Thursday, February 24, 2011

Copa America 2011: Colombia

The first entry of the 2011 Copa America Film & Book Festival.

All countries are far too complex to be reduced to a single word label but that is exactly what normally happens as most nations are often tagged with a single word. One reason for such quick labels is that most nations are ignored in their moments of silence but only given headline space when a war, disease, crisis or a revolution occurs. So naturally, a single word then gets associated with a nation in times of such an event or crisis. Yet, it is in moments of peace that one can truly grasp what a nation is about because at moments of tragedy, a single event/incident overshadows everything else at work in the nation. In the case of Colombia, these single word labels are either "war" or "drugs", two common associations with the South American country. However, there is much more to Colombia than just these two labels but one would not know that going by the quick headlines published in major publications around the world.

A primary goal for the 2011 Copa America festival was to pick a film that gave a richer look at Colombia and moved past this quick label of "war" or "drugs". For the book selection, the idea was to move beyond a different label altogether. When it comes to Colombian literature, the label of "Magic Realism" jumps out. It is true that magic realism was once highly popular but Colombian literature is far more diverse than just "Magic Realism". For example, the McOndo movement was started in contrast to magic realism and sought to portray a true reality of everyday life in the Latin nations. Both Magic Realism and McOndo have common roots in portraying the everyday life yet each movement takes a different route -- magic realism softens the harshness of reality with a mythical element while McOndo does not want to have any filters in its presentation. So when it came to selecting a book from Colombia, the choice was to pick a book about the harsh reality in the vein of McOndo. As it turns out, both film and book choices still have war in the horizon but their treatment ensures the focus is more on the human story as opposed to letting humans be a mere statistic.

Book: The Armies by Evelio Rosero
Film: Crab Trap (2009, Oscar Ruiz Navia)
Bonus Film: The Wind Journeys (2009, Ciro Guerra)

The Armies is about the nerve racking impact on people effected by a constant state of war. The everyday lives of residents are disrupted as disappearances/abductions of loved ones or neighbors can occur at any moment while those left behind try to maintain an illusion of normality. The story may be set in Colombia but could easily apply to a handful of nations across Latin America, Africa or Asia where people live in a constant state of fear. Human nature tries to find a reason for an ongoing war or violent state of a nation. For example, if a person is taken from their house by guerrillas, then neighbors assume reasons for such an abduction because in their view the kidnapping cannot be random. People believe there must be a valid explanation for a kidnapping and that the missing person must have done something or was involved in a negative trade. If no theory can be found to explain the abduction, then a new set of logic is applied. By always trying to find a theory to explain violence ensures that a person is always on edge and constantly attempting to reason things out. In essence, a person is always playing chess in their mind and their internal decisions lead to outward choices such as deciding when to leave the house, which path to take, etc.

The Armies puts forward some of the frenzied decision making that takes place in a person's mind and what the consequences of constantly thinking and living in fear does to a person. Evelio Rosero's background as a journalist certainly helps in crafting a realistic portrayal of people trapped in an endless cycle of uncertainty.

Oscar Ruiz Navia's impressive debut feature Crab Trap is about Daniel's (Rodrigo Velez) need to escape from his old life. His journey takes him to the beach town of La Barra where he just needs a boat to leave Colombia. However, he has to wait for the town's fishermen to return from sea to get an available boat. In the meantime, he eats, sleeps and wanders around town. Sometimes he sleeps by himself and on other occasions with the only available woman around. There are some scattered clues given to Daniel's need to escape but not knowing the reason does not take away from the film's calm and tranquil mood. The peace and quiet of the beach is interrupted frequently by Paisa who enjoys playing loud rap music from his music system. Paisa wants to drive away the locals so he can annex the land and develop a hotel/resort to attract tourists. So his methods from playing loud music to blocking access to an open beach lead him in constant conflict with the locals but Daniel tries best to stay away.

The leisurely paced film ensures that all relevant details, including the visuals and sounds of the ocean or rap songs blaring from a music system, filter onto the screen thereby allowing the viewers to get a sense of the landscape. Nothing about the beach suggests Colombia but news reports on a television set convey that the militants are not far away. The location of the small town is fascinating as in order to arrive at the town a person has to go through a forest. In a sense, the town represents the end of the line for anyone traveling through Colombia. The open sea represents a possibility to jump off to far away lands but in reality the sea only leads people to exit but does not provide an entry point for people wanting to make their first stop in Colombia. One can imagine La Barra's way of living as frozen in time until the forest is cleared and roads built to allow tourists to make their way to the beach or until the war manages to directly touch the inhabitants.

Michael Guillen's excellent interview with Oscar Ruiz Navia is essential reading about the film.

The bonus film entry ends up being another journey through a vast Colombian landscape rarely seen on screen. After his wife's death, Ignacio (Marciano Martinez) wants to return the accordion he has played for most of his life back to his mentor and be freed from the burden of possessing such a powerful devilish instrument. A young teenager Fermin (Yull Nunez) tags along with Ignacio much to Ignacio's displeasure. Fermin wants to be a musician and seeks to be Ignacio's pupil although Ignacio would prefer to be alone and not bothered. Fermin is persistent and continues to shadow Ignacio.

The reluctant master and eager pupil encounter a series of intriguing encounters centered around the hypnotic and magical power of music, be it an accordian duel or a drum initiation blessed with a lizard's blood.
One of the film's most incredible scenes involve a knife duel to the death with Ignacio required to play the music until one man dies. The families of both men are present on opposing sides and it is a gut wrenching moment for both families to witness one (or both) loved one's killing.
The film's visuals and mood echoes Brazilian cinema such as The Middle of the World, Behind the Sun, Central Station, and House of Sand because in the last decade, Brazilian cinema has portrayed journeys across a hot and vast land in search of parental love or friendship. Yet, these stories and journeys are not restricted to Brazil alone or to South America for that matter. The tales could easily be set in any continent. What The Wind Journeys does is garnish the journey tale with a few Colombian ingredients to add some local flavour and differentiate it from other such stories set around the world.

The Wind Journeys is certainly worth a look but overall a tad disappointing compared to the other Brazilian films mentioned above. One reason for the disappointment is that the reserved character of Ignacio prevents any relevant emotional attachment to the film as a whole. Only near the end when Ignacio reaches the conclusion of his journey to his mentor's home do some emotions fill the screen. In fact, the emotional strength of the ending combined with the visuals of a hut on a white sanded beach shares some similarity to the House of Sand.

No comments: