Robert Fantinatto - Echoes of Forgotten Places (2005)

Factories in the 1920s and ‘30s were once pregnant with our cities, with bricks and steel ready to ship to barren grounds soon to disappear under newly-built skyscrapers, roads, highways, all that could make life easy for a burgeoning humanity coming into its own with new ideas for businesses, new ideas for everything.

But “new” eventually became old. Once-active furnaces lost their heat, destined to age for decades, never to fulfill another purpose. It is also an allegory for humanity’s attitude toward history, to dismiss what we believe will not help us any further. Abandoned chairs in an expansive factory, curved pipes that no longer transport water, and controls that do not control anything. The poetic visual essay, “Echoes of Forgotten Places” tells us of a time when factories sprouted up and entire communities were created, families living nearby so husbands and other family members could get to work easily. In sparse, quick language, we are reminded of that history. And abandoned buildings, according to director, writer, and editor Robert Fantinatto are still reminders, if people still look. The majority of city-dwellers don’t bother with memory. What’s in a city is what exists. What’s outside a city, sitting forlornly near railroad tracks, run down, is long since dead.

Robert Fantinatto steps into factories where pipes run cross-wise and the floors are browned and getting older. He wants us to understand, to know what these factories and other buildings once had. A control panel in one factory was used to run various operations. Now those buttons are corroded, and whoever pushed them is most likely just as long gone as well. As photos appear and Fantinatto’s camera almost floats through doorways and enormous rooms, piano notes on the soundtrack echo as if they had been played in these very locations. Those hard notes sound like morose longing for the past. It asks where all the people went.

There are also a few clever moments where Fantinatto shows his interviews with a few passionate urban explorers on a small TV on a cart, with a VCR playing, as if to comment on us only being interested in watching these interviews on our own TVs, but also imploring us to go inside and explore abandoned places, if we live somewhere where empty factories are commonplace among the landscape. These people exude thoughtful passion about what they do, what they believe the ethics are in exploring abandoned places, such as not leaving footprints, not disturbing any equipment or anything else that’s been left there. And for one woman, no graffiti, no attempt to show that you were there. They are the hidden historians, though unnamed, and at best, they help Fantinatto strengthen the call to never forget history, never forget that other people were here before us and even though we might ignore them, they are a part of us everyday.

A photo gallery on the DVD evokes such emotion in the various shots of more abandoned rooms and buildings, including a brick factory and a psychiatric hospital. A 1936 industrial short about the steel industry is a perfect companion to “Echoes” in an active industry being shown. The steel-making in that short may have become the steel that’s merely a part of those buildings today. “Echoes” inspires awe in this possibility that what may have come from workers long ago is still somewhere today. What humanity has done before isn’t always easy to erase. And from the looks of these photographs and Fantinatto’s footage, there’s a lot to think about, especially in the way of artistic inspiration, of shafts of light shining through, of wondering who we were long ago. It’s beauty in modern forms. --Rory Aronsky (

Echoes of Forgotten Places is an interesting visual arts disc from Canada and the brainchild of Robert Fantinatto and Leesa Beales, Toronto based industrial filmmakers. The 43-minute video explores the cavernous interiors of what the filmmakers call Industrial Archeological Sites -- the long-abandoned factories and warehouse complexes left to rot when industry moves on. Most of the film is composed of arresting video images taped in the vast decaying interior spaces of huge factories. Fantinatto's camera lingers on cavernous steel mills and power plants that look as if they haven't been entered in twenty or thirty years. Original flyers and paperwork litter the offices and banks of equipment sit as if waiting to be reactivated.

For the "explorers" who make it their business to trespass on these premises, the factory complexes are undiscovered countries for investigation. Much of the video plays with only the music of Robin Guthrie and Leesa Beales on the soundtrack, but Beales narrates part of each chapter with philosophical musings about the "Aesthetics of Decay," and several unidentified speakers add more comment in interviews glimpsed on a B&W monitor positioned at one of the sites.

The film fulfills only part of our curiosity. The speakers tell us of their awe and respect for these spaces and what the represent. Looking at the giant work areas, the locker rooms and the washing basins built to service hundreds, we think of the armies of highlyskilled workers that once were the pride of our nation. How many rows of machine tools lined the shop floor? One power plant contains lines of enormous turbine generators that cover an area larger than a couple of football fields. Each individual unit is a massive iron structure; the scene looks as if it came out of H.G. Wells' Things to Come. The young voices remind us that human societies tend to ignore, destroy and bury their own history until it's so forgotten that archeological scientists are needed to rediscover how we once lived. They lament the neglect visited on these sites, knowing they will soon be cleared away for new development.

Actually, what we seem to hear most is these explorers' regret for the loss of their private playgrounds. We all know the feeling of having 'special places' as kids and resenting it when they disappear. We 1950s and 60s kids had plenty of access to interesting areas on private and public property -- storm basins and canals, undeveloped fields, construction sites, old mission-era buildings -- to explore and call our own. And it hurts to go back to these same places and see nothing but wall-to-wall apartments and industrial parks. No wonder modern kids are sullen and rebellious -- we had much a greater attachment to our environment.

The more interesting story in Echoes of Forgotten Places is the untold one. The Urban Explorers edge around the term "trespassing" but admit that these are potentially dangerous areas. They talk about their code of conduct: No vandalizing, no thievery and no altering of the environment. They move slowly and carefully, treading carefully on rotten flooring and broken ladders as they scale structures six and seven stories tall. We even see them exploring forbidding, treacherous-looking tunnels.

The obvious next thought is that the story of the adventurers is not told because it might encourage more interlopers with less aesthetic motives. Some of the spaces we see are already tagged with graffiti. And some hazards may be invisible -- a few of the explorers wear particle masks. That mist in the air may be bad mold, or quite possibly carcinogenic asbestos powder.

What we remember from Echoes are the odd details -- pools of water and mud on the floors of giant factories where the weather has broken in, and snowdrifts and walls of icicles decorating another steel workspace in winter. Echoes of Forgotten Places is first and foremost a thought-piece for a crumbling, rusting past. (

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at 12:53 AM