By Matthew E. Milliken
April 11, 2015
Barge, Ben Powell’s documentary about life aboard a Mississippi tugboat, offers a rare and unusual glimpse of the industrial transportation network that powers the American economy.
The movie tracks the crew of the M/V Mary Parker as they push barges from Rosedale, Miss., to New Orleans and back. The tug’s captain claims at one point that everything every American touches was either conveyed by barge or had a component that was. The petroleum and other chemicals that fuel our cars, build our roads and make plastics of all kinds; the fertilizers that spur crop growth; the food that results — all travel up and down American rivers, the captain claims in a rare moment of expansiveness.
The crew are handsomely rewarded for their work, which involves alternating six-hour shifts (one on, one off) for a month at a time. A deckhand can make upwards of $100,000 a year, one crewman says.
Powell prioritizes images over information. I recall seeing only three on-screen labels: the journey’s beginning, the ship’s name and the journey’s far point. The movie never tells its viewers how many barges the Mary Parker propels, how many tons of cargo they carry, how fast it travels, how many crew members the tug has or how far or how long each trip lasts.
The story is similarly sparse. The only (rather mild) tension involves which deckhand or mate might get a promotion; the only dramatic episode comes very late in the film, when we learn that a crew member is in danger of losing his job. The matter is dealt with more or less conclusively a few minutes later.
(I looked online and found that the trip from Rosedale to New Orleans is not quite 500 nautical miles and can take about five days. In a post-screening Q-and-A at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Powell said that Barge was filmed over the course of four separate one-way journeys.)
What the movie does do is show us the way the work looks from the perspective of the men who do it — the deckhands; the ship’s obsessive, reclusive engineer; and the captain.
That last man explains some of the hold that the profession exerts on those who love it. He knows families have three generations of tug crew, and some men who keep on working the river into their 70s and 80s. “Towboat run deep, man,” the captain says. “Towboat run deep.”
Barge strikes a nice balance between sharing informal interviews, which sound like monologues (I don’t think we ever hear questions being asked), and simply showing the men working and bantering. Occasionally the camera — run by Powell and cinematographer Andrew Alden Miller — lingers on the scenery; there are haunting shots of a buoy receding into the distance, water being churned by Mary Parker’s engines and a grasshopper quietly resting atop a cargo cover.
Again, the movie emphasizes visual and emotional impressions over information. The interchanges can be difficult to hear, both because of the men’s Southern accents and ambient noise, and few of the men are identified to the audience by name. Still, Barge fosters an appreciation of the responsibilities and pleasures afforded by this obscure field. It makes for quite a memorable movie viewing experience.
Author’s note: Please see the latter part of this post for details about my attendance at the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which is due to a generous gift from a friend. Also, although I always strive for accuracy, I did not take notes during 2015 festival screenings. I apologize in advance if I’ve muffed any dialogue, names or other details in my write-ups. MEM