Realism that Perpetuates Just One Kind of Reality

in 29th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Jose Ramon Otero Roko

The Hours with You (Las Horas Contigo, 2014), by Mexican director Catalina Aguilar Mastretta, won our FIPRESCI award at the Guadalajara International Film Festival, one of the most important prizes in Latin American cinema. However, starting in this edition our choice was limited to Mexican fiction feature films shown in both the official and parallel sections.

The competition, reduced to just twelve works, included a large number of films which could be included in a genre Mexican critics call “miserabilista” (“miserabilist”) which focus on the poor conditions of everyday life. These films feature characters in a completely adverse social environment that is seen as normal and indisputable, who are collectively unable to escape from this context. All that is left are demands for a certain level of personal autonomy which, with much sacrifice, can become a platform for salvation for them or at least for those in their closest circles. There is no redemption for the exploited, marginalized or fearful. There are no sharp shocks, only resignation and atonement.

The characters are left with just two options, submission or flight. This is the case of the film by Damian John Harper entitled Los Angeles (Los Ángeles, 2014), in which a Zapotec Indian joins a group of hoodlums while waiting for his family to come up with the money for him to cross the border illegally. Or Go on Living (Seguir viviendo, 2013), by Alejandra Sánchez, in which the two children of a social activist who has been shot by drug traffickers in Ciudad Juarez flee with the help of an honest journalist who cannot continue working in that part of Mexico. Or also Perpetual Sadness (La Tirisia, 2013), by Jorge Pérez Solano, in which the only thing women have is their bodies and these must be given up constantly to men as work tools providing sexual pleasure, or used as incubators for new inhabitants from an irrefutable environment which, according to the viewpoint of these directors, will simply be perpetuated. There is no aspect in the films that suggests to the viewers that such conditions can be subverted. There is no hope. The social realism in these films does not work as a denouncement, simply a statement regarding the paralysis of those who are able to make decisions to change it.

This cinema’s resignation also goes against part of the reality of the situation in Mexico and Latin America, for we are well aware of thousands of cases of communities and organizations which rebel against this determinism and are accepted and supported by those who do feel concerned, precisely not as viewers of these films but as citizens. That is why the protests only appear tangentially in two films, Tempest Aside (Viento aparte, 2014), by Alejandro Gerber Bicecci, where a photojournalist takes photographs of peasants being murdered and a road being blocked to protest against these events, who is later murdered, and Open Cage (Los Bañistas, 2014) by Max Zunino, where the protests made by a group of students who have set up camp in the middle of the capital are never explained and are used by the director to simply develop a portrait, once again, of flight; of the impossibility of finding another life plan other than those which can be built in a couple’s most intimate surroundings. A couple that isn’t even in love, just resigned to the fact of finding their future by escaping from those who make life impossible.

This miserabilism, or taste for exclusively showing the reality of those who are unable to change it, appears not only in Mexican cinema but also in a sizeable area of the Latin American cinema that is extensively viewed in cinema shows and festivals. This is perhaps due to the way such themes are dealt with; they not only fail to upset the institutional power, but actually shore it up, because they also rock the viewers from developed countries who feel empathy for the docile behavior and which, excused by it, see themselves freed from questioning themselves, and taking sides, about the ultimate source of the living conditions of these majorities.

In the films that were under the scrutiny of FIPRESCI one such film, Port Father (Puerto Padre, 2013) by Gustavo Fallas is exemplary. This is a coproduction between Costa Rica and Mexico that features an array of archetypal characters from this defeated, resigned social fabric. Here we see the son of a prostitute who serves in the same hotel as his mother and for whom there can be no other future than to get a job on one of the tourists cruisers that call at the port, and the hotel maid who is also prostituted by the owner of the establishment, or the boss who is devoutly religious and tortures the maid by hitting her with a crucifix. And the patriarch, who is senile, perhaps as a way of isolating himself from the moral misery that surrounds him. The most shocking of all is that there is a note of style that is constantly repeated in this kind of film. The finale is inconclusive, and remains open to continuity and for the same, or even worse, circumstances to be repeated. The aim seems to be none other than showing us the defeated ones who are unable to overcome their fate and for us to also consider ourselves defeated.

In this contest of Mexican fictional feature films staged in Guadalajara we saw just one film which is paradoxically seen from the viewpoint of a bourgeois and empowered class, that presents the necessary shocks to offer a constructive reflection which, in the end, justifies any social structure, and deals with managing life and death. In The Hours with You, the winning film, we meet three female characters, the grandmother, mother and daughter, who have to face up to managing their affection and beliefs as the older woman approaches death. The granddaughter, who is pregnant and has doubts over whether she wants to have the baby or not, is a woman who has been brought up by her grandmother and is highly dependent upon her. Her mother is a completely independent woman (precisely because she has succeeded both professionally and economically in life) and holds certain values that go against those of her mother’s generation and also curiously, those held by her daughter, for whom this radical independence has gone much further than the younger woman believes nowadays should be allowed while she takes on the responsibilities of adulthood. This is what precisely drives her sensitivities. For the grandmother the obligation lies with her children and grandchildren. For the mother this obligation lies mostly with the life she has built up thanks to her own efforts. For the daughter, the commitment is with the one who gave birth to her and the one who brought her up. It is a credible portrait because the conditioning circumstances that the three generations have experienced may explain each of their positions.

However following the style which, we must not forget, is conventional and middle class and switches between intimacy and tenderness with an interesting critique of the institution of the family and the role of religion, the last rung of the ladder, that of the younger woman’s determination to take a step back from the rights gained by her mother’s generation, is regrettably achieved in a conservative way with no chance of redemption in modernity. The children, as Catalina Aguilar tells us, are unable to achieve as much as their parents and the future bears more reference to the world our grandparents knew than that of the last thirty years of the 20th century from which her mother hails. It is therefore in this aspect of a conformist view, with the peculiar aspect that, although the characters are not defeated and to a certain extent control their life plans, the general features merely raise questions concerning the closest aspects, with no chance of this extending to the community and inverting this trend. Hence, the mother’s character, the most attractive one, has failed to instill the rebellious nature upon her daughter, perhaps because in her upbringing ideology has come before affection. And defending her own lifestyle has turned her into a rather selfish person according to herself. However, the traditional aspect represented by the grandmother has the quality of being unconditional. And in a world where trust in a transforming future collective project has disappeared, the old order has the advantage of taking for granted that all her promises will be kept, however much this idyllic past becomes more unreal, even more utopian, than that of whosoever plans their wishes in the present and future.

Every film shown to the public offers a paradigm whether wanting to or not. It is naive to tell a story thinking the message will be limited to the sensitivity of the viewers, who, after the film, would take part in a situation presented that offers no options, no prospects, no hope. On the contrary, these portraits lead us to nihilism, they are counterproductive because we are unable to see where we fit in to become involved and react against this injustice and thus they perpetuate the mechanism of sadness and oblivion which so favors the impunity of those who cause the harm. They fill us with prejudice and do not allow us to decode the events for we distrust our will of interpreting the world. Between building myths and the epic poetry of certain archetypal characters in other genres of cinema, and completely disallowing any chance for the characters to become emancipated in some films we have seen in Guadalajara, there still remain a range of models in which we can see ourselves and in which one can find examples that might not please the mainstream, the producers, television stations or the distribution channels, but which are precisely the ones that justify creating and being created in this world we live in.

Edited by Carmen Gray