En Construccion : Spain/France 2001 /// director/script (semi-documentary) : Jose Luis Guerin /// cinematography : Alex Gaultier /// editing : Mercedes Alvarez, Nuria Esquerra /// featuring : Juana Rodriguez, Ivan Guzman, Juan Lopez Lopez, Antonio AtarĀ  /// 125 minutes

Fascinating semi-documentary traces the building of a new apartment-block in a run-down corner of Barcelona. Guerin shot more than 100 hours of footage over 18 months – some partially staged for the camera – then whittled it down, concentrating on a squatting couple (Rodriguez, Guzman), a tramp (Atar), the workers and their foreman (Lopez Lopez). Several sequences – including the discovery of a Roman cemetery – are still far too long, and it’s often hard to know how to take what we’re being shown: Neutral record? Manipulated drama? Wry commentary on the fact-fiction interface? The occasional air of pretension is what prevents Work in Progress from achieving the penetrating grandeur of Victor Eric’s superficially similar Quince Tree Sun, which remains the masterpiece of the sub-genre.

But, even without the benefit narration, Guerin does achieve some startling moments of urban poetry and unexpected anthropological insight as the future takes shape among the palimpsest rubble of the past: if nothing else, this film will be a vital time-capsule for future historians. The frame of reference is vast: frequent references to the Pyramids (the only survivor of the world’s original Seven Wonders) culminate in a terrific sequence in which we see 1950s kitsch classic Valley of the Pharaohs silently playing on TV, complete with Joan Collins cameo. Guerin’s real subject is the role of simple, ordinary people within their wider geographical, social, historical context. He shows a neighbourhood, a city, a country – perhaps even a species – in a state of permanent flux: ‘en construccion,’ indeed.

Neil Young
6th November, 2001
(seen Nov-2-01, National Film Theatre – London Film Festival)