This film shares several elements with an earlier festival screening, A Common Crime. Like that Argentinian film, it has the issue of ‘disappeared’ at its centre and a discourse of violence – though in this case the police don’t seem to be involved in causing the deaths. Like the Argentinian film it also has a woman in the lead role, played by a respected theatre actress, but in this case the character Magdalena is a working-class woman from Central Mexico and significantly older at 48. Finally, both films seem to be ‘personal’ and the work of an auteur director rather than aiming for generic status, despite including some familiar generic elements.
The film’s title refers to the language of the official paperwork, used when bodies are found and might be identified by relatives, usually the parents of young men. The film begins with a painful goodbye as a teenager, despairingly young Jésus, says goodbye to his mother and heads out across the plain with his slightly older friend, hoping to make it across the US border and meet up with the friend’s uncle in Arizona where he could find a job. After a couple of months Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) has heard nothing from her son and she decides to travel to the border to try to find out what might have happened. At the border, the filmmakers surprise us by introducing two characters who initially don’t seem to be connected to Magdalena. One is another woman also seeking her son who disappeared much earlier but who the authorities believe they have identified through DNA and blood samples. There appear to be two reasons why, for the narrative, Magdalena must meet this woman. Firstly, the woman is middle-class, an ophthalmologist, and her son went missing during a holiday driving with friends. This demonstrates the breadth of the problem of lawlessness in Northern Mexico. There are all kinds of criminal activity that can lead to ‘disappearances’ and they don’t just affect young men in poverty. Secondly, the woman convinces Magdalena not to give up in her search for her son. We don’t meet this character again, but Magdalena does indeed resolve to carry on her search. Her son is everything to her. She doesn’t have a partner.
The narrative at one point switches to a parallel strand to follow a young man who is being deported back to Mexico by American border control forces. He is advised to make a voluntary return to Mexico. Miguel is a few years older than Jésus but his story might be similar. At this point his story gives us a sense of how the border controls work and also illustrates the difference between the hi-tech drone surveillance of the Americans and the more basic conditions south of the border. We will meet Miguel later in the narrative when he and Magdalena meet near his home region. I don’t want to spoil what happens in the second half of the narrative. But I need to say that what Magdalena discovers is that in the ‘badlands’ of Chihuahua and Sonora (which are actually quite beautiful as depicted here) there are people who help her and people who are very bad indeed. The narrative ends violently and surprisingly.
Identifying Features is a film made by a creative team and crew comprising mostly women. The writers are Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero. Valadez directed the film and Rondero was the principal producer. In the Q&A the two women suggested that they felt more freedom to experiment when on location outside the city. This is evident in the work of cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos, especially in the second half of the film where she captures long shots of landscapes very well making good use of the ‘Scope frame and also uses shallow depth of field to explore what I understand is now termed ‘bokeh‘. This Japanese term refers to the different qualities of the blurred image produced by combinations of camera types and different lenses. These different forms of blurring can create subtle effects and here Bulos uses them in scenes featuring human figures against a background of fire at night. The effect is startling, being visually confusing but in tune with the narrative development at that point.
The tone of the film is also set by the remarkable score by the American composer Clarice Jensen, the artistic director of ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) who has worked with many international talents including Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter and Björk. The trailer below gives some education of the music and cinematography in the film. Identifying Features is a very impressive film, especially for a début feature after several years working on shorts. Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero worked together on shorts swapping roles on each other’s films and their next project will be directed by Rondero, I think. I enjoyed Identifying Features but it is a difficult watch at times and the closing scenes are extremely violent (but the violence is not shown directly in most cases). I hope the film gets wider distribution and I look forward to further work from the pair.
The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) is offering the opportunity to watch films online with some free and others charging a fee. There are 450 free short documentaries and I chose three titles all produced by students at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution founded by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Cuban filmmakers Julio Garcia Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Birri in December 1986. The school was set up to provide education and training for primarily Latin American filmmakers and it has received support from filmmakers around the world. It is best known as ‘Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television’ or EICTV.
The three films I chose were all submitted to IDFA’s student competition. I was first attracted to two films dealing with aspects of Cuban Railways. I hadn’t realised that Cuba saw some of the first steam railways in the world (before Spain) and that although the system has suffered because of the US blockade and the end of aid from the USSR, there has been a revival recently with new stock from China and Iran and older equipment from other countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The Load (La Carga, 2015, 25 mins), dir Victor Alexis Guerrero, is less about the railway itself and more about the men who work on it. We open somewhere on a single track railway through fields with grass that nearly grows over the tracks. It’s night and there appear to be several men in a freight car. At first I was confused by this. I knew there wouldn’t be illegal riders on the train, but I remembered that many Cubans have had to travel in communal trucks, either because they can’t afford long distance buses or services have not been available. One of the men in the freight car is trying to get a light to work with bare wires and a piece of card. Eventually he manages it and we can see that in total there are seven men on the train and they are all crew. They live in a wagon with bunks and a cooking range. One of them is the driver and the others are presumably there to help load and unload the train of wagons. They are based at a railhead in Matanzas, the port city some 55 miles east of Havana. Cuban Railways clearly has some problems and the men find themselves waiting around for a new load. We have already seen their difficulty in moving their open wagons. At one point with the train slipping on the rails, the men are out putting sand on the rails to try to achieve better adhesion.But mostly the men engage in familiar forms of banter including tales about women. Eventually a new load is found for the train and they trundle away with a load of aggregate for building work. It’s nice to just spend a few minutes with a group of working men, bitching about their jobs, just like workers anywhere.
Inertia (All Pantographs Go to Heaven, 2008, 15 mins), dir Armando Capó Ramos, is also about railways but it is a very different kind of film. Its subject is the ‘Hershey Railway’. This railway between Havana and Matanzas is the only electric line surviving in Cuba, all the other motive power is diesel. It was built originally by the US chocolate giant Hershey in circa 1916 to transport sugar to Havana from its mill in the town of Hershey (now Camilo Cienfeugos). Several branch lines were also constructed to enable workers to get to the mill. Some of these are now closed, along with the mill, but tourist traffic keeps the system open. This short film reminds me of some of the Cuban revolutionary/avant garde shorts of the 1960s. There isn’t much in the way of political comment, except for a sequence in which I’m guessing that a group of local passengers look rather bored and disapproving when a musical group boards the train and performs a conga down the aisle, presumably with some tourists joining in. Earlier we have been offered a montage of close-ups of faces and objects and an aerial/overhead shot of the train shed (possibly the camera was running along a rail suspend from the ceiling?). As well as montage, the filmmaker also uses reverse projection, so the same car moves swiftly out of the shed and then back. In the final third of the film, the camera remains static as the train stops and we watch the passengers walking away down the track and gradually out of focus. This last shot lasts 5 minutes and does prove oddly fascinating.
The ideas explored here about how to represent the railway and its passengers are interesting but I’m not sure that they are fully integrated. I would guess that the filmmaker hasn’t got the experience needed to assess the completed film and then go back and re-edit. On the other hand, why should the documentary prioritise ‘coherence’? I was intrigued by the film and I did get a sense of what the railway was like. Perhaps that’s enough?
Iceberg (2015, 26 mins), dir Juliana Gabriela Gomez Castañeda, seemed to me the most successful of the three films. It is a film about loneliness which manages to compress a maternal family melodrama into its 26 minutes. Although the central character reveals her pain in two short sequences, we also see that she lives in a small community that appears to be supportive. I’m guessing that this is the meaning of the title. Like an iceberg, Teresa appears on the surface to be happy in her community, but underneath she is pining for contact with her daughter and with her mother in the cemetery.
Teresa lives in a small community on the coast close to Puerto Santiago de Cuba. She is not completely alone because her dog Diana seems to accompany her everywhere. Most days Teresa, who is in her 60s, goes fishing. She has two floats linked together by chains which she places in the water, and then sits back in the water with one float under legs and the other beneath her upper torso creating a star shape. Diana jumps up between her legs and stands on the float and Teresa uses her arms to gently paddle out into the bay. Occasionally she catches a small fish. It’s not an efficient way to fish but it doesn’t cost anything and it’s a nice way to spend the day. In the first part of the film, María, her granddaughter is staying with her, but soon she has to go back to boarding school by ferry. Teresa’s social life revolves around the church and a drink with friends in the evening when she sings. But she is most expressive in her phone call to her daughter in another city who hasn’t seen María for some time. The film is beautifully shot in a ‘Scope ratio and like the first film, shows the ordinary lives of Cubans.
Cuban cinema was the leader of Latin American cinema in the 1960s and it is good to see that the International Film School is still training new talents, especially in documentary. Perhaps if Trump loses in November, the Cuban industry might benefit from any lifting of the US blockade? I certainly hope so.
This is a superb debut from writer-director Antonella Sudasassi featuring an astonishing central performance from Daniela Valenciano in only her second film appearance, 10 years after her first. She plays Isabel, mother of two daughters and wife to Alicdes (Leynar Gomez) who’s, along with his family, petitioning for a third child. When we meet Isa she is decorating a birthday cake whilst the mayhem of a children’s party whirls around her. The men talk football and ask for coffee and beers. The camera lingers on her and Sudasassi’s facial expressions tell us all we need to know of what she is feeling; it is bravura filmmaking and performance. And then she plunges her hands into the cake, in frustration, taking us into Isa’s interior world.
The film portrays the everyday life of a poor Costa Rican family which Latin American machismo, and the Catholic Church, makes worse by consigning women to the role of homemaker; Isa dreams of having a sewing business and knows having a third child would make that even more unlikely. Sudasassi daringly has Isa discover her own sexuality from her young, and innocent, daughter. In a brilliant scene she experiments with masturbation while her husband sleeps oblivious next to her.
I mentioned the destruction of the cake, which was all in Isa’s mind, and we are ‘treated’ to other expressionist moments, such as when insects plague her in the shower. Isa is having a mental breakdown with no one to support her. As strong female characters go, she is with the best as she strives to overcome her oppression.
Alicides is no monster. As no doubt most men in patriarchal societies are, he is blithely ignorant of his privilege. In one scene she insists he help lay the table for dinner and he has to be told where the cutlery is and reminded to include glasses. He’s uncomplaining and bemused and certainly has no understanding that really he should know where all this stuff is!
The performances are excellent throughout and Sudasassi shoots family scenes with the authenticity of ‘direct cinema’. In particular the two daughters are marvellously natural; as a portrayal of a ‘slice of life’ goes this one oozes authority.
The film was screened in Berlin and on MUBI worldwide (just available for three more days) and, as Sudasassi explains:
‘The story of Isabel of Hormigas is part of a transmedia project which seeks to explore sexuality in the vital stages of women. The project is interdisciplinary and collaborative and invited artists* from all over the world to create a collective mosaic of honest experiences about femininity and sexuality in order to demystify it and provoke a rupture with the violence inherent in traditional gender roles.’
She is a talent to watch.
Song Without a Name proved quite a difficult film to engage with during the opening few scenes. The opening shot in a film presented in black and white, comprises two ghostly figure in long shot trudging up a slope through the mist. Photos of newspaper headlines and street graffiti etc. reveal the political conflict of Peru in the 1980s. We are then introduced to the central character Georgina (Pamela Mendoza), part of a group of indigenous people coming together to sing, seemingly on a street corner. Perhaps because the film was presented in Academy ratio on a screen without masking in GFT3, the projectionist had difficulty in registering the image so that we could read all of the text of the subtitles. The film was re-started and from then on, I did begin to respond to the narrative. You can see in the trailer below that often there is no sharp edge to the image. Some commentators have remarked on the ‘shadowy photography’, others suggest a reference to film noir. The director and co-writer Melina Léon says she wanted black & white Academy to suggest both the monochrome newspapers and the TV image of the 1980s. The film’s story is based on real events from the early 1980s in which the director’s father had some involvement when he was setting up a newspaper. But the film is set specifically in 1988 towards the end of the first Presidency of Alan Garcia during which the Peruvian economy was in economic crisis mode and internal security was threatened by the Maoist guerrilla actions of the Shining Path and the smaller Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).
Georgina is heavily pregnant and she and her husband Leo make a living selling potatoes in a local market. Georgina hears a radio announcement about a clinic offering free birthing procedures. When her time is due she makes her painful way by bus and on foot to the clinic in Lima where her daughter is delivered but quickly taken away from her. Later she is told to go home and return the next day to collect her baby. But by the next day the clinic has closed and moved away. In a sadly familiar sequence of encounters, Georgina and Leo (Lucio Rojas) are turned away by different government departments and sent on another pointless trip to an office where their lack of paperwork means nothing will happen. (As indigenous people they do not have IDs.) The police seem unprepared to investigate the theft of their baby. In despair, Georgina seeks to contact the press and Leo turns for support to one of the guerrilla groups.
When Georgina finally gets to see a journalist we realise we’ve seen him earlier in the film, nervously visiting a guerrilla group. Pedro (Tommy Párraga) recognises that this could be an important story and he begins to investigate with support from his boss on a major Lima paper. At this point the central narrative begins to splinter. Georgina finds other women who are supportive and she becomes more involved in music and street theatre. Pedro’s investigation begins to uncover a baby-smuggling network but also the role of the ruling class in covering up and blocking his investigation. He also has his own narrative one which makes him a potential victim as well as an investigator. This ‘unravelling’ of the central narrative and the lack of a clear resolution has been a criticism of the film from some reviewers. I can understand this but I don’t mind the ‘open ending’. Having said that, the latter stages of the narrative do take on an almost dreamlike (nightmarish?) quality. The black and white photography has also been seen as a practical decision to enable an easier representation of 1988 without too many VFX required to change contemporary Lima. Certainly the scenes of Georgina’s first home and then the shanty towns by the sea with sand dunes and footways across the landing stages offer a certain kind of marginal location. I think I may have been confused by these locations. The shacks tend to look the same. Perhaps some of the scenes towards the end of the narrative do refer to 1940s noir?
The music in the film is by Peruvian avant-garde musician Pauchi Sasaki and her website suggests:
Her music recreates intimate subjective landscapes through electro-acoustic sonorities mixed with field recordings and synthesis.
Along with the cinematography by Peruvian-Chilean Inti Briones, the music creates a distinctive ‘feel’. Briones and Sasaki, along with director Léon have experience of documentary shoots. Briones also shot Too Late to Die Young (Chile 2018). That film was not as successful on release in the UK as I expected. It shares some qualities with Song Without a Name which as yet hasn’t got a UK distributor. Together they represent a willingness by younger (under 40) directors to explore the social, political and cultural issues of Latin America in the 1980s and into the 1990s. I did find the coverage of the Shining Path and/or MRTA confusing in Song Without a Name. I’m not sure who the indigenous groups are that Georgina joins and I wasn’t sure what to make of bombings in Lima. Overall though, I found this an interesting film and a contrast to the few other Peruvian films I’ve seen. The performances by the leads are very good. After its Cannes showing, Song Without a Name has won prizes at several film festivals around the world. I hope it does get a UK release.
Alejandro Landes’ extraordinary film (he co-wrote with Alex Dos Santos and directed) takes a bit of absorbing. Partly this is to do with the lack of context given to the teenage guerillas, who are holding a kidnapped American hostage. Given Landes is Colombian it is obvious to think they are part of Farc, anti-government guerillas who seem to have recently taken up arms again having disbanded two years ago. Wilson Salazar, who plays Messenger, was a member of Farc. However, to try and place the film in a socio-political context would be wrong as Landes is clearly angling for a mythological portrayal of youngsters under dehumanising pressure. Despite that, the final scene evokes Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s.
Clear frames of reference are William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) – a pig’s head makes an appearance – and Apocalypse Now! (US, 1979) without, as noted by Peter Bradshaw, Kurtz. The film starts in the Andes before descending to the jungle and the shoot sounds almost as gruelling as that experienced by Coppola and his crew. The cinematography, by Jaspar Wolf, whether in the highlands or in the depths of the river, is stunningly beautiful and includes some fantastic action sequences in rapids that outshine many action films. It’s difficult to understand how the film was produced for a minuscule $2m.
The ambiguities in the film are further enhanced by the casting (many of the actors are first-timers) as there is a gender fluidity to Sofia Buenaventura’s character, Rambo, which requires a ‘double take’. This hallucinatory quality, reminding me of Aguirre, Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, W.Germany-Mexico-Peru, 1972), is narratively enhanced when the youngsters take (magic) mushrooms. In addition, Mica Levi’s sensational score adds to the way the film unbalances the spectator; as in Under the Skin her music isn’t generally used to cue narrative moments or emotion but to contribute to the image. At moments of high intensity her grinding electronica perfectly enhances the moment by almost overloading the spectator with sound. The film also refuses to offer a character for whom we can easily root for.
It’s a film that I need to see again to get my head around. Monos, by the way, is Spanish for monkeys and, presumably, refers to the fact that the veneer of civilisation is thin, to say the least. I think such a trope is unfair on animals whose behaviour is, by definition, never uncivilised.
This is a fascinating film which raises a number of the ‘global film’ questions that we like to explore on this blog. The film is directed by the team of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra who will be familiar to UK audiences because of the wide success of their previous production, The Embrace of the Serpent (2015). The gossip seems to be that the couple have now split up and I wonder how significant it is that Cristina has a joint directorial credit on this film – whereas she was the producer on the previous film. Just as in 2016 when the previous film appeared in ¡Viva!, this was a preview screening and the film will get a UK release through Curzon on 17 May.
There are various ways in which this film could be described in conventional terms and the most popular seems to be as a ‘universal family gangster film’. There is certainly something in that description but it is a little glib to say the least. If I had to try to sum up the film in this way I’d suggest it is something like a cross between Gangs of Wasseypur and a film by Sembène Ousmane or another Senegalese or Malian director with all the rich mix of ideas that such a mash-up suggests. Ciro Guerra in the Press Notes (French via Google Translate) confirms a wish to make a genre film but still retain the exploration of the representation of indigenous peoples from the couples earlier films:
For me, it’s a film noir, a gangster movie. But it can also be both a Western, a Greek tragedy and a tale by Gabriel García Márquez.
Guerra also discusses the idea of ‘myths’ in story telling and sees popular cinema genres as a way to explore these. Later in the Notes Cristina Gallego suggests à propos of discussing the ‘great bonanza’ of the cannabis export to the US and the subsequent drugs wars in the 1970s:
It’s a metaphor for our country, a family tragedy that is also becoming a national tragedy. Speaking of the past, it allows us to better understand where we are today as a country.
The story covers the years 1969-79 and it is set in the peninsula of Guajira, the most northerly part of South America which sticks out into the Caribbean Sea. Wikipedia describes the region nicely:
The scenery of Guajira is very picturesque, with wide desert plains and green, foggy mountains.
The indigenous people of this desert/mountain region are the Wayuu. Under colonial rule, and after, the Wayuu were subject to missionary pressure to convert to Catholicism but in recent times they have been allowed to practise traditional rituals without interference. The Wayuu have always resisted centralised control over their affairs. The film narrative is set at a time when there might be priests around (much as in Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) but they don’t appear in the film. At times it is difficult to believe that this film is set in the 1970s – until we see the Land Rovers and Jeeps. The narrative begins with a meeting of a Wayuu clan in which a young woman, Zaida, who has been confined for a year is brought out to celebrate the moment she has become a woman. She performs a rapid dance with her younger brother and then he is replaced by a stranger, a grown man known as Rapayet. By taking a role in the dance Rapayet (who is also Wayuu) has suggested he is interested in marriage. But this requires a ritual proposal and Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino is an accepted negotiator. A bride price/dowry is agreed in the form of goats, cattle and necklaces. So far, so traditional. For us as the audience, the inciting incident is a chance observation by Rapayet and his business partner of a trio of Americans who we learn are associated with the ‘Peace Corps’ and who are distributing anti-Communist propaganda in the form of playing cards. They are also on the lookout for marijuana for which they can pay in US dollars. Immediately we know that tradition has been undermined by modernity, capitalism and American culture. Rapayet will buy the crops grown by his cousin in the mountains and the Wayuu clans will grow rich.
I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Instead I’ll just outline one or two of the other elements. The bride’s mother Úrsula turns out to be some form of spirit messenger who foresees the tragic events ahead (often via the appearance of certain birds – hence the title). She is also a formidable leader of her clan – to which Rapayet has now pledged himself. What follows is visually dominated by the stark contrast between the semi-desert lands where Úrsula’s clan are settled and the lush tropical hillsides where Aníbal, Rapayet’s cousin, has his house and fields. The second important element of the narrative is the deadly way in which the greed of criminal capitalist enterprise will join with/poison the traditional relationships between clans. This means that once a dispute begins it is almost impossible to end it peaceably. The narrative resolution which I won’t describe does return us to the use of traditional storytelling, although sadly it is too late to compensate for all the damage that has been done.
In all the carnage of the second half of the film, the Colombian police appear fleetingly and only to take their cut of the drugs business. Now, several days after the screening, I’ve only just realised that the time period in the second half of the 1970s was a violent time in much of South America and the period of the first two organised crime groups involved in the Colombian drugs business (although by this time it was cocaine rather than marijuana that was being exported to North America). The internal wars in Colombia (which involved both the drugs barons and leftist guerrillas) don’t appear in the narrative which seems to be almost timeless and also completely cut off from the rest of the region. It’s true that the peninsula is the most isolated part of Colombia, but it still feels odd.
The film’s casting does appear to have posed some problems for the filmmakers. I assumed that the largest proportion of the Colombian population was, as in many Latin American countries, mestizo – the result of inter-marriage between European colonists/settlers/migrants and indigenous peoples. This appears to be the case but, as in Mexico, there are different ways of estimating and defining the proportion of mestizos and that of ‘Europeans’. In most of Colombia, the indigenous populations are relatively small except in the peninsula and some border regions of the south. African-Colombians tend to be concentrated in the Caribbean coastal regions. While some of the actors did appear to be indigenous and possibly Wayuu, others were more European in appearance. The Wayuu use the word alijuna which I understand to simply mean ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ – i.e. ‘not Wayuu’. It was this that I found a little confusing and I wasn’t sure if ‘marrying out’ meant being cast out of the community. My concern is that the principal characters (who are all professional actors) appear more ‘European’ than indigenous (though the Press Notes reveal that both Carmiña Martínez and Jose Acosta have Wayuu roots in the family histories). The only African-Colombian character of note, Rapayet’s business partner Moisés, is a loud and aggressive character and I assume that his treatment by the Wayuu is more to do with his personal characteristics than any racial prejudice. The film doesn’t really clarify any doubts about this.
I’m left wondering what I made of the film. Part of me is worried that the genre conventions of a clan war dominate the film too much and don’t allow enough of the unique geography and sociology/ethnography of the region to be fully appreciated (and it must have been a very difficult production to shoot). I fear the ‘City of God‘ syndrome and the over-promotion of the gangster genre so that the film becomes a cult hit based on its genre qualities. On the other hand perhaps there is enough suggestion about traditions and rituals of the Wayuu and the ‘spirituality’ of Úrsula and her family to keep us interested in the cultural questions. The filmmakers themselves have positive reasons for making the film this way and perhaps they are reaching a local audience? It’s what happens in markets like the UK that worries me. Curzon as a distributor used to be quite good with films like this, making available press materials. This time there is relatively little I can find (but perhaps more will appear before the actual release?). At the moment, the language of the film is given as ‘Spanish’ – but much of the dialogue is actually in the local Wayuu language.
I found watching the film was a very intense experience with the dramatic landscapes photographed by David Gallego. Gallego photographed The Embrace of the Serpent for the same filmmakers, but he was also responsible for the photography on I Am Not a Witch (2017) which would have taken him to Zambia, so perhaps my suggestion of an African feel about some images is not too outlandish? I enjoyed the music by Leo Heiblum and the sound design by Carlos García. Both are very strong in eliciting an emotional response and the film worked very well in the big screen in HOME’s Cinema 1. When it comes out, find the biggest screen you can.