Outsider Insiders: Francis Alÿs and Melanie Smith at the Liverpool Biennial

There are two artists who moved from Europe to Mexico exhibiting their work as part of the Liverpool Biennial 2018: Francis Alÿs at the VG&M and Melanie Smith at the Bluecoat. Alÿs from Belgium and Smith from the UK. As a country more associated with departures than arrivals, especially with the current US President, Donald Trump’s, emphasis on wall-building and keeping out migrants, this is a good moment to consider Mexico as a place which has a long tradition of being open to receiving outsiders. There have been key periods for growth in immigration to Mexico: the 1930s, when Spain was in the throes of its Civil War, there was an open invitation to those wanting to flee the conflict; welcomes were extended to those fleeing World War II in the 1930s and 1940s; in the 1950s others escaped McCarthyism and the US fear of the ‘red peril’; and so it has continued throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries. Amongst these numbers were a large number of artists, filmmakers, and writers including individuals as varied as the Spanish director Luis Buñuel, US novelist and screenwriter John Steinbeck, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the US author and activist Audre Lorde, and the Chorley-born artist and writer Leonora Carrington. Added to this distinguished list are Alÿs and Smith. Both of whom are purported to have found in Mexico a space to find themselves as artists and leave behind the politics of home.

I am not yet familiar with Alÿs’ work, but I had the opportunity to see Smith’s work whilst in the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) [Modern Art Museum of Barcelona]. There she had a larger retrospective and it included the recent work being exhibited at the Bluecoat. She uses a variety of different media in her art. Her work portrays humanity set against the backdrop of large scale natural or manmade spaces. It is often dramatic, yet also affecting. Much of her work has been carried out in Mexico, although she has also work in Peru, Brazil and, most recently, Chile. Examples of these are her audio-visual recordings of the British collector and artists Edward James’ jungle space in Mexico in Xilitla: Dismantled 1 (2010) and Henry Ford’s failed experiment in the Brazilian forest in Fordlandia (2014) are expressions of the folly of individuals attempting to control and contain nature as well as subtle commentaries on colonialism.

Her work being shown at the Bluecoat is a video installation, María Elena (2018), named after the town and salt mine owned by the Guggenheim family. María Elena is set in the Atacama Desert in Chile resonant for many reasons and has elements of the significant recurrent themes in her work: labour, nature, and the effects of late capitalist economics on the landscape and people. To understand the significance of the Atacama Desert and as a useful companion piece, it is worth watching Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light, 2010) in which he juxtaposes the grandeur of the space and its significance for international astronomers with the terrible legacy of Augusto Pinochet, who imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared political prisoners during his dictatorship. The Atacama Desert is also rich in copper and nitrates, a significant source of income for Chile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth century and a space of much human exploitation. Previously, at the Bluecoat the Catalan artist, Xavier Ribas’s show Nitrate, explored the significance nitrate mining by British firms in the Atacama Desert. For these and other reasons, this work is highly evocative, captures the scale and drama of this landscape, and suggests at the particularities of its history. In her move from the UK to Mexico, it is clear that Smith has immersed herself in Mexican and Latin American culture, focused on the encounters between outsiders and established communities, and, as a consequence, creates highly nuanced and allusive work.

Having seen the work in Barcelona, in an open gallery space with beanbags as seating and other visitors moving through the space to see other parts of the exhibit, all of which was distracting. Therefore, getting to see it at the Bluecoat has distinct advantages. It is shown in an enclosed gallery space, albeit with some sound leaking from neighbouring installations. The seating is on a plush rug at a curious (and uncomfortable) slant, that vibrates when you see and hear the explosions in quadrophonic sound. The space gives it an immersive feel and makes it easier to spend time with the video. It is non-narrative and multi-layered in its referencing of different times, themes, and concepts. I would recommend going to see it, reading more about the locale and its history to get a deeper understanding, and then, returning to see it again.  Or, just enter into Smith’s evocative dreamscape that is both affirmative and chilling and see what that brings.

Coincidence and Curation Part II: The Liverpool Biennial, HUO and Agnès Varda

On Friday 13th July, I had the privilege of seeing Agnès Varda being interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO). The interview is now available online. They are both seasoned interviewer/interviewees and this was evident in the interaction. She is delightful, highly articulate, and gave fascinating responses to the questions. He was warm, careful, and attentive in his questions. In advance, I was curious as to how HUO, a big name in curatorship, would be with Varda, an artist and filmmaker of considerable reputation and skill. My concern was that he would be egotistical, whereas he was a generous interviewer, who facilitated Varda throughout. Later the same evening, I heard her interviewed on BBC4’s Front Row, where she proved herself a more difficult interviewee. In that case, the presenter, John Wilson, is soliciting  more news-ish questions, such as Varda’s attitude to the MeToo campaign. Through no fault of Wilson’s, because of the format and the need for brevity, it was a choppier piece. At FACT, HUO was soliciting a more wide-ranging conversation and could allow her space to respond, prompting her for clarification and following up, where needed. Watch the video for Varda, but also to get a sense of HUO’s skilled interviewing techniques.

Coincidence and Curation: The Liverpool Biennial, HUO and Me (or, at least, what I’m reading)

Curationism Buch jetzt portofrei bei Weltbild.de bestellen

I am finalising a book proposal, which means that I am avidly synthesising and summarising my ideas so that I can pitch it succinctly and clearly to a future publisher. The book is on tastemakers and tastemaking and will draw on some ideas around curation. For this, I have been reading Curationism (2015) by David Balzer, amongst other works. In this, he makes much of the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (often referred to as HUO), whose career up the point of writing, he summarises and critiques “[a]s the world’s most famous contemporary-art curator” who “sets a remarkable precedent, acting as the archetype for the professionalization and domination of his field” (Balzer 2015, 11). Prior to reading this book, I was not aware of HUO, so it came as a pleasant surprise to happen upon the announcement that HUO will be interviewing Agnès Varda at an opening event as part of the Liverpool Biennial on Friday 13th of July and I have managed to get tickets. She was the primary draw for me, but to see HUO will be an added attraction having read Balzer’s book.

In Curationism, Balzer dedicates a prologue to HUO seeming to both admire and decry his presence in the art world. He describes his busyness and industry, his connections to key players in the art world and celebrity (Kanye West, amongst others), and as “the typification of the curationist moment” as well as “its natural harbinger” (Balzer 2015, 21). HUO, for Balzer, is exemplary of a phenomenon that came out of three significant shifts in the art world: performance art, de-professionalization (or de-skilling) of artists, and decreased government funding which has made museums and galleries dependant on visitor numbers. Curation has become both highly specialist, idiosyncratic, and professionalized in the figure of HUO, and distributed, generalized, and amateur, as experienced by all of us in our everyday from online selves to real, lived experiences. We are, in Balzer’s words, living in a “curationist moment” (2015, 2). So, it is a fascinating moment to see one of the most (in)famous curators, HUO, speak to an invited curator-artist-director (celebrity curator, in Balzer’s terms), Varda, at a moment when public, gallery, and ad hoc pop-up spaces throughout the city of Liverpool will be carefully and artfully curated for the Biennial.

Reading

Balzer, David (2015) Curationism: How Curating Took Over the World, the Art World and Everything Else (London: Pluto Press).

Sea Birds, Liverpool, Clipperton and the Mexican Revolution

A recent art piece on the waterfront in Liverpool reminded me of the different possible approaches and modes of reflecting on a place and its inhabitants. This bird is a blue-legged Masked Booby who are primarily found on Clipperton, a small atoll in the Pacific Ocean. I have just finished editing a chapter on two novels Isla de pasión (1989) by the Colombian Laura Restrepo and Isla de bobos (2007) by the Mexican Ana García Bergua set on this atoll once occupied by Mexico where the birds are significant to the inhabitants.

Kings Dock, Liverpool

I am not a bird watcher, so recognizing such a distinctive breed was a novelty. Researching these novels required a multidisciplinary approach and meant drawing from theoretical approaches in literature, film, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and history. That these have more in common than differences is evident when I found myself making the shift to reading material from the sciences for this chapter to learn about Clipperton.

I found a very brief entry in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names that scarcely hints at the awful activities that took place in Clipperton. It is described as ‘[a]n island in the Pacific named after John Clipperton, an English mutineer and pirate, who used it as a base in 1705. It was annexed by France in 1855’ (Everett-Heath 2014, np). Clipperton was used as a landing post by the pirate because of its strategic location where he and his shipmates would stopover to avoid capture. Their smaller and sleeker vessels could traverse the tricky waters whilst the larger cargo vessels could not. In later centuries other nations (Great Britain, France, US, and Mexico) claimed the territory because of Clipperton’s strategic location.  As well as reading (more detailed) historical accounts, I had to turn to scientific research. The diver Michel Labrecque describes Clipperton as follows,

[t]hroughout the globe, many destinations can be described as unique or remote but only one deserves the title of the most isolated atoll in the world. Clipperton Atoll is located 870 miles (1400km) south of the tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Far off in the Pacific Ocean, its latitude is equal to that of the northern portion of Costa Rica (Labrecque 2016, 44).

As described by Labrecque, Clipperton is still difficult to access, is occupied by millions of land crabs, surrounded by a healthy coral reef, nursery to Silvertip sharks, and home to unique fish species (the Clipperton Angelfish, Gregory and Grouper) (Labrecque 2016, 45-6). Although called an island, it is in fact “the only coral atoll in the eastern Pacific” (Charpy et al 2010, 771) and is ring-shaped surrounding a lagoon. An atoll is a circular coral reef and Clipperton is the result of volcanic activity and the residues and sedimentary deposits of organic matter from animal and plant life. The precise position is described as follows,

“This volcanic headland, rising only 29 m above sea level at its highest point, is located 1,280 km off the west coast of México, at 10° 18′ N and 109° 13′ W” (Fourriére et al 2014, 375).

In sum, it is a desirable yet challenging location for human habitation because of its isolation and geophysical make-up.

While its location has been important, for a time its wildlife made it valuable and a significant reason for contested occupations. García Bergua calls her novel La isla de bobos after the Brown Boobies and blue-legged Masked Boobies, seabirds who proliferate on the island and as an evaluation of the human inhabitants of that island (bobo = foolish). The nitrogen-rich guano of these seabirds was an important source of fertilizer until the advent of artificial fertilizers.

Clipperton was occupied by Mexican forces in the opening decades of the Twentieth century, at the outbreak of the 1910 Revolution the army men, their wives and children and workers as well as the people attached to the guano trade were abandoned by their government during the political turmoil. A place with little vegetation and resources, distant from accessible sources of food other than the seabirds and crabs that proliferate, the inhabitants soon suffered extreme and, sometimes, deadly cases of scurvy and died. For a short time, I found myself investigating scurvy. Although it did not make it to the last draft, the fact that men more readily succumb to death or madness with scurvy was a piece of information that was both illuminating and signaled why so many died whilst the women survived and suggested why the surviving men inflicted terrible trauma and harms on the women and children.

Restrepo and García Bergua’s novels recount the individual crimes that took place: murder, theft, assault, rape, army desertion, and kidnap. They explore the motives of the perpetrators and the contexts in which they took place. It is clear that the crimes were serious and had significant and long-term consequences on the survivors. Neither condones the actions of the individuals who committed the acts, instead they foreground the challenges involved in ascribing individual blame. They get to a partial truth behind the salacious details that were reported in the press at the time.  Whilst told using different stylistic and generic conventions, Restrepo and García Bergua hold individuals responsible for their actions and call the state and society to account for rendering women, children, and people of colour as inferior to men of European origin. Neither condone nor naturalise this individual violence, instead they lay it bare and make systemic violence culpable for what took place on this remote atoll.

The seabird on the Liverpool waterfront is more than just an unusual species, it is one that has considerable resonance for those who understand the history of Clipperton.

 

Selected reading

Charpy, L, M. Rodier, A. Coute, C. Perrette-Gallet, C. Bley-Loëz (2010) “Clipperton, a possible future for atoll lagoons” Coral Reefs 29:771–783

Everett-Heath, John (2014) The Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names (3 ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fourriére, Manon, Héctor Reyes-Bonilla, Fabián A. Rodríguez-Zaragoza, and Nicole Crane (2014) “Fishes of Clipperton Atoll, Eastern Pacific: Checklist, Endemism, and Analysis of Completeness of the Inventory Pacific Science”, vol. 68, no. 3:375–395 doi:10.2984/68.3.7

García Bergua, Ana (2007) Isla de bobos México: Seix Barral.

Restrepo, Laura (2005) La isla de la pasión New York: Rayo.

 

Central American Children and the Mexico-US border: Learn More

Teens on La Bestia

Sin nombre (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2009)

The uproar surrounding the detention of children at the Mexican-US border has brought attention to the migration of Central Americans to the US.

‌The majority are from what is called the Northern Triangle – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – and are seeking asylum because of increased violence in their home nations. Many of these take a long, dangerous, and harrowing journey through Mexico, which is also tasked to police their transit through agreements with the US.

On arrival, they have the right under international law to request asylum in the US. This issue came to the public attention in the US when, in April 2018 for safety reasons 150-200 Central Americans travelled as a group through Mexico to get to the US border to petition for asylum.

Whilst many of these cases are being muddled with anti-immigration rhetoric by the current US government, there are complex historic and geo-political reasons for this current movement of people across borders.

Many of these reasons go back to US interventionist policies during the Cold War and have been aggravated by the increased militarization of the US-Mexico border since the Clinton presidency.

It’s important for us to look back at the events of the past that have lead up to this point, so that we have the full context when looking at today’s headlines.

Find out more

To get some further insight into the causes of the movement of so many, here are some recommendations for reading, listening and viewing:

  • In Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017) the New York based Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli writes of her experiences navigating the bureaucracy of the immigration system as a privileged, bilingual individual and sets it alongside stories of children and young people she encountered whilst volunteering for a translation service helping undocumented Central American children facing deportation. It is a short and moving reflection and analysis of the experience.
  • Part of the National Public Radio (NPR) stable, Latino USA regularly addresses issues related to migration, as well as other features including portraits of well-known Latinos, such as Luis Fonsi and Alaska. A May 31 2018 episode took a look at how the US immigration system lost track of about 1,500 minors, which gives a sense of the possible fate of the children whose parents are not able to accompany them.
  • Three of the many recent films that specifically consider the reasons, experiences, and consequences of movement across borders are: Sin nombre (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2009), La jaula de oro/The Golden Dream (Diego Quemada-Díez, 2013), and Who is Dayani Crystal? (Mark Silver, 2014). Sin nombre and The Golden Dream are about teens fleeing poverty and gangs in their country of origin and make the perilous journey through Mexico. Part of their journey is on top of the infamous and very dangerous ‘La Bestia’ (the beast) freight trains that traverse Mexico. Who is Dayani Crystal? is a documentary featuring Gael García Bernal that is an investigation into the identity of a dead migrant discovered in the Arizona desert whose tattoo “Dayani Crystal” serves as the only clue to his identity.

These are only a starting point, given the complexity and historical reach of this issue.

*This blog was cross-posted on the University of Liverpool Modern Languages and Cultures site.

Mariana Chenillo: A Brief Introduction

In 2010, Mariana Chenillo was the first female director to have won an Ariel for her opera prima. The award for first film is technically for direction, but is distinct to that of direction. Established in 1947, Ariels are the Mexican film academy awards and a woman has yet to be awarded specifically for direction. There are always hopes that this will change. In the past, there have been many deserving contenders, but there is a current upsurge in the numbers of female directors getting international attention, which may result in a win for a woman.

Source: http://remezcla.com/features/film/mariana-chenillo-female-directors-expected-look-pretty/

Chenillo has directed two features to date. Cinco días sin Nora (2009) is about Chenillo’s grandmother’s suicide and the subsequent family fallout. Unexpectedly, it is humorous. Dark humour characterises her work. So, too, does the way women in her films have non-standard and disruptive bodies that present challenges to the social constructions of wellness and women’s agency.

As well as Cinco días sin Nora and Paraíso: ¿Cuánto pesa el amor? (2013), Mariana Chenillo’s recent short film work gives an insight into her idiosyncratic position in Mexican film. In 2010 she made two shorts that formed part of anthology films: “La tienda de raya” [company store] made in response to the commemoration of the 1910 Revolution, Revolución [Revolution]*, produced by Canana; and “Amor a primera vista” [Love at first sight], distributed as the anthology film, Sucedió en un dia [It happened one day], and was part of the Primer Rally Malayerba PRO challenge asking ten directors to make a short in twenty-four hours. In Revolución her work sits alongside names that are well known internationally including, Fernando Eimbcke, Amat Escalante, Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo García, Diego Luna, Gerardo Naranjo, Rodrigo Plá, Carlos Reygadas, and Patricia Riggen. This is an entrepreneurial group who have portfolio careers primarily as actors and/or directors and, more latterly, also known for their work as producers through the arthouse and film festival circuits. Whilst in Sucedió en un dia Chenillo is alongside a group of directors who have had a consistent output and some circulation internationally, but are more embedded in the national film market. These include, Daniel Gruener, Beto Gómez, Julián Hernández, Gustavo Loza, Alejandro Lozano, Issa López, and Ignacio Ortiz. To have created work for both of these anthologies reveals her unusual position amongst contemporary Mexican filmmakers, she is both part of a select group of transnational arthouse filmmakers and embedded in the national film and television industries.

My chapter “Paraíso ¿Cuánto pesa el amor? (2013): Challenging the Neoliberal in Mexican Cinema” will be published in Carolina Rocha and Claudia Sandberg eds., Resisting Neoliberalism: The State of Contemporary Latin American Cinema (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2018).

 

*I wrote about Revolución in Revolution and Rebellion in Mexican Film.

 

Further Reading

As well as the hyper-linked citations, I read the following to help me formulate my ideas around the neoliberal in Mexican film:

Couldry, Nick. 2010. Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism Los Angeles & London: Sage.

Sánchez Prado, Ignacio. 2014. Screening Neoliberalism. Mexican Cinema 1988-2012 Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

In addition, I found this text a useful exploration of neoliberalism in reading and academic process:

La Berge, Leigh Claire and Quinn Slobodian. 2017. “Reading for Neoliberalism, Reading like Neoliberals.” American Literary History, vol. 29, no. 3: 602-614.

 

Digital Footprints

I am just refining a chapter on Paraíso ¿Cuánto pesa el amor? (Mariana Chenillo, 2013). It’s currently available in the UK and Ireland on Netflix as Paraíso [Paradise]. Dark humour characterises Chenillo’s approach. The women in her films have non-standard and disruptive bodies that present challenges to the social constructions of wellness and women’s agency.

Paraíso ¿Cuánto pesa el amor? is an adaptation of a short story about a couple, Carmen (Daniela Rincón) and Alfredo (Andrés Almeida),  who move from the suburbs of Mexico City to a middle class neighbourhood. Both start out proudly fat and, isolated and feeling pressured by the metropolitan elite, they have to decide whether losing weight is the route to happiness. It is affecting and largely uplifting. I read it with reference to Ignacio Sánchez Prado’s (2014) work on neoliberalism and Mexican film and I draw on some of the cultural studies work carried out on fatness.

While research this it has been interesting to find the digital traces of Daniela Rincón, the writer of the short story, Julieta Arévalo, and the Music supervisor, Lynn Fainchtein. Paraíso ¿Cuánto pesa el amor? is Daniela Rincón only role in film. Subsequently, she has moved into the online wellness blogosphere as a blogger and vlogger. Her ‘About me’ section gives a sense of her personal philosophy and reasons for communicating with others on this topic:

Tomé la decisión de adentrarme en el mundo del Body Positive y trabajar en mi alimentación y mi condición física. De eso han pasado casi 20 kilos, un Canal de Youtube y la identificación con miles de mujeres que, al igual que yo, quieren amar a su cuerpo tal y cual es y trabajar para encontrar su salud sin importar la apariencia física. (http://www.danielarincon.com/)

[I decided to get into Body Positivism and work on my diet and fitness. Since then I’ve said goodbye to 20 kilos, created a YouTube channel, and have connected with thousands of women who, like me, want to love their bodies as they are and work to find health without worrying about their how they look. Translation mine]

In my chapter I reflect on the relevance of her online persona and how it can inform our reading of the role in Paraíso ¿Cuánto pesa el amor?.

Julieta Arévalo is a little known writer who appears to only have one book of short stories,  Paraíso y otro cuentos incómodos [Paradise and Other Uncomfortable Stories]. She can also be found via an old LinkedIn profile and, from what I can verify, as the winner of an award to travel around New Zealand. Curiously, it’s difficult to be totally sure of this last detail. I would love if it were.

The final person is Lynn Fainchtein. She’s an experienced music supervisor with a well-developed page intended for those looking to employ her. It is finessed, professional, detailed, and helped me understand her trajectory given the few interviews that have been published with her.

This brief insight gives a sense of the different online interventions and the distinct online labour required of them as creative workers in the film industry and elsewhere.

 

1976: Haunted by 1968

I have spent much of the last few weeks drafting and re-drafting a chapter for a forthcoming edited collection on Memory and Trauma in Mexican Visual Culture, a project I am co-editing with Miriam Haddu. My chapter considers three films released in 1976 that I contend are all haunted in different ways by the ghosts of 1968 that, in turn, is haunted by the iconography of the Revolution. The chapter is informed by writing on Mexican film, but also on archive and memory study work as a way of finding my way into understanding the use of archive material in the films. I compare Los de abajo by Servando González with two other films from 1976, Canoa and Los Poquianchis, both by Felipe Cazals

Soldier directing the camera in Canoa

I discovered González’s work when researching adaptations of novelas de la Revolución, that is, a large selection of books set during the Revolution. First published midway through the bellicose period of the Revolution in 1915 Los de abajo is generally counted as the first novela de la Revolución. González’s adaptation is the second, the first was in 1939 by the Golden Age filmmaker Chano Urueta. Perplexed by the fact that González’s name barely graced the literature in the field, I looked into his biography and discovered the clear reason why. He was employed by the government to film the student protests in 1968, for which he was shunned by many of his contemporaries. Thus, he had become implicated with the brutal repression and murder of students at a moment that continues to be an unresolved moment in Mexican history. As someone who has researched 1968 and its aftermath I had a visceral response to his decision to film the students, that can only be a fraction of what his compatriots must have felt. I understand their decision to ignore his work in favour of giving attention to others with whom they shared fellow feeling. But, his work and his decision continue to haunt me. I chose to venture in, a choice that is afforded me as an outsider.

In order to understand González’s work and to explore how to conceptualise it, I compare it to two films by Cazals, a director at the centre of a group of filmmakers, writers, and critics known as the Nuevo cine group, named after a short-lived, yet highly influential, film journal. They used journals, prizes, curated events, and colloquia and other public fora to publish, discuss, disseminate, and promote each others work and that of their predecessors. This group saw themselves as distinct to the studio system directors and wanted to foment a culture of auteurist filmmaking. Their writing continues to frame much of the discussion of Mexican film.

I look at extracts from Los de abajo, Canoa and Los Poquianchis where archival footage is used in the understanding that, as Dagmar Brunow expresses it, “The archive is not a space in which facts remain unchanged, but a process in which knowledge and facts are continuously recreated and transformed” (2015, 37). By extension, archival material is neither stable nor fixed and can be deployed for multiple ends. There is much work done on this in relation to photographic material, and a growing number on film. I also explore how these films use footage that carries the aura of what Jamie Baron calls “the archive effect” (2014). The material is deployed by Cazals and González as a means of exploring how the representation of violence on screen implicates the filmmaker in a system that has traces of perpetrator violence. They navigate this differently because of the historical events they portray and how their biographies are understood in relation to their work.

Something I don’t have space to explore in my chapter, but want to note here is that whilst I am carrying out an auteurist reading of both González and Cazals, it takes many to make a film. For my purposes, this is how both are framed and it is possible to trace such patterns in their work. However, I want to note, in particular, the collaboration between Cazals and Tomás Pérez Turrent, an academic, screenwriter, actor and director, who wrote Canoa. Los poquanchis was co-written with Xavier Robles, another notable screenwriter whose credits include an adaptation of an Albert Camus play as Bajo la metralla (Felipe Cazals, 1983) and the first fiction film about 1968, Rojo amanecer (Jorge Fons, 1989). In addition, there is an extra on the DVD version of Los de abajo where the actor, Eric del Castillo, who plays the protagonist, talks about how he workshopped the play (the novel was adapted for the stage several times) and he asserts that his input is integral to the film adaptation. This is an interesting assertion of creative control and complicates any auteurist reading of the film. It is possible to speculate on other motivations for this extra. It might be a way of encouraging those put off by González’s past to watch the film or for del Castillo to position himself as a serious actor rather than as a telenovela (soap opera) actor for which he is famous.

Bibliography

Baron, Jaimie (2014)  The Archive Effect Oxon & New York: Routledge.

Brunow, Dagmar (2015) Remediating Transcultural Memory: Documentary Filmmaking as Archival Intervention Berlin & Boston: de Gruyter.

 

 

 

The Latino* Family who are Latino: One Day at a Time

One Day at a Time (2017) is a multi-camera sitcom produced by Netflix. The original was released in 1975 and I don’t recall seeing it. The concise IMDB summary describes it as, “The misadventures of a divorced mother, her family, and their building superintendent in Indianapolis”. The present-day version shifts the action to Los Angeles (LA), the opening credits makes allusion to Echo Park, but some of the other shots, suggest at other places in LA. Given that the story is centred on a Cuban-American family, the LA location is significant, as Miami is a more usual location for such narratives given the size of the Cuban population in Florida. For the purposes of this series LA means that that family is a minority amongst mostly non-Cuban others and that the grandmother, Lydia (Rita Moreno), takes on the role of policing, encouraging, and nudging the family to keep up the traditions that she has inherited, invented, and moulded to her own liking. That Lydia is a mix of conservative upholder of the past and flexible adaptater to changing cultural values, sometimes resistant and at others dynamic, speaks to the strength of the scriptwriting as well as the performances in the series.

Like the 1970s version, the 2017 version is focused on a single mother, Penelope (Justina Machado), who is separated from her husband and finds herself living in a three-bedroom apartment with her mother and two children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz). Her mother has a small curtained-off area adjacent to the sitting room as her bedroom. This detail is a nod to the gentrification that has taken place in recent years in LA, which means that a sole earner cannot afford a bigger space. These changes have had particularly negative effects on the Latino community in areas such as Echo Park, that is also alluded to elsewhere, such as the 2006 film Quinceañera/Echo Park, LA (Glatzer and Westmoreland).

In common with Homa Khaleeli’s description of the central family in the series Black-ish as “not a family who “happen to be black” but a family who are black”, the Álvarez’s are a Latino family whose Latinidad is essential to who they are, and the series addresses issues that effect their everyday life. Being Cuban-American is not simply colourful detail, it is integral to their lived experience.

In this vein, bilingualism is dealt with in a deliberate and often self-conscious fashion. There are no subtitles in the series, which is also an interesting choice. Sometimes, the words are paraphrased or translated for a non-Spanish speaker, at others there is no translation, and on other occasions, there is deliberate mis-translation.

Evidence of the cultural and affective value of language is clear in the ways language usage is marked by place. The shift between work and home is marked by Penelope’s naming. At home, she is Lupe, whilst at work she is Penelope. These are because of how these spaces are ethnically and relationally marked, which is also reflected in the code-switching and language shifts that happen in and between these places. Penelope/Lupe’s mother speaks in Spanish and English to her and English, Spanglish, and Spanish to the children. The eldest daughter, Elena, about to turn 15, is proud of her ancestry, academically precocious, politically engaged, but refuses to learn Spanish, much to her grandmother’s disappointment. But, Lydia persists revealing that Elena has considerable passive knowledge of Spanish. Not speaking Spanish is not a marker of generational shifts, however. Alex, doted on by his grandmother, speaks Spanish fluently. Moreno’s own take on this is worth a look.

The series self-consciously plays with and challenges TV Latino stereotypes in ways that are clever and innovative. It also navigates an interesting line between experiences specific to Cubans in the US and those shared across race and ethnic backgrounds. Penelope is an army vet, who served as a nurse in Afghanistan and was injured in the line of duty. She now works in a small private practice alongside white co-workers. She finds friendships in an all-female army vet support group and is frustrated by the difficulties in getting physiotherapy for her injuries. The episodes are centred around family and societal issues, such as, Elena’s refusal to have her quince on feminist grounds, micro-aggressions at work, tensions between family time and attendance at Catholic mass, deportation and migrant status, and coming out. All dealt with as serious issues but still finding much humour.

The one blind spot in the series is Cuba and the Cuban regime. It is only ever seen from Lydia’s perspective as somewhere from which she was sent as a Pedro Pan teenager and as a site of loss, longing, and nostalgia for the pre-Castro period. Unlike the rest of her worldview, no further nuance or complexity is brought to bear. This is to be expected because of the long history of exile felt by Cuban Americans as a consequence of the diplomatic and political stand-off between the two countries and is no real surprise.

As a humorous and smart look at being Latino in the US that counters the prevalent and recurrent representations of Latinos as dangerous criminals, service workers, or victims, this series is both a welcome change and highly engaging.

Note: I have previously written on Quinceañera/Echo Park, LA (Glatzer and Westmoreland, 2006).  in  “My Super Sweet Fifteen: the Internationalisation of Quinceañeras in Literature and Film”, Catherine Leen and Niamh Thornton, eds and intro. This World is My Place: International Perspectives on Chicana/o Studies, New York & London: Routledge, 2013.

*Since writing this the term Latinx has moved into common usage. I don’t want to alter the title, just acknowledge change in language.

Kóblic: A Troubling Perpetrator Story

I am currently on a trip to Buenos Aires as part of a project on commemorative practices. My work will focus on Mexico, but Argentina is a locus for much of the critical work around this in Latin America and I wanted to see some of the physical spaces first hand. Whilst here, I got to see a new release starring Ricardo Darín, Kóblic (Sebastián Borensztein, 2016). Here is a link to the trailer.

Set in 1977, the story is about a former captain, Kóblic, a pilot with the Argentine navy. He is charged with piloting the so called “vuelos de muerte” [death flights] during the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional/Dirty War (1976-83). Individuals who had been held and tortured in the detention centres were thrown from these planes into the sea to die. Traumatised by having to carry out these flights, Kóblic finds himself unable to obey orders and goes on the run in Argentina. The narrative unfolds as a thriller with a wish fulfilment revenge plot, Western motifs, and a romantic dalliance thrown in. For the most part it is a pacy and watchable film, and yet, I left with considerable reservations that I have spent some time mulling over. These have to do with plotting, wardrobe, character development, and my own viewing experience.

Plot and Wardrobe

Kóblic and Velarde. Source: http://www.proyectorfantasma.com.ar/critica-koblic-2016-dir-sebastian-borensztein/

There are rather odd plot and wardrobe choices, not least Kóblic’s decision to stay in Argentina. He also keeps his military ID in his wallet and continues to wear his aviator glasses. The former allows for an all-too-neat plot reveal, while the latter is more than a superficial period wardrobe choice and does not read as true. The glasses have associations with the armed forces – think Tom Cruise in Top Gun (1986) for a romanticised version of US Cold War military representation. This makes them key identifiers, a fact that is reinforced by another member of the force in pursuit of Kóblic, who also wears them. A longer piece could be written on the recurrence of these glasses and their US associations in Latin American films of this era. Their presence is highly resonant and seem like an attempt to complicate his character that felt clumsy. Like his decision to stay and to keep his ID, I was distracted by his need to hold on to something that would so clearly reveal his identity.

Death Flights

The Death Flights feature heavily in another film set at this period. Garaje Olimpo (Marco Bechis, 1999) has a powerful opening sequence from the point of view of one of these flights showing an aerial shot of the city of Buenos Aires starting at the water and opening out to a shot of the city. This recurs at later key points in the film. It is only as the plot develops that its full significance is revealed. The point of view of the plane is not made clear. It could be from the pilot, the guards, or one of the detained. Point of view is a powerful tool, and potentially invites us to identify with the deeply troubling position of being one of the individuals who have just committed this act. Garaje Olimpo leaves no doubt that that this is a terrible position to inhabit – whether as perpetrator or victim. The film is primarily focused on the fate of an individual woman who is detained and tortured. Therefore, starting from the position of those implicated in the process is to ask the audience how they are responsible for what took place, to question their own ignorance, or to feel the terror of being a victim. Kóblic is different. The horrors of the dictatorship may be read into the sordid and corrupt ways of the small town in which he is hiding, and may be alluded to in the flashbacks to the death flights, but they are physically distant and allusive. This is part of the reason I came away from it feeling troubled.

Reception

Reading a review in the Hollywood Reporter gets to the nub of another reason I found it troubling. I saw it in a screen with two men who would have been the same age Kóblic is supposed to be in this film and could have been on one side or the other in this narrative, or have known people caught up as perpetrators or victims. We sat in our tiered seating in a modern multiplex in our own rows. The men exchanged some pleasantries beforehand in a slightly nervous fashion about it being like a private screening, but didn’t speak afterwards. They did not seem to know each other. Their presence made me very aware of how the film could be consumed and, like the Hollywood Reporter reviewer, I was conscious that “it’s probably worth reflecting on that such pilots are still there in Argentina, a few years older now, but leading normal, unpunished lives”. Had one of these men at the screening with me been a pilot? The reviewer goes on to say that, because no justice has been served, “The script therefore has to bend over backwards to show that Koblic is a fundamentally decent man, someone we should be caring about”. I’m not sure I agree with that corollary, film can lead to new realisations about the past and can posit that some who carried out terrible actions were wrong to do so, even if justice has not been served. The filmmaker also goes beyond just making Kóblic decent. In fact, he is heroic in the end and that is what really makes this film troubling. There is a considerable responsibility in creating a film from the perpetrator’s perspective.  Making him a figure with whom we should empathise, because he found some moral decency and is now haunted by nightmares, is far from tackling perpetrator complicity or guilt. I came away wondering: if one of my fellow audience members was a perpetrator, could he feel redeemed by this film? I suspect he could.

Good Badman

At a screening of the film, the director felt the need to emphasise that he did not wish to make this a sympathetic portrait of a perpetrator: “Kóblic no existe, es un personaje de ficción. Lo que sabemos todos es el contexto histórico, que hubo cientos de vuelos, cada uno debe haber sido un infierno y uno puede imaginar que puede haber pasado de todo” [Kóblic does not exist, he is a fictional character. We all know the historical context in which there were hundreds of flights, each one of them must have been hell and you can only imagine that all sorts must have happened on them]. The flights are portrayed as terrible, but the primary trauma is experienced by the perpetrator, not the victims. Thus the victims’ stories are absent from this narrative other than through other proxy stories of family abuse. In Kóblic, the perpetrator, not the victim, gets to be an avenging hero in the mould of the good badman of the contemporary Western.

Bad Badman

Another point of contention is the badman in the film. Much praise has been heaped on Óscar Martínez’s performance as the corrupt police officer, Velarde (see, for example, this review). He is a cartoon villain. He wears a bad wig – one of his first gestures in the film is to adjust it in a parody of the Western sheriff fixing his hat-, he has false teeth, and is greasily lascivious. All of this Martínez performs well. Playing opposite this character Kóblic can shine. Velarde provides space for Darin to look thoughtful and reflective. Kóblic is a man haunted by his past and the plot is built around him being bothered by such bad badmen as Velarde. It reduces the potential for nuance and sidesteps the possibility for real depth in favor of a slash and burn revenge narrative. In the absence of actual justice, the cartoonish badman (and his sidekicks) provide an opportunity to enact fantasy justice.

Conclusion

Kóblic should get international distribution because of Darín’s star power and the European and US producers and distributors attached, also, the Dirty War has much traction internationally, and it is a well executed film. This is a genre film combined with long takes of beautiful landscape that, in some ways contains much visual pleasure, but it is a worrying venture into exploring perpetrator narrative.