. It’s all very carefully staged and edited, with significance and suggestion painstakingly eked out of it at every turn. But its central idea — that these men, society’s castoffs, might be finding daily meaning among the piles of trash we generate — is strong enough to see it through, and prevents it from preachiness. Coming vividly through the cleverness of The Fourth Kingdom are its compassionately portrayed people, and after the film is over they are what the viewer will remember.
Production companies: Jaibo Films, Alex Lora, Isabel Feliu
Cast: Manuel Rene del Carmen, Juan “Walter” Perez, Ana Martinez de Luco, Pierre Simmons, Eugene Gadsen
Directors-screenwriters-directors of photography: Adan Aliaga, Alex Lora
Producers: Isa Feliu, Alex Lora, Miguel Molina
Executive producer: Adan Alaga
Editors: Adan Aliaga, Sergi Dies, Alex Lora
Sales: Jaibo Films