Wednesday, 21 September 2016

años de calle (w&d. alejandra grinschpun, w. laureano ladislao gutiérrez)

The Sala Zitarossa is filled to the rafters with young people and no-one quite knows why. The film is shown free as part of a season of documentaries which normally attract around 30 people, rather than the hundreds who have turned up today. They watch respectfully this compelling account of the lives of four Buenos Aires street kids, told over the course of ten years. (Años de Calle translates as Street Years). The filmmakers, Alejandra Grinschpun & Laureano Ladislao Gutiérrez first find their subjects in 1999, when the political posters are for Menem. The filmmakers are contributing to a photography outreach program, taking photos of street kids and giving them cameras to take photos with. The kids, ranging from 13 to 17, show them around their habitat in the railway sidings which run through the heart of the city, the high rise buildings framing their cardboard shelters. Five years later, 2004, the filmmakers catch up with them again. Andrés is in prison. Gachi is about to have her third child. They retain the beaky optimism of youth, in spite of the hard years they’ve already lived. By the last time of filming, their attitudes have hardened. One, Ruben has vanished, his mother trying to trace his whereabouts. Andrés is back in prison, spending the eighth year out of ten incarcerated. His subdued monotone seems a lifetime away from the cheeky kid we first met. Gachi doesn’t want to talk to the camera anymore. The camera has done nothing for over the years. She lives in a noisy garage with her partner and some of her kids. She hides her face from the camera. The only one who seems to have been able to escape destiny is Ismael, who is now himself giving photography courses to street kids, recycling the knowledge the filming has given him. Once again, in Buenos Aires as in London, the arts prove more than just decorative: they represent a means of social mobility that other professions cannot offer. It’s hard to contemplate Ismael as a lawyer or a doctor, but photography would appear to have offered him a niche in a brutal world. This is a lovingly composed film, crafted over time. It’s lack of adornment or ego is to its credit: the souls who are its subject matter are the film’s tragic heroes. Años de Calle is the anti-Boyhood, with its North American complacency. This is an account of lives lead on the other side of tracks. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

zone [mathias enard]

Barthes was a fan of the James Bond series. He used them for his structural analysis of narratives. Although Zone contains many signifiers in common with Fleming’s novels, one finds it hard to imagine that Enard shares Barthes’ enthusiasm.  It offers a story constructed around the figure of a French foreign agent, a la Bond. Like Bond, Francis Mirković travels a lot; seduces beautiful women; like Bond his moral compass appears to be ambiguous, his past shady. That’s as far as it goes. Thereafter, conceptually and structurally, the Bond vision of the world and the Mirković go their separate ways, an ocean far wider than the English Channel between them. 

Zone’s narrative is reduced to bare bones. The novel opens with Mirković catching a train at Milan station, travelling under an assumed name. He is heading to Rome, where he is going to exchange a briefcase full of classified information for cash, which the Vatican will pay him. He will meet with his Russian lover and start a new life. As far as narrative goes, that’s it. No mysterious strangers on the train, no run-ins with bad guys, no heroics.The rest is flashbacks and a vomitous torrent of information, all told in a single-sentence 500 page monologue.

The information is an apparently haphazard stream of consciousness. Mirković’s and the author’s theme is the Mediterranean and the lands which border it. The narrator does a matchless job of reordering history, putting it back in its place. Spain and France border Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Italy borders Libya. Greece and the lands of the former Yugoslavia border Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Gaza and Syria. What all these lands have in common, beside the sea, is a shared history of violence. This is the focus of Mirković’s monologue. Atrocities in Algeria, in Salonika, in Beirut, in Barcelona and dozens of other places are all woven into one tale of blood, which also manages to incorporate the Nazi atrocities. Enard’s prose is unsparing, relentless. Perhaps like Bolano in the part about the killings in 2666, he wields language like a weapon, challenging the reader to go the distance, in spite of the horror. This is the novel as endurance sport; history without the niceties, a free-falling catalogue of despair. 

At the end of which there is no salvation. Rather, at the end of which there is only the continuation which could not be written when the book was published, which shall be Syria and Gaza once again and refugees drowning in the great lake. One has the feeling that Enard never wanted to finish his voyage through the Zone. He would have wanted it to be Borgesian text, renewing itself constantly to document the latest instalment of his zone’s barbarity. 

All of which makes Zone a curious, elucidatory and punishing read. A quick google revealed that the writer has a burgeoning reputation in his native land. There is something both alt-French and anti- French (anti-structuralist) in the immense seriousness of the book’s subject matter and the minimalist approach to the book’s construction. It’s the antithesis of the Anglo-Saxon Bond, which is all narrative and very little content. 

Monday, 12 September 2016

magallanes (w&d salvador del solar)

Magallanes is not the tale of the trans-oceanic explorer. Instead, it’s the name of the film’s protagonist, a Peruvian ex-soldier, who took part in the military’s cruel campaign against the Sendero Luminoso in the province of Ayacucho. Now in late middle-age, Magallanes lives in Lima. He makes a part-time living driving a taxi and is paid to look after his senile ex-colonel by the colonel’s son, a wealthy businessman. Magallanes, desperate to earn a few bob, decides to blackmail the son by revealing the uncensored details of his father’s activities in Ayacucho. 

The idea for the blackmail comes when he picks up a woman inches taxi, Celina, who the colonel took as his concubine when she was 14 years old. Celina has since moved to Lima and is struggling to pay off her debts and make a go of her failing hairdressing business. As Magallanes becomes more and more caught up in Celina’s story, what begun as a mercenary exercise turns into an attempt to assuage his own guilt for his role in Celina’s unhappy past. When the blackmail attempt fails, Magallanes turns to kidnap. However, his real objective is to try to deal with the guilt of what occurred in Ayacucho, a name that lingers over the whole film like a curse.

Peru, it is said, is divided into four zones: the city (Lima); the jungle, the coast and the altiplano, the highlands. These zones are not only different geographically, but also politically. The Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement emerged from the Altiplano, the land of the Incas. The state of Ayacucho was its heartland, a harsh, mountainous land. In essence, Ayacucho became a kind of Peruvian Vietnam, a place where the gloves were off and any kind of military strategy, including rape and torture, was used in the name of the war against terror. At one point in the film, Magallanes’ old service comrade, Milton, talks about how he misses the fear and the excitement of war. It could almost be Walken in the Deer Hunter. Magallanes himself knows he contributed to the committal of war crimes, but he also knows that society has rewarded the victors, such as the Colonel and his son, with his infinity pool and fancy cars. 

The film does its best to bring these injustices to light. There’s something slightly methodical about the plot and the pacing: at times it feels as though this is as much a carefully framed political treatise as a cinematic narrative. Which raises the issue of the problems inherent in political film-making. How the intentions underpinning the script so often cauterise its cinematic potency. There’s a clarity to the narrative which at times feels almost counter-productive. Drama depends on shades of grey, not blacks and whites. Having said which, Magallanes emerges as a solid piece of storytelling, which affords a lucid reading of the complexities of recent Peruvian history, delineating the price that has been paid by the victims of the military’s excesses as well as the grunt soldiers who had to carry out the military’s orders.