Friday, 28 July 2017

al otro lado del muro (the other side of the wall) (w&d pau ortiz)

A lot is known about the problems facing Latinos when they enter the United States. Much less is known about the issues facing Central Americans when they get to Mexico. The migratory process, as noted in the work of Grillo and Martinez, among others, frequently begins a long way from Mexico, and frequently goes no further than that country. Ortiz’s film studies the fortunes of a Honduran family which has arrived in Southern Mexico. It’s never made clear why they left their homeland. The film focuses on a teenage brother (Alejandro) and his younger sister (Rocio). Their mother brought them and their two younger siblings, along with Ale’s partner, Olga, to Mexico a year ago. But now she’s in prison and the family have to fend for themselves. There’s no father and no fairy godmother. The film tells their story in two chunks, firstly introducing them and then returning a year and a half later. 

Ortiz’s film is a delicate portrayal of the struggle of those who are at the hard end. Alejandro is desperate to find work, but he doesn’t have the papers he needs. Rocio wants to live a normal teenage life, but she has to take on the responsibilities of being a foster mother to her younger siblings. They both are given moments when they speak to camera, revealing their intelligence, their wit and their struggle to cope with the hand that life has dealt them. Alejandro dreams of better things: he plans a route that will take him to the USA. Better to be an illegal there than in Mexico. Rocio fights for her independence, even though she recognises the responsibility she needs to face up to if the family is to survive. In the midst of this, their humour and mutual affection act as beacons, an example which those in more privileged positions would do well to learn from. 

The film achieves a remarkable level of intimacy. Although occasional scenes feel ‘directed’, the participants seem on the whole to be oblivious to the presence of the camera. They argue and joke as though it wasn’t there. At times the intimacy almost becomes uncomfortable: what right do we, the viewers, have to watch the family’s travails as though it were some kind of soap opera. The film is permitted, by fate, an upbeat ending, but the question remains. Which is part of the film’s strength. It forces us to confront the paradox of our own engagement. These people aren’t figures or caricatures. They are real people, desperately trying to get by, and their very humanness makes us warm to them, makes us feel as though we’d be happy to hang out with them. Only they’re right on the edge, and we’re sitting in a comfortable cinema, looking in. It would not be hard to criticise Ortiz for encouraging a kind of voyeurism through his filmmaking; yet at the same time it would be fairer to say that what he does with his film is break down the divide that is so easily constructed between the haves and the have-nots. And in so doing, his film makes us ask radical questions about the way in which our world, with its innate unfairness, is structured.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

ejercicios de memoria (w&d paz encina)

Paz Encina’s film is a rare film to emerge from Paraguay. A place with a minimal film industry, and therefore a great deal of space for the director to do their own thing. Which Encina signally does. The film recounts the story of a Paraguayan doctor, Agustín Goiburú, who set out to resist Stroessner’s dictatorship. He was arrested twice and the second time he disappeared for good. His body was never found. The tale is narrated by his children, and perhaps his grandchildren. It’s hard to tell, because these are voices, only, which float above the pictures the director presents. The images are mostly dreamy, elegiac footage of kids in the Paraguayan outback. The film opens with a shot of a child swimming underwater, then shifts to a deserted home, in the countryside. From here, it picks up on the kids. There are two groups: one of youngsters, who scramble up trees and eat wild fruit. The other is an older band of three teenage boys on horseback. One particularly striking scene shows the three boys wheeling their horses, almost completely submerged, in a fast-flowing river. Occasionally these scenes are interrupted by photos, firstly of people who disappeared in the Paraguayan dictatorship, then family photos of the doctor himself.  Linking image with word, the first voices we hear tell of childhoods lived under threat of arrest; a grown-up voice narrates how, as a child, he knew how to strip and use a shotgun. The narration gathers pace as it tells of the bomb which was supposed to blow Stroessner up and the subsequent flight and arrest. The overall effect of the piece, (which is reminiscent of the work of Ben Rivers in the way it disassociates word from image), is a gradual, beautiful haunting. The piece is called Ejercicios de Memoria, (Memory Exercises), and its subject is memory; the way in which everything that childhood brings is carried with us into adulthood; the way in which those memories are also passed on, or not, to subsequent generations. This is not so much a film about the dictatorship as one about how events form us; how we are constantly riding the past like a horse in a swirling stream.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

soldado (w&d manuel abramovich)

Abramovich’s documentary opens with an extended single take, shot on a long lens, showing soldiers from the Argentine army attempting to get into formation. This is interrupted by the arrival of more soldiers, and then more. The scene becomes chaotic. It’s not clear what the soldiers are doing, or even trying to do. The film lets the scene run for about five minutes, before the opening credits come up. It’s a bold piece of direction/ editing, which gives time for the viewer to reflect, before the film has even got going. As to plays out, it’s hard not to see the scene as a metaphor for the country itself. 

Thereafter the film follows the story of one soldier as he embarks on his career in the army. He’s a trainee drummer in the army band. The film is rigorously fly-on-the-wall. We are always observing the young man, who rarely speaks. We intuit his feelings, rather than being told. It’s only when, at one point, he goes to the doctor and explains how he’s vomiting and suffering from terrible headaches that we realise the toll that the whole process is taking on him. Towards the end of the movie, the young man returns to visit his mother and his hometown, and we get to see another side to him, although, if I’m honest, this was the part of the film which least convinced me. The film is great at capturing the dehumanising process of being in the army, where your identity has to be subsumed to fit into the greater whole. The protagonist is no Woyzeck; it almost seems as though, within the chaos of his country, he finds solace in the anonymity the army bestows. 

There’s a great deal of artistry to the way in which the film is shot (by Abramovich himself), edited and sound designed. It’s an immersive, textural journey. There’s plenty of sly irony captured by the camera, in line with that opening scene, including another where a sergeant major urges the troops to makes sure they take out proper life insurance. One member of the battalion has died, (we never learn the cause of his death), without sufficient insurance to ensure a proper burial, something his family won’t be able to afford. The security of the barracks keeps the harshness of contemporary Argentina at bay, but only just. The spectre of the dictatorship and the Malvinas hangs over this apparently neutral portrayal, which got the army’s approval. The fact that the protagonist is such a sympathetic character helps to soften the portrayal of the military; but then a brief scene of older men, not in uniform, coming together to attend the passing out ceremony, instantly raises the question: what was their role in the Military Dictatorship? And what would be the role of the protagonist if that spectre were to return?

Sunday, 23 July 2017

the night battles [carlo ginzburg]

The Night Battles is a text which explores pre-enlightenment Europe. It offers an account, taken from verbatim reports from the day, of a curious sect, (if you like), known as the benandanti. These were ordinary men and women who ganged together in order to fight witches, (using fennel stalks, among other things), in order to protect their crops. The book reveals a world where evil spirits are understood to be part of everyday life, where the battle between good and evil is one that is ongoing and tangible. Ginzburg traces how, over the centuries, the benandanti themselves came to be regarded as witches, by the church, in spite of the fact that they claimed to be fighting the said witches. Gradually, the way in which the world thinks, or shapes its consciousness, shifted, so that the benandanti went from being seen as a positive force, to being indistinguishable from those they were fighting, to becoming, by the mid 17th century, an irrelevance, a more-or-less forgotten whisper of a forgotten Europe. 

It’s not a straightforward read: this is a scholarly work of history which excavates a lost world pedantically. Yet, underneath the text, there’s the suspicion that what really interests Ginzburg (along with, perhaps, Foucault) is the way in which the human consciousness evolves and develops, incorporating and then shedding world-views, suggesting that the basis upon which the apparent fundamentals of our societies are established is always shifting. That which is solid melts into thin air, as Prospero, who would appear to have many of the qualities of a benandanti, observed. 

Saturday, 8 July 2017

the father’s daughter (mulher do pai) (w&d cristiane oliveira)

The Father’s Daughter is set in Brazil, near the Uruguayan border, in a sleepy, nothing-happens kind of place. Nalu, 16, lives with her blind father and grandmother. When the grandmother dies, her relationship with her father becomes more complicated. She doesn’t want the responsibility of looking after him, but she’s stuck with it. He eavesdrops on her phone conversations as she tells her friend about her trysts with a roguish Uruguayan trader. Into the mix comes a professor, Rosario, played by Veronica Perrota, who develops a bond first with Nalu, then with her father. 

There are moments when the film threatens to take risks. The jealousy that exists within the father-daughter relationship is teased out as far as it can go, with the faintest suggestion of incest, an incest that never occurs, but which the remote rural world, beyond the scope of internet or roaming, might engender. The father grows as a character through the course of the film, becoming more intriguing as it goes on. There are layers to the narrative which are teased out. At the same time, the film sits within a recognisable genre of slow-burner rural Latino melodrama. This is a world of  narrowed ambition, thwarted hopes and minor epiphanies. Perhaps it’s not so far removed from a film such as Andrea Arnold’s Fishtank, another coming of age tale which seeks to capture a young woman’s struggle to overcome the limitations of the environment she has been born into. It’s a work of studied social realism, with few fireworks, but offers a solid, convincing insight into this semi-isolated corner of the world.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

notes from no man’s land [eula biss]

Eula Boss’s text is both a journey through her own history and, as a consequence, contemporary USA. Raised in upstate New York, she subsequently moves to New York itself; California, with a brief sojourn in Mexico; the midwest; before ending in Chicago, where she lives with her husband. The unifying theme is race. Biss herself is white, but some of her family are black, some are mixed race. All have a pot-pourri of genetic inheritance, something she notes is the case for the vast majority of North Americans. Underneath her discourse, she would appear to be investigating the possibility of a post-racial consciousness, something that ought to be emerging, but isn’t. Colour and its genetic imperative shouldn’t be the determinants they still are. But they are nevertheless. The lynchings have stopped but the police killings go on. There’s something discursive about Biss’ approach, to an extent that there are times when it feels as though she’s reluctant to reach conclusions, which is no bad thing, Her prose is restless, searching for clues, seeking to find significance in detail which is then backed up with scholarship. At the heart of these investigations is the body of Biss herself. Resistant to being defined, yet recognising the inevitability. There are echoes, acknowledged, of Didion in the text as well as, once again, Baldwin. 

The sheer quantity of material which takes the issue of race as its dominant theme, from Get Out to Markovits to Biss, not to mention the Beyonce’s and Kanye’s, is striking. All the more so in the wake of the police repression documented over the course of the past five years or so. The USA feels more and more like an intractable, unknowable concept, a work of fiction being written in a secret room, from which only the occasional pages emerge, scattered, random, disconnected. Biss’ description of the university town in Iowa shows an America which perhaps corresponds with the America of both Trump and Obama. No matter how much one might want to differentiate the two, they still have something in common. It’s as though there’s something cooking in the US, something which we still scarcely know, deep in the rock formations, in Saunders’ post-apocalyptic caves. This isn’t the America of Fitzgerald or Mailer or Updike or even Pynchon, It’s something else entirely, a battle zone whose wars get little more coverage than the skirmishes in the Paraguayan chaco. A whole host or writers are starting to document the fringes, but the coverage remains fragmentary. Pages from a medieval manuscript offering shards of light on life in the dark ages.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

i am not your negro (d. raoul peck, w. peck & baldwin)

The number of times the name of James Baldwin crops up on this blog is testament to his influence. Anyone casting even a cursory glance over US history or culture needs to know Baldwin’s work. The issue of race in the US is inextricably interlinked with the up-to-the-minute issues of globalisation, unfettered capitalism, neoliberalism and all the rest. The film has several clips of Baldwin being ineffably articulate as he confronts a myopic white TV presenter, among others, outlining the issues concerning race as he sees them. The brilliance of the man is there for all to see as is the way in which he punctures the balloon of white privilege. Peck’s film rightly makes the point that these issues haven’t gone away. In recent years, they seem to have intensified. Paradoxically, issues around race continue to generate a remarkable artistic reaction. Perhaps there’s a recognition that until the USA begins to finally and seriously come to terms with the inherent racism which scars it, and which the election of a black president has done little to alleviate, it cannot begin to advance as a society. Baldwin’s relevance is as crucial as ever and this film is as fine an introduction to his work as you could hope to encounter. Having said which, it would be great to see the film of Another Country being made by the right director.