The Cycle of Poverty: Offerings for the Poor By Rachael Turk
by Rachael Turk
Against a global backdrop in which corporatisation is in crisis, environmental stability crumbling and consumerism out of control, a significant number of films in the “Horizons” and “Critics’ Week” sections demonstrate a preoccupation with the issue of poverty and the power of the individual in breaking free from it.
In the 450-minutes-long Filipino sepia epic Melancholia, a nun walks through the streets of Sagada, a town struggling to reconstruct itself. She carries a clearly labelled charity bucket and calls repeatedly “For the poor? Charity for the poor?” In turn, she comes across a prostitute and a pimp, and between these three archetypes unfolds a debate about exploitation, religion and salvation. The question of divine power versus human attributed rights is also questioned in France’s North Coast (L’Exil et le Royaume), in which the disenfranchised of Calais fight to reclaim their social rights and reinvent their existence.
Zero Bridge (India/USA) examines the struggle to stay good amongst a world that almost demands crime just to survive. Though gentler in tone, Bosnian offering Nightguards (Cuvari noci) also questions the value of a life — “Health? Family? Possessions?” — its characters presiding over showrooms filled with products they are unlikely to ever afford.
In American/Italian documentary Below Sea Level, a collection of broken souls gathers in the desert, claiming to have chosen a life “off the track”. The question of choice is gradually eroded, however, as we realise the various reasons — emotional as well as legal — why they can never return to civilisation.
Several films in these sections focus on children — French/Italian/Romanian co-production PA-RA-DA looks at the tragedies unfolding underneath the Metro stations, where homeless children band together in their daily struggle for survival. It’s ultimate metaphor is the human pyramid; that is to say that only united can the unfortunate stand tall. The heartbreaking French/Brazilian documentary Because we were born (Puisque nous sommes nés) struggles even to find that hope: “We work and we have nothing better,” says its 13-year-old lead, who talks of ending his life just to stop the interminable suffering that characterises the life of him and his family.
The recurring theme seems to be whether or not the cycle of poverty is avoidable — from the level of the personal to the national, is global distribution of wealth amenable? Does capitalism offer the chance to overcome it, or is it the ongoing cause of such desperate inequality?
In a twist on this idea, two films express the way in which capitalist gain can itself be a source of personal imprisonment. Norwegian offering Lunch (Lonsj) shows characters completely paralysed in their bourgeois existence. In the unnerving French film Parc, the central metaphor is in fact a gate. With a cleverly discordant soundtrack reminiscent of David Lynch or Gus Van Sant and a brooding palette lit with spotfires of red, tales unfold within a “gated community” of arsonist strikes on local cars and McDonalds outlets, while the depressed son of a leading community figure laments: “I feel like a character on a TV show. They could switch me off at the press of a button”. It is quite literally, says director Arnaud des Pallières, a “crucifixion of the Western ideal of happiness”.
On both sides of the fence, it seems, themes are characters by a sense of loss of control. And in a world where corporate values of the West and older religions are being questioned in equal measure, it is perhaps fitting that this should find expression in the sideline sections of contemporary global cinema.