Outside the Box
'The Territory' Begins Its 25th Season
For an experimental film, the brave little opus called "Loaves and Fishes" may not seem so eagerly experimental. Written by and starring Amparo Garcia Crow and directed by Nancy Schiesari (both of whom teach at UT), the half-hour film is a straightforward narrative about a Mexican-American family during the last days of the old, pre-renovation San Jose Motel on South Congress. But by confronting rarely explored issues of ethnicity and immigration, by blending elements of traditional narrative and documentary techniques, and by eschewing some of the basic rules of how films get made in the first place, "Loaves and Fishes" shows how the definition of experimental film can expand to include innovative movements in writing, production, and visual representation.
"You're in dangerous territory when you're trying to familiarize the larger society to a particular culture," says Garcia Crow of the new challenges presented in her film.
That evolving idea of what it means to be experimental in this oh-so-traditional world is explored by filmmakers like Garcia Crow and Schiesari in the 25th season of The Territory, a television series showcasing the best short experimental works by film and video artists from Texas and around the globe. Produced by the Austin Museum of Art, the Southwest Alternate Media Project, and KUHT in Houston, the new season features 13 installments, which will air on KLRU Fridays beginning October 20. Ranging in subject from a video portrait of Barton Springs through the changing seasons ("Springs Symphony" by UT professor Karen Kocher) to a reading of the private thoughts of the old century's dictators ("Human Remains" by Jay Rosenblatt), the series offers a compelling survey of the current state of short experimental film and includes top-notch efforts from such filmmakers as Jem Cohen ("Blood Orange Sky"), and Texans Ellen Spiro ("The Shampoo King") and Jon Ausbrooks ("Inside the Eye of Scorpio Rising").
For a work like "Loaves and Fishes," however, nearly every step of creating the final product can be called an exercise in experimental filmmaking. "What's grand is the accomplishment of it, with all the Latin characters," says Garcia Crow. Not to mention that the film fully explores themes like immigration and internalized racism without a heavy hand. The film opens right in the heart of Austin with thoughtful narration by Maria Elena, a young pregnant woman who lives in the seedy San Jose Motel with her two school-age children, her passive-aggressive father (who owns the motel), and Socorro, her father's loose and boozy wife. Without any hint of irony or self-awareness, Maria Elena explains that while her family's income depends on the rent paid by immigrant workers who stay at the San Jose, her father sternly forbids her to have any contact with the Mexican workers. "He would kill me if he knew I'd had any contact."
But one of the Chiapan immigrants in the motel, Ignacio, benefits from Maria Elena's mercy. While she leaves the shower running in the bathroom every night, Maria Elena secretly escapes to deliver a plate of the evening's dinner to the penniless construction worker. In an honest, weary voice, she explains that his plight is made even more difficult by the fact that, as an undocumented immigrant, he is constantly hiding out: "Days would pass sometimes when he wouldn't even leave his room. There was never any trash to take out, not a cup or glass to be found anywhere." When the needy Socorro takes a carnal interest in the laborer and wrongly suspects Maria Elena of having a physical relationship with him, she conspires to destroy their bond. At its most basic level, then, the film is a modern-day fairy tale pitting the well-intentioned young woman against the haggish evil stepmother.
That each of the characters is compelling, human, and Latino is a particular triumph for this film. Garcia Crow makes no secret of the fact that much of the impetus for writing the script came from her frustration with traditional representations of minority characters in film and onstage.
"The range is very narrow," she says. "You're either one more maid or one more whore. Those seem to be the two roles."
Schiesari, too, was eager to develop and portray characters that reflect a key segment of the population in Austin and across the country. An award-winning veteran of documentary filmmaking, Schiesari chose this as her first narrative project after hearing Garcia Crow toss around the idea for the screenplay in an acting class. "It's a human element story sandwiched inside political and social and economic hardship," she says. Her documentary eye serves the picture well, as the stark chronicling of the motel's demolition mirrors the destruction of the relationship between Maria Elena and the people around her.
"But look at this town," Schiesari says. "All the beauty comes from the hands of Latino workers. Look at every bit of craft, every single façade of a building, every bit of stonework. So much of the work is done by Latino workers."
With this in mind, Schiesari took to capturing footage of actual construction workers hammering and sweating to complete tony homes in the northwest section of town. The film, then, becomes a story of construction -- of lives and homes and friendships -- posed against the forces of deconstruction. There is both charity and self-absorption, amity and enmity, documentary and fiction. The structure of the film itself is as moving in its presentation of conflict as anything displayed in its subject or plot.
In the last few seconds of the film, Garcia Crow and Schiesari's work expresses its universal message in a few telling sentiments: "It's not about how many loaves or how many fishes or whether there will ever be enough," Maria Elena says. "It's about the basket. Whether it's empty or full, there's a capacity to hold something." That aphorism is not just true in the story of these tragic characters -- it reflects the life and breath of any artist. Short film, too, in its experimental form, is all about capacity, and all about potential. It's the loaves and the fishes offered up by artists like Garcia Crow and Schiesari that live up to that capacity.