Small World and Blurred Boundaries: AFS Essential Cinema
Crossing Borders: Immigration in Global Cinema
Well, not so fast. Like some faded starlet jealous of losing the spotlight, immigration has moved itself right to the front page this month and refused to budge. Mexico's internal struggles with its drug cartels have started seeping across the border, threatening to move their way farther and farther north. But we're finally blessed with a president who acknowledges the interdependency of neighboring nations, so America is responding with at least a passing acknowledgment that fires don't stay contained and have little to no respect for lines of latitude. So President Obama sends troops and equipment to the border to help keep the peace, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledges American complicity in the troubles, and we aren't allowed to bury our heads in our own economic misery but instead have to face the fact that even the darkening of the American Dream won't keep the immigration debate off the table this time.
Whether the Austin Film Society was thinking about the mess in Mexico when it programmed this month's Essential Cinema Series, Crossing Borders: Immigration in Global Cinema, isn't really important. For one thing, the border issue never really goes away, whether here or elsewhere. European nations, for example, always seem to be one nasty parliamentary speech away from a full-on racial explosion. For another, art thrives on serendipity, so we'll just say the movies AFS is showing – some of which were first released 15 years ago – are relevant because we haven't come far enough as a species to make them seem like period pieces.
The Essential Cinema program starts, appropriately enough, in Africa, the source of all humanity and, consequently, the original leaping-off point for all diasporas. Borders (Frontières), the directorial debut of Algerian actor Mostéfa Djadjam, tells the story of six men making the long journey from Senegal to Spain to escape the destitution and warfare of their homeland. Led by two North African Arabic smugglers, the men cross the deserts of Mauritania and Algeria by truck, by foot, by whatever. A political film dressed up to look like a story of human desire, Borders exposes the fundamental flaw in the argument of anyone looking to build walls around their countries: Sturdy souls with ambition will find a way around any obstacle you put up to keep them out – penury, intimidation, humiliation, great distances, rough terrain, guarded barriers, even diminishing hope.
Though the temptation may be to paint all immigrants with the same brush and claim they're all seeking out a new world of economic opportunity or religious freedom, the immigrant experience, especially in the 21st century, is as varied as anything else. In Djomeh, the 2000 Cannes Film Festival Caméra d'Or winner from Iranian director Hassan Yektapanah, a young Afghan man (played by Jalil Nazari) leaves his homeland for Iran not to escape civil war or make money but rather to make amends for the disrespect he brought on his family through his ill-advised courtship of a widow in his village. It was love that drove him away. True to his character, however, upon his arrival in a small town in rural Iran, Djomeh makes it his goal to court the young daughter of a shopkeeper. Just because he's an outsider doesn't mean Djomeh left his passions back in Afghanistan. He's still the same man; he's just moved a little farther to the west. Yektapanah, a protégé of Iranian movie legend Abbas Kiarostami, updates the techniques of Italian neorealism to craft a meditation on this mysterious battle between the desire to assimilate and the acceptance of one's own personality that rages inside every immigrant.
Love is also one of the driving forces behind Abdellatif Kechiche's 2003 film, Games of Love & Chance (L'Esquive), about the sons and daughters of North African immigrants trying to find contemporary meaning in a high school production of Marivaux's 18th century play The Game of Love and Chance. Set in a suburban housing development on the outskirts of Paris, the movie draws a parallel between cultural disconnection and early-adolescent sexual confusion to make the argument that immigrant life is, in the end, no different than native life; love, lust, and curiosity are still the impulses that guide our decisions no matter where we lay our heads. It's a concept that's reiterated the following week with a screening of Kechiche's recent (and well-reviewed) film The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mulet), which reimagines the crisis of personal significance as a political struggle for identity in a foreign land.
After screenings of 1995's Mi Familia, Gregory Nava's multigenerational look at the lives of Mexican-Americans starring Edward James Olmos, Jimmy Smits, and a very young Jennifer Lopez, and In Between Days, Kim So Yong's award-winning film about a South Korean girl struggling to assimilate to life in Canada, the series closes on May 19 with On Each Side (A Cada Lado), which puts a clever spin on the traditional immigrant narrative. Written and directed by documentarian Hugo Grosso, On Each Side is the story of two towns in rural Argentina that are separated by 60 kilometers and one river. The building of the Rosario-Victoria Bridge over the Paraná River forms the backdrop for the disparate yet intertwined stories of characters who find their lives irrevocably changed by a sudden and involuntary introduction to a future of diminished distances. The bridge means different things to different people: It's both a harbinger and a revelation, both a physical connector and a psychological one.
On Each Side gets at the heart of the immigrant film without being an immigrant film. Even within one's own country – even within one's own hometown – the confusion over identity and the amplification of emotions are the inevitable results of stepping into a new world. As long as there are unimagined possibilities elsewhere – across an ocean, across a bridge, across a line of fiber-optic cable – the immigration issue isn't going anywhere. And neither are movies about the immigrant experience.
All screenings take place Tuesdays at 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Admission is free for Austin Film Society members, $4 for general public. For more information, visit www.austinfilm.org or call 322-0145.
Crossing Borders: Immigration in Global Cinema
April 7: Borders (Frontières)
April 14: Djomeh
April 21: Games of Love & Chance (L'Esquive)
April 28: The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mulet)
May 5: Mi Familia
May 12: In Between Days
May 19: On Each Side (A Cada Lado)