To Our Eyes Only

in 19th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by José Carlos Avellar

Coincidence made the first printed issue of The Thinking Eye, the on-line magazine on Latin American cinema, appear at the same time as three films whose first image — the one in the title — is the eye: “Ojos que no ven” (What the Eye Doesn’t See) by Francisco Lombardi, “Yo no sé qué me han hecho tus ojos” (I Don’t Know What Your Eyes Have Done To Me) by Sergio Wolf and Lorena Muñoz and “Te doy mis ojos” (Take my Eyes) by Iciar Bollaín.

[A coincidence, but a very special one in a film festival, the field where we are all used to playing the “eyes wide open” game: an exchange through which the filmmaker gives his eyes to the spectator, who gives his eyes to the film, which gave his eyes to the outside or inside reality to see even what is off-field.]

From the opening film, Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers”, to Marcos Bernstein’s “O outro lado da rua” (The Other Side of the Street), on special screening during the closing awards ceremony, the Muestra de Guadalajara presented some 150 films (new Mexican and Ibero-American fictions, documentaries and short films), some of which were made — and this time not by chance — for our eyes only. Some very different examples:

Brazilian documentary the “Omnibus 174”, by Jose Padilha, brings to our eyes a tragedy that took place in June 2000 in Rio de Janeiro: a young man armed with a gun took over a bus and held the passengers hostage. To show this episode, Padilha organized all the material presented live by TV reporters (the kidnapping was on TV uninterruptedly for some four hours). More exactly: he carefully viewed again and again all the material captured by TV cameras, analyzed the shots an looked in the background for people that where there and could be interviewed, and finally edited the images leading the audience to take the same road he chose to take with the film: to see again and again and again what happened in order to think (with the eyes) about what happened and to ask how it could have happened that way.

A first feature film, Mexican “Temporada de patos” (Duck Season) by Fernando Eimbcke brings to our eyes an almost inexistent story line (the mother goes out on a Sunday afternoon, the young son stays home playing videogames with a friend, with some money to order a pizza and a Coke). The hall, the kitchen, and the bathroom of a small apartment; the sofa, the television set, a painting, some porcelain vases or plates on the wall, an over-baked cake and a pizza — that’s all. In this closed space we have the two kids and two other characters passing by: a young girl that came to cook the cake and the pizza delivery boy. What really happens in the film is not exactly what the camera sees but how the camera sees it: the way it looks, in a calm mood (the viewer looking at the kids from the videogame’s point of view), in a funny one (the viewer seeing the girl’s arrival through the distortion of the peep-hole on the door), or openly ironical one (the viewer seeing the pizza deliverer in the painting of the lake with ducks). Most of the time, we are just looking at the kids playing video, or playing with the pizza deliverer (who arrives 11 seconds late and according to the rules should deliver the pizza for free) or with the girl, their same age, trying to make a cake. There isn’t exactly a story here, only pictures presented for our eyes, like the painting on the wall that in a certain way suggests the film’s title.

There was also a film that took a purely visual starting point to organize its dramaturgical construction — as the Mexicans “Adán y Eva (todavía)” by Iván Dueñas and “Sobreviviente” (Survivor) by Jesús Magaña. It was Julio Bressane’s “Filme de amor” (A Love Movie), based on a dialogue with painting – as the Mexican examples came from a conversation with certain new video and traditional underground cinema experiments. No story, just a situation (three friends, a man and two women, get together in a small apartment for the weekend to escape from their mediocre daily life) and painting (especially Balthus’) are the bases of the purely visual narratives of this film. What we can see here in a most radical way is something that the most relevant films we saw in the Guadalajara festival have in common; even in the one that was perhaps the strongest, and in a certain way the most classically structured of all, “Te doy mis ojos”.

A first look at Iciar Bollaín’s film just introduces the viewer to its anecdote, a situation strong enough to concentrate the spectator’s attention, and that demands immediate discussion. The human question it poses, the brutality and humiliation that men impose on their wives, looks more relevant and urgent to discuss than cinematographic or artistic questions; and facing questions like the ones the film poses is more or less the common way of looking through this film (as if the film were not there) just to see the issues it presents (as if the viewer shared the film’s reality). But if we do not look at the film as a film, as a dramatic construction built for our eyes only, we will skip the best things it shows us. As the title clearly points out, Iciar Bollaín’s film invites us — in a very sophisticated way — to participate once again in cinema’s “eyes wide open” game. “Take my Eyes” is not only what the film proposes the viewer, and what Pilar proposes her husband; it is also what Antonio, Pilar’s violent husband, proposes the viewer. It is of course easier and more natural for the viewer to accept Pilar’s proposal than Antonio’s. But the film actually moves as if it were mostly interested in understanding what could not be in any way understood, accepted, explained. If not to understand, at least to look at this inhuman human being.

In the middle of the night a woman leaves her home with her son Juan, moving as fast as she can and with a mask of fear on her face. She goes to her sister’s house and asks to stay for a while. The next day, Pilar’s sister goes back to her apartment to get her some clothes and finds medical reports that reveal Pilar is being victim of her husband’s constant violence. From this moment on, the film speaks about domestic violence without really showing any brutal action. Nevertheless, we must say there is at least one especially violent moment, not depicting open physical aggression, but another kind just as brutal: the scene in which Antonio humiliates his wife by ripping off the dress she had put on for a job interview, and throws her out naked to the apartment’s balcony while shouting at her. Yes, there are a few other terrible moments like this, with the enraged husband kicking the car in the middle of the road, or threatening the terrorized face of his wife. But it is not really the kind of visible aggression we could expect from a film with such a storyline. Actually, the brutality that is not directly visible or physical reaches the eye of the spectator in a more brutal way: the menace is there all the time; the aggression is there all the time in the way Pilar later exposes to a policeman that cannot understand what she is saying: “There are no visible marks of violence on the body; he beat me inside”.

What the film does is try to see inside this brutal character that beats — mostly, but not only — inside. By showing one last attempt of Pilar’s to come back home and lead a normal life with her husband and child, or by showing Antonio’s first attempt to analyze his violent jealousy and change his life at home, “Take my Eyes” is not exactly trying to understand or forgive Antonio, but to look at him. Maybe to avoid leaving him in the background as a kind of beast (which he is in a certain way) that does not belong to our world and as a curse fallen from hell over an innocent character. The most violent thing in this story of domestic violence is that the violent husband looks, at first sight, like everybody else. His brutality is something that the naked eye does not see. The eye, here, needs a cinematic eye.