On Hostile Land

in 32nd Jerusalem Film Festival

by José Luis Losa

A clear leitmotiv could be detected in the three most vibrant films in the first films section at the 32nd Jerusalem Film Festival, on which the FIPRESCI jury focused: the topic of racial minorities who live in their ancestral land that has become hostile to them. Such was the film our jury considered the best in the competition, the American Songs My Brothers Taught Me, directed by Chlöe Zao, which arrived from the Directors Fortnight at Cannes where it didn’t get the resonance it deserved.

Songs My Brothers Taught Meis a ballad about the Indian reservation Pine Ridge in South Dakota, where the notorious Wounded Knee massacre took place. Zao’s film takes place in present and talks about the situation of the remains of a culture and a race: uprooted and lacking any horizons, the complexity of relations with other peoples, not only North-Americans, but also Latin Americans immigrants.

The pressure endured by the Native Americans flows in Songs My Brothers Taught Me through the personal stories of two young brothers, their relationship with the oppressive past (a third brother in jail) and their struggle to reach an oasis of tenderness, or escape from their lethal land.

There are no melodramatic or tragic excesses in Zao’s camera, but a powerful lyricism, an elegiac tone rooted in an extraordinary knowledge of the language of the great classic movies. This first time director should be followed closely because her film echoes the works of filmmakers such as John Sayles, Amos Gitai and Emir Kusturica.

The Guatemalan film Ixcanul, directed by Jayro Bustamante, also speaks of indigenous fences. Already awarded in Berlin, where it received the Alfred Bauer Prize, and at the Festival of Guadalajara, Bustamante’s opera prima focuses on the Mayan population that survived the most brutal genocide known in Latin America. It tells the story of a 17 year old Mayan woman, who lives on the slopes of an active volcano in Guatemala. An arranged marriage awaits her. Although she dreams of seeing ‘the city’, her status as an indigenous woman does not allow her to go out into that ‘modern world’.

Bustamante films in a style that might be called “etno-realism”. He brings to the screen the life in the jungle of Kacdhiquel, near el Mozote, which was the Wounded Knee of the Mayans in Guatemala. The film’s cast is composed of indigenous non-professional actors who talks in their own language and relive what may have been their own existence. Vulcano is a work of realism without concession to sentimentality, endowed with a lavish visual treatment of Luis Armando Arteaga’s cinematography. It is an update of the classic neorealism, adapted with truth at the present time.

The third film our jury discussed in length was the outstanding 600 Miles (600 Millas) by Gabriel Ripsten, recognized in Berlin as best first film. This film deals with the dangerous life of weapon smugglers who cross the border between the United States and Mexico. A history of violence is contained inside the extraordinary explosiveness of the story of an ATF agent (Tim Roth) kidnapped by a Mexican smuggler who takes him on a long journey to his bosses. Roth’s other Mexican film, Michel Franco’s Chronic, was also screened in the Jerusalem festival.

The sense of cinematic tempo that matches the tension in 600 Miles makes for one of the greatest discoveries of the season. These three films about beings dramatically expelled from their natural territory to hostile land somehow acquired more resonance in the framework of the lively Jerusalem Film Festival.

Edited by Yael Shuv