When you look at a map of the Americas, you see the United States first. Right at the heart of the page, it reaches out with its immensity and the stark cleanliness of its lines. Big blocks of solid shape -- Colorado, for instance, and Montana, the panhandles of Idaho and Texas -- they all convey a sense of form, balance, and linear structure. Just to the south, Mexico slides, swells at the sides, and slowly sinks into a narrow strip as it nears the end of our continent. Lined with uneven borders like wavering veins under the skin, the country looks a mess. Welcome to Latin America, it announces, displaying enormous shapes of land that appear to collapse under the social and mythical weight of the U.S.A.
The visual image, subject to interpretation and argument as it is, is important not only for its psychological implications but also for the dialogue it demands: What weight does the United States have anyway, compared to the rich plentitudes and mysteries of Latin American culture? What commonalities exist between our America and the Americas as a whole? And how do we confront the inheritances of our histories as we struggle to forge the next unpredictable century for our hemisphere?
Beginning Friday, April 13, and lasting until Saturday, April 21, the Fourth Annual Cine Las Américas International Festival of New Cinema of the Americas presents 35 feature and short films confronting these issues with an amazing degree of honesty and creativity. Ranging from documentary studies of classical dancers and metal rockers in Havana to narrative explorations of homeless children in Caracas, the films present the works of young, emerging directors and their new visions of old and resurgent cultures. Sixteen of the filmmakers will attend the festival to add voice to their provocative visual images. What this year's lineup reveals is a hemisphere far more complex than its cartography shows: Where the map displays a column of nations fighting collapse, the films depict complex and sturdy cultures engaged in survival with the rest of the world.
Liliana Fasanella, director of the documentary Mujeres Adelante (Women Forward), takes some huge steps in beating this problem. Shot throughout the infamous and gorgeous Mexican state of Chiapas, the documentary presents indigenous women's fight for daily survival. In one telling but shockingly simple scene, Fasanella lists the rights and standards that Chiapan women recently declared in their "Women's Revolutionary Law":
1. Women must be allowed to participate in the revolutionary struggle.
2. Women must be allowed to work and receive a fair salary.
3. Women must be allowed to decide how many children they will bear.
4. Women must receive primary health care and food.
5. Women must receive education.
6. Women must be allowed to choose their partner in marriage.
7. Women must be free from physical abuse, and there must be severe punishment for rape.
8. Women must assume positions of rank in the military.
9. Women must enjoy all rights gained in the revolutionary fight.
To gain an understanding of what this revolutionary fight means in the context of women's rights, Fasanella introduces several indigenous women and allows them to speak about their living conditions and their beliefs. One of the most powerful scenes comes when Fasanella interviews a young Mayan girl somewhere between age eight and 12. The surprisingly articulate girl shows the viewer a brilliantly colored cloth doll like the thousands of dolls any visitor to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas can buy on the sidewalks from the silent women who sit on the pavement, their children slung over their shoulders and their fingers creased from so much tight weaving. To an outside observer, the doll is a quaint representation of folk craft, a cute souvenir to snatch up for a few pesos before returning home. To the young girl, though, it is the symbol of necessary self-effacement and loss of identity that she must endure in order to earn her next meal.
"This is how a modern woman dresses," she says. "They have ribbons, a wool blouse, a slip, and a belt."
The abandonment of indigenous clothing for more acceptable attire is representative of the loss of Mayan culture and the Zapatista fight for indigenous rights as a whole. "I change my dress so that they'll hire me," says one woman from the village of San Juan Chamula. The other side of this phenomenon, though, is that like the masked Subcomandante Marcos and other leaders of the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional), the women become clean slates, willing representatives of all other women and all other subjugated groups in the state and in the country. In a stirring political speech, the EZLN's Insurgent Major Ana Maria insists that the fight for rights not only includes demands for women but also for "persecuted homosexuals," "humiliated workers," and those who are "dying from indifference." In a climactic display of emotion, the warrior declares, "Behind the mask we are you."
Fasanella is particularly successful in her ability to convey exactly what it means to be on the wrong end of these political injustices. From an American point of view, of course, images of women wearing ski masks and toting machine guns are completely alien to our notion of a feminist struggle. There is no Gloria Steinem of Chiapas, no symbolic protest akin to a bonfire of brassieres. Thankfully, the director includes commentary not only by women who live the struggle every day but also by women who take up such action as staging dramatic re-enactments of what indigenous women endure, like playwright Petrona de la Cruz Cruz, whose "ambulant theatre" shows, for example, an indigenous woman demeaned and verbally abused by a mestiza woman who hired her. Though the plays are works of drama, there is absolutely nothing melodramatic in the claims they stage. Recent studies of indigenous women estimate that they earn an average of $4 for an eight-hour work day. Their conditions are brutal, and the availability of work is never guaranteed. The villain behind these conditions? Take your pick: Depending on whom you ask, the culprit might be the Mexican government, the nonindigenous Mexican people, men, or the larger financial and social trends that exist in our global economy. And any of those answers is probably right.
Also vilified in the documentary is the real-life mestiza business owner Soledad Paniagua, who stands by her cash register and angrily tells the viewer that indigenous women are lazy and unmotivated. "Chiapas is not poor," she says. "Chiapanecos have everything. Those who work succeed." Rejecting the idea that mestizas might discriminate against the indigenous, Paniagua says boldly, "Those are lies, absolute lies."
Though Paniagua is hoisted by her own petard in this case, it is worth mentioning that her statements do not warrant instant dismissal. In fact, Chiapas is not poor. Located at Mexico's southernmost border, the state is wealthy with natural resources and provides the whole country with a significant portion of its electricity. Without the state, the millions of lights in Mexico City, that grounded constellation that replaces the invisible sky, would extinguish. But the fact that the state is so rich and generates so much for the country only serves to underline the legitimate complaint of the EZLN: Who, after all, is providing the labor that leads to this wealth for the others?
But Fasanella's documentary is not entirely without provocative flaws. First, the film proceeds without a fluid or consistent voice. Also, the documentary suffers from the lack of opinions offered by people who aren't indigenous women or obvious villains. Not a single man is interviewed in the whole work. This leads to an unfortunate ease in assigning blame. Still, Fasanella's work is worthy of high praise for its alarming presentation of one group of women in Mexico. Throughout its history, Mexico has indulged vastly different notions of what women mean for the nation. The most significant archetypes of the Mexican culture, after all, from the Virgin of Guadalupe and La Malinche to Frida Kahlo, are all women.
Another woman who figures prominently in Mexican culture in our country is the legendary phantom of La Llorona ("the crying woman"). Director Trina Lopez offers an imagistic and seductive portrait of this spirit in her short "La Llorona." Shot along the Mexican border in the American Southwest, the film recounts the Chicano myth of the woman who drowned her own children in the waters of the Rio Grande. As a punishment for her unforgivable sin, La Llorona is cursed to an eternity of wandering the river at night, mourning and howling as she searches for the children she killed.
Lopez's depiction of the myth is clever in its visual motto which builds as the film progresses. "Drown your sorrows," an unidentified hand writes. Meanwhile, voices are heard along the river and in the cities: "Viene La Llorona." ("Here comes La Llorona.") The narrator of the film warns the viewer that La Llorona will snatch away anyone's soul in the hope that it belongs to her children. The historical and psychological implications of La Llorona as a symbol of Mexican womanhood are obviously too profound and numerous to discuss, but they touch on everything it means to be a woman in that country. From the young girls who work in American-owned sweatshops on the border to the indigenous weavers of Chiapas, a part of the voices of all Mexican women are echoed in the howl of La Llorona and in these films by Fasanelli and Lopez.
The documentary Midnight in Havana by Dimitri Falk brilliantly feeds our growing hunger for knowledge about Cuban culture by focusing on the rapid deterioration of the nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without the paternalistic aid the USSR once sent to keep the island afloat, whole villages in Cuba have lost the ability to earn wages and pay for food and basic social services. What is particularly effective about Falk's presentation is that it uses the lives of four young people in their 20s to illustrate the opportunities that have been stolen by the unpardonable Cuban government.
"I have big plans for my life," says Wendy, who at the age of 20 is already one of Cuba's most decorated and accomplished dancers. With her elegant and rubber-like body, the dancer bends and twirls everywhere -- in the studio, on the street, in the bathroom. The daughter of two professional dancers, Wendy has won competitions in Cuba and throughout the world. Nearly all of her earnings, however, must be surrendered to the government. So despite her hard work and success, she and her mother live in a decaying and poorly lit apartment and struggle to make ends meet.
Her only option if she wants to grow and survive as a dancer is to defect on an upcoming competition trip to Spain. "Everyone says I'm crazy, but I'm not," she says as the camera shows her screaming at the mirror and doing her best Tina Turner.
"She's insane," her mother argues.
It's clear that Wendy's "insanity," which often translates into independent and stubborn thinking, loud singing, and funky hair, is a necessary reaction to the confines of her environment. It is the insanity, really, which keeps her sane.
Another praiseworthy film in the festival, "Habana Solo" directed by Juan Carlos Alom, touches on a similar sense of frenetic expression as it consists mainly of chaotic shots of passersby and musicians in the streets of Havana. The energetic 15-minute short uses no narrative, no form of communication except for its black-and-white montage of images found in the city. Does it evoke any realistic sense of what it might be like to stand and walk in Havana? No. But the short arrives at a sort of literary collage, an arrangement of symbols and shadows that allow for wide interpretation and enjoyment.
But what to make of this energy? A rock star named Equís, another one of Falk's subjects in Midnight in Havana, seems to rest his whole life on this question. Loyal to Cuba but limited by its regime, he survives on the camaraderie and psychological support that he and his large group of friends have created. As the camera follows his group from parties to swims at the beach, one fact becomes increasingly clear: None of these people have families. Similarly, Wendy is on the verge of giving up her mother for the sake of her career and her livelihood. One of the hidden lessons of Falk's documentary is this: Besides leaving the country in economic and political shambles, Fidel Castro's regime has served to destroy the basic units of community and family.
Both films exploring the mysteries of Havana present much-needed views into the lives of Cubans and their futures. A documentary like Falk's is of vital importance when the relationship between Cuba and United States remains foolishly and mutually pointless. There are scenes in the work that are so powerful that they will arise in my mind for the rest of my life. The young prostitute Yaricel, for instance, tells her weeping father that she is bound to her profession until the day "when I find a man that I love who will help with the family." By the end of the hourlong documentary, Yaricel is missing and presumed to be jailed in some other town. Her family is starving. And somewhere else, whether or not anyone listens, whether or not the mike is even on, Fidel is still waving and screaming.
At the center of this dismal underworld is the prepubescent Oliver, played by a shockingly effective Jose Gregorio Rivas. Kicked out of his house by an abusive stepfather, Oliver is forced to wander the dangerous streets of the city with no money and no place to go. With his low-as-gravel voice and wounded eyes, Rivas delivers a performance so unsettling and seemingly authentic that one begins to wonder how much of the film demands the skills of acting and how much calls on the actor's real life.
Oliver soon becomes part of a street gang who view the world as a fight between "sissies" and "low-lifes." There are so many subplots involving guns, drugs, explosions, and funerals that it is pointless to summarize each disturbing tragedy. What it comes down to finally is that Schneider is able to illustrate one life that is "so full of misery that it carries everyone else's misery for them."
An equal misery is displayed in the streets of Brazil in the documentary The Little Prince's Rap, directed by Paulo Caldas and Marcelo Luna. Like the treacherous underworld explored by Schneider, the shantytowns and dilapidated neighborhoods of Brazil are haunted by what residents call "wicked souls" -- thugs who murder and mug entire communities. "If you don't kill, you'll be killed," says one resident.
The major difference between the two films is that The Little Prince's Rap does offer morsels of hope. Groups of young men gather together to rap about defending themselves and their families against the wicked souls. "I plan on eating your guts," one rapper chants as bongo drums and tambourines pulse behind him. Some of the young men become brutal vigilantes, murdering the riff raff and becoming murderers themselves. The documentary is evocative as it explores the conflict between law enforcement and the young men in their efforts to solve an unimaginable plague of crime. "Rape is in vogue these days," one officer says.
Both films offer similarly bleak assessments of what it means to grow up in increasingly common circumstances in poorer South American societies. Like the young men in The Little Prince's Rap, who wear American-inspired gear and tailor rap music to their own traditions in order to fight the decay of their culture, the filmmakers impressively use the cinematic art to fight for a nation, and indeed a whole hemisphere of what one of the rappers calls, "The place we all have a right to."
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