Friday, August 28, 2020

Communism to Tourism

Epicentro (2019) - Sauper
epicentro Hubert Sauper, known for his searing documentaries on the effect of globalization and legacy of colonialism on African continent, in Darwin's Nightmare and We Come as Friends, now turns his attention to the island nation of Cuba. But this time, instead of his journalistic, overtly expansive approach which was necessary to shed a light on the issues that no Western countries knew or cared about, Sauper takes more personal approach in Epicentro, perhaps because Cuba, the Caribbean island nation's reputation as America's longest running foe in such a close proximity, has been a known entity to most Westerners. This doesn't mean Epicentro lacks a bite on exposing and criticizing inhumane US policy on Cuba over the last 50 years and the new exploitation in the form of tourism. Blending cinema historionics and geopolitics Sauper creates something that feels pointy yet ethereal and deeply personal.

Sauper narrates briefly about the title of the film in the beginning. He calls Cuba the Epicenter of 3 dystopian chapters of history, the ingredients of building a modern empire - slave trade, colonization and globalization of power. You'd think it would be one of those third world poverty porn. but Epicentro is nothing but. Sauper's usual guerrilla style camera follows a handful subjects - mostly children whom he calls 'little prophets', as they go on about their daily lives - at school, at home, playing in the streets, taking dance lessons, etc. The most striking parts of these children are how vividly conscious about Cuba's place in the world as the sole remaining Communist regime (North Korea is something else entirely at this point) and proud to be standing up to the world's superpower up north for so long. Yes, there are elements of brainwashing, as they are constantly reminded in school and on the streets and on TV of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara's revolutionary rhetoric. But is that talk of self-reliance, cemented by decades of crippling economic sanctions, a bad thing? Whether it was Spaniards or Teddy Roosebelt, it was colonialism through and through. American invasion of Cuba in 1898 is based on the fake footage of USS Maine blowing up in which US government created in the bathtub with blowing cigar smoke and toy ships. Every Cuban knows this - the fact Sauper hits again and again throughout the film. Their literacy rate is staggering 96 percent.

First world arrogance is in full display - an American photographer snaps shots of the locals without any consent. They are used to this. Kids pose for him. He goes into their courtyards, snapping copious amount of pictures, through the windows even. Kids ask him for something in return. He gives the kid a pen, turns to the camera and say, "they should be honored to be photographed by me." An old German tango dancer, who is in Havana for 2 weeks, wants to show off his tango in school in front of kids doing ballet lessons. A teacher lets him, while kids snicker in the background.

Talking with the cadre of ex-pats and locals, Sauper juxtaposes the folly and absurdism of tourism industry. It is revealed that the director is a son of innkeepers in small Austrian resort town. In conversation, his friend says there are two types of people - there are normal human beings and there are tourists. There are luxury hotels that only American and European tourists stay. One of the main subject, Leonelli, a beautiful and bright little girl wants Sauper to sneak her and her friends in to the hotel so they can use the pool on the roof. They have a plan. Sauper will pretend they are his kids.

The director's whiteness and his camera adds another dimension to the film. Sure he has been invested in other parts of the world and their people. He speaks their language. But ultimately, he is a foreigner. How do you reconcile that he is there making a film? How much of a blending in really make you a 'normal people' instead of a 'tourist'?

Sauper ties the idea of modern day Cuba, full of intact 50s archetypes - cars, buildings as fiction that provides false narrative for tourists and of cinema: how they resemble, by way of presenting fiction, tourism. Cinema is all make believe anyway.

Unlike his other documentaries, Epicentro is filled with sense of joy and buoyancy. The flow of tying ideas together - past/present, reality/fiction, normal person/tourist, seems natural and even spontaneous. These ideas are imbued in the presence of Oona Chaplin, a Hollywood actress and a granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and daughter of Geraldine. She enacts scenes with Leonelli, sings impromptu Spanish songs with her guitar, an attends the screening of a Chaplin film to the delight of kids.

Epicentro is an intimate, fluid, ethereal film while still being sharp edged in condemnation of the globalization and colonial history. It's one of the truly great documentaries of 2020.

Epicentro launches in Virtual Cinemas on August 28.

Solidarity in Humanity

Ghost Tropic (2019) - Devos
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Flemish director Bas Devos' debut Violet had made an indelible impression on me back in 2015 when I caught it in New Directors/New Films series. With his painterly frames and quiet yet effective use of sound design made it one of the most memorable debut films in recent memory. Ghost Tropic, his new film, not only is just as beautiful and lyrical as Violet, it also quietly reinforces solidarity and comfort in humanity, not as so much words, but rather in images.

It starts with a static shot of an ordinary living room. Devos holds it for a good 3 minutes. Lights change and day becomes night. In a hushed small voice, the narrator, our nameless heroine, wonders if this lived in space would have as much meaning to a stranger or if we would be ashamed of it. By the end of the film, we realize that we are left with a collective memories of human connection.

Our heroine (Saadia Bentaïeb), a middle aged cleaning lady of the Middle-Eastern origin, at a large corporate building, is first seen laughing at a bad joke of a colleague. Their shift is over and they are packing up to go home for the night. The Brussels city streets are understandably deserted. She stops at an illuminated advertisement for a tropical vacation. You can almost hear the sound of tropics. She boards an almost empty train and falls asleep with the sound of tropical bird singing. Then she misses her stop.

So begins the all night adventure of the cleaning lady. This might not sound like much for a film, but with each encounters and imbued images, Devos builds layers of nuanced nightscape of urban loneliness, isolation but also seldom seen human connections among menial workers. The result is lyrical, fleeting sense of worker solidarity without ever delving into being preachy or corny.

Being left at the end of the train line, on the other side of the city, the lady calls her son, Bilal, hoping he will pick her up. But it's very deep in the night. All she can do is leaving him a message. In order to get cash from the bank machine, possibly for a cab ride, she gets into the shopping mall, by the grace of a sympathetic night watchman there. But then she realizes she doesn't have any money in the bank. The night watchman tells her where the bus station is and they bid farewell. But unfortunately, the bus is out of service.

She finds a homeless man on the street, slumped over and not breathing. His dog barks, cautiously. She calls 911. Who's going to care for the dog? A young medic says he will just tie him on the pole nearby until the homeless man gets back. She is worried about the dog being cold, but has to move on.

The lady gets some hot tea from a convenience store. A young woman clerk takes a pity on her and lets her stay a while, since it's cold outside, but only until closing time. The clerk ends up giving the lady a ride home in her car. They talk briefly about their lives. Nothing special. Just a chat: a dead husband. A divorce. Missing him vs. not missing him. And so on.

The lady spots her teenage daughter on the street with bunch of her young friends. She gets off the car and exchange goodbyes with the clerk.

Her daughter has her own life, the lady sees from a distance.

She stops in at an empty house where she used to clean for a family. Yet it seems someone's living there secretly. There are toys lined up on the floor. A young Arab man from the inside the house notices her looking through the window. He brings his finger to his lips. Does she report it or keep this encounter a secret?

And so on and so on. The midnight adventure of a cleaning lady continues. With each encounter and human interaction fleeting. You feel the warmth of their exchange just as of the mint tea she is drinking. You can feel the hot breath of a night watchman as he exhales his vanilla flavored electric cigarette. There is even room for a small miracle involving the dog which was left behind.

Gorgeously shot on full frame, the strength of the film is, again, in its delicate images. It's in shots of glistening plastic chairs, empty streets, a glow of a mobile phone, flickering distant headlights of traffic. I've seen some gorgeous nighttime cinematography in my time but nothing imbues more urban loneliness and isolation than images presented in Ghost Tropic. It's up there with Chantal Akerman's Toute une nuit and Nan Goldin's nighttime photography. Yet there is unmistakable warmth in those images too.

Devos created something magical here with Ghost Tropic. Quietly enchanting and delicate in its beauty, the film lingers in your mind long after its initial viewing.

Ghost Tropic opens virtually on 8/28 via Cinema Guild