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OF NOMADS AND MIGRANTS To Look Awry: Latin and Spanish Filmmakers Far From Home

A sequence of uncanny images: bodies in the streets levitate off the ground, shivering while suspended in the air. To call them bodies would be perhaps a stretch. These are, above all, spectral presences, those models of the real that the digital image delivers neither as reproduction nor as total simulation, but as something more complex, figures situated in between the lived record of the film image and the endless manual and computerized alterations of the digital image. But fundamentally in between because they are bodies in transitional states, suspended between stillness and motion, and between life and death. Do the figures shiver, or is it the image that trembles, resisting stasis and succumbing, even if for a brief second, to movement?

These figures in suspension appear near the end of Andrés Duque’s Ensayo final para utopía (Dress Rehearsal for Utopia) (2012), a digital feature-length work that resists categories and moves incessantly between the documentary and the experimental, between found footage, archival images, and home movies, between the inert, hospitalized body of the filmmaker’s father and the dancing bodies of children in Africa. Yet these strange images could also be a metaphor for the whole series To Look Awry: Latin and Spanish Filmmakers Far From Home. The program, curated by Josetxo Cerdán and Gonzalo de Pedro and playing at Anthology Film Archives December 5 – 8, presents a heterogeneous group of contemporary digital works that reflect on the experience of displacement, migration, and return in innovative ways. Like the levitating figures in Duque’s film, this is a series about liminality, about filmmakers and their subjects moving in between national territories and negotiating their relocation.

Dress Rehearsal for Utopia

It has been said, again and again, that we live in the era of the displaced person. With an estimate of over two hundred million people living outside of their country of origin, it is difficult to argue against the idea of displacement as the metaphor for our age. In the history of cinema, this experience has also left its mark—for instance, in the German directors working in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, and in the Latin American exiles who fled from the military dictatorships in the 1970s and relocated to Europe and North America. The series at Anthology is haunted, as it were, by the radical aesthetics and the critical nostalgia of the latter experience. Once the epitome of political cinema and political exiles, today’s Latin American and Spanish films produced away from home have found narratives and aesthetics appropriate to the more flexible transnationality and fluidity that dominates our world. In fact, few films in the series respond to traditional notions of imagining home from afar. The relation of both makers and subjects to their nations eschews all easy categorizations.

Part of the difficulty resides in the complexities of our current mediascape. Today’s schemes of producing, financing, and distributing film and videos defy old conceptions of national and even regional cinemas. In the program at Anthology we find international co-productions on a regional scale—Mercedes Moncada’s Palabras mágicas (Para romper un encantamiento) (Magic Words (Breaking a Spell)) (2012)—and thesis projects from European film schools—El invierno de Pablo (Pablo’s Winter) (2012), Spanish filmmaker Chico Pereira’s graduation project at the Screen Academy Scotland. We find the works of Germán Scelso, an Argentine filmmaker who lives in Barcelona on the margins of society, as all immigrants live: rejected, discriminated against, with little money and no stable job. Or Nuria Ibáñez, the director of El cuarto desnudo (The Naked Room) (2013), who is Spanish but has developed her entire career in Mexico, owing everything to the Mexican state, as she puts it, because “they never asked me who I was or where I came from.”

Thus the conditions of production of these films mirror the mobility of their authors and subjects. Return, for instance, can be Chico Pereira’s homecoming to the miner town of Almadén. Scouting locations for his thesis project, he encounters Pablo, a funny, grumpy retired mercury miner who has had five strokes and yet can’t quit smoking. Pereira approaches his subject in a way that resembles Lisandro Alonso’s portrait of the lumberjack Misael in La libertad (Freedom) (2001). Working with real characters in their everyday life situations, Pereira comes up with a fictionalized script in the minimalist tradition. In stylized black-and-white and static long takes, he captures the witty dialogues between Pablo and his wife and his little walks around the town, where he develops a relationship with a kid learning to ride a bike. The X-ray image of Pablo’s lungs, an image of “surface and depth,” as Pereira has explained in an interview, is also a metaphor for the galleries and tunnels of the mine—the lungs of Almadén, the village trying to invent a future while paying homage to its past.

Pablo’s Winter

Homecoming is also the case for Gustavo Salvatierra, the main character of Sip’ohi: El lugar de manduré (Sip’ohi: Manduré’s Place) (Sebastián Lingiardi, 2011). Salvatierra is a wichí who returns home to collect traditional oral narratives of his culture. The narrative of return that Lingiardi’s film gives us is, however, much more elusive than this. Against the long and contemplative takes of Gustavo walking through the rural landscape, the paths between the trees, the town’s square, and the public school, we hear old stories of fire, tigers, and fishermen. Only in the middle of the documentary do we identify this man as Gustavo, the wichí who wants his people to find truth and to recognize their culture in the orality of their stories; and only near the end are we introduced to the “narrator,” the old storyteller whose voice we have heard throughout the film. What has been documented, thus, is the cooperative encounter between filmmaker and subject. Though the narrative is self-reflexive, Lingiardi attempts to erase himself. The control of the means of production and of the rhetorical processes of making meaning is as much his as it is the wichí’s.

Homecoming is also the project of Mercedes Moncada, who lives in Mexico but returns to Nicaragua to produce Palabras mágicas (Para romper un encantamiento), a first-person reflection on the rise, development, and death of the revolution she witnessed as a child. In the film program To Look Awry, nonetheless, traditional images of the homeland begin and end with the Lake Managua in Moncada’s Palabras mágicas. The lake, where all the wastes of the city are thrown, serves both as the locus where landscape and personal memory meet (“I am like this lake”) and as the metaphor for a revolutionary project that was once radical, the bearer of the collective will of an entire people, but that has now become corrupted and excremental. What remains of the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) is utopia’s detritus, so to speak.

For the most part, though, the homeland as one emblematic image is absent in the series. In the works of Nuria Ibáñez and Germán Scelso, close-up shots and details recur in their approach to fragmenting space. Their worlds are enclosed; there is no outside. No context or clear spatial background appears because what is at stake here is not the nation but something more diffuse, a liminal positionality that adopts different forms. In El cuarto desnudo, Nuria Ibáñez’s camera persists in the static medium shot of children and teenagers facing complex psychological problems and interviewed by therapists and social workers who remain offscreen. The harsh nature of those institutions of controlwhich we cannot see but of which we hear the understanding voices of its doctorsfinds an equivalency in the stark austerity of Ibáñez’s formal rigor. Only once does the camera shoot from outside a window; only once does it accompany the movement of its characters: teenagers on the verge of adulthood, sitting in a wheelchair, taken to what we assume is a psychiatric hospital.

Magic Words (Breaking a Spell)

In El modelo (The Model) (2012) and El engaño (2009), enclosed worlds dominate as well, but the aesthetic is quite different. Scelso works with subjects who are old, disabled, and mentally ill. Throughout his films, the camera seems attached to the filmmaker’s body, always close to his characters. The low-definition video image is dirty, even amateurish. At the core of these works resides an ethical provocation. The aggressiveness of Scelso’s images finds a correlation in the violence perpetrated against the main character by a capitalist system in crisis and by the filmmaker, who does not hide the asymmetry of power that the camera produces between himself and his “model.” There isn’t a more problematic reflection on the position both author and subject occupy within the circulation and flow of people, art and moving images, and capital than the contradiction explored in El modelo: the hand of the director holding a coin (one euro) which attracts the disabled old man like a magnet, and the image of the old man reading an anarchist pamphlet he has been paid to read and whose last words are: “we fear no one; we will change the world.”       

Other suggestive words open and close Pablo Chavarría Gutiérrez’s Tapetum Lucidum (2012). The sentence “I will miss everything” is typed over the screen and then followed by a series of low-definition images of mobility: shots captured from a car on a rainy day, people exiting a subway station, more people walking around streets. The place cannot be identified. Then, the film properly begins. We are somewhere in Mexico. The black-and-white images are contemplative as well; the camera focuses on the relation between men and animals, leaving outside of the frame conversations about vets we can hardly hear. We see the public life of the town—music in the square, people dancing, children playing. A protagonist of sorts—a young girl working in a musical instruments store. Then, the final credits, followed by this girl’s very long walk home. Suddenly, the pieces seem to come together. We are in Chiapas, which is not this girl’s town. She has been there only temporarily, and we assume the same holds true for the filmmaker. “I will miss everything,” we hear her say.

Whether homecoming, or passing through some town, or living abroad as an immigrant, the films in To Look Awry negotiate melancholia, nostalgia, sociological observation, and political analysis. They fuse personal and collective memories tied to images of places that may or may not be home. Home is portable, anyway. These films reflect a twofold gaze, always in tension. Being far away and looking awry constitutes the privilege of in-betweenness and outsideness: to look at the other with familiar eyes and to look at one’s culture with foreign eyes and alien words.    

Anthology Film Archives, December 5 – 8, 2013


José Miguel Palacios

JOSE MIGUEL PALACIOS is a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University. He writes regularly for La Fuga and Artishock, two Spanish-language journals based in Chile.  


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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