Saturday, June 4, 2011

My Log 258: Remarkable Spanish film, Even the Rain, shows that our modern version of colonialism is as bad as the historical version

I saw a remarkable Spanish film last night which dealt with a number of issues of importance in the modern world ---- the problems of neo-colonialism, the oppression of indigenous people, the greed of multinational corporations, the corruption of governments. In other words, it was the kind of film that personally I think most films should be like --- committed, radical, and determined to face the real world.

The name of the film is Even the Rain, its director was Icíar Bollaín, a woman, and the film was one of those on the fringes of nomination for an Academy Award this year as best foreign language film.

The film deals with an attempt by a low-budget film crew to shoot a movie about the arrival of Christopher Columbus among the indigenous people of South America. Bolivia was chosen as the location for the film-within-the-film because of the easy availability of cheap extras, who could be hired for a few dollars a day. The movie opens with a huge line up of impoverished Indians who had responded to the promise of the filmmakers that everyone would be considered who showed up, which turned out to be the first of many promises they were unable to fulfil.

A leader among this straggle of impoverished people turned out to be a riveting personality called Daniel, played with extraordinary intensity by Juan Carlos Aduviri, who had turned up with his daughter, and whose demand that his daughter be given a chance to act in the movie attracted the attention of the filmmakers. Daniel was chosen to play the lead, but what the filmmakers did not know was that he was also the leader of an immense movement of the Indians who had taken to the streets to protest the handing over of the Cochambamba water supply to a private company.
This was a real event in Bolivia, fought by impoverished peasants against the local authorities.

When the filmmakers discovered this, when Daniel was arrested and beaten, they pleaded with him to stand aloof from the protest, at least until they had managed to shoot their essential scenes, and offered him a large bribe to do so. He took half of the money, but did not keep to his bargain, arguing, when upbraided by the producer, that the argument the Indians were undertaking was about water, that water was life, and the filmmakers did not understand the real priorities.

Thus the themes of colonialism, as illustrated by the story being told about Columbus, and of neo-colonialism, as illustrated by the behaviour of the film crew, and of the government in forcing the people to accept huge payments beyond their means for the very water they depended on for their lives, were intertwined from the beginning, and were forcing the filmmakers to act in the brutal way customary in colonies, whether of the ancient, or of the modern world.

The director of the film-within-the-film, played with a winning hesitancy and charm by the well-known actor Gael García Bernal, at first argued against accepting the ultimatum of the government that if Daniel was allowed to play his role in those essential scenes, then the producers should agree to surrender him to the army when they were finished, The producer agreed, the director did not. But later, after yet another violent demonstration, when Daniel’s daughter was injured and needed urgent medical attention, it was the producer whose heart melted and the director who insisted he must get his whole crew out of the area before they were endangered by the violence. In these shrewd plot twists the filmmaker, Senora Bollain did not dodge the fact that colonialist attitudes are human and stem from moral decisions made by those who are imposing their power on weaker groups.

This is the kind of decision that is seldom confronted in your usual Hollywood film: but it was confronted in this movie, and no one in the audience could have been left without knowledge about what was really involved in the story told by this movie.

The only film I can remember that dealt with this theme was Celui Qui Doit Mourier (He Who Must Die), the first film made in Europe by Jules Dassin in the 1950s, after he was exiled from the United States because of his political views, and incidentally the film in which he first met Melina Mercouri, the great Greek actress, who later became not only his wife, but a minister in the post-colonels government of Greece. Mercouri was such a figure that when she died more than a million people came out in the streets to be present at her funeral. The Dassin film was made from a Kazantzakis novel, and dealt with the ironies of a desperate group of refugees arriving in a Cretan village, and being rejected, as the villagers were mounting the annual Passion play, emphasizing the contrast between the cruel behaviour of the local powers, and the moral of the story they were telling.

In our own era, when such huge sums of money are spent on making the most trivial and absurd movies, it is good to be reminded by films such as Even the Rain, that films should be about the major problems confronting people, especially (at least in my view) the relationship between classes, between power and people, between decency, humanity, and naked greed.

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