Yo, también/Me Too (Antonio Naharro/Álvaro Pastor, Spain, 2009)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Spanish film, Uncategorized

I saw Yo también as part of the recent London Spanish Film Festival 2010.

The turnout was excellent and, judging from the laughter induced by the advert from the Spanish Tourist Office which culminates in a relatively wealthy British wife and mother declaring “I need Spain,” the audience was predominantly Spanish.

The laughter continued into Yo, también itself, which, admittedly, is often a funny film. It tells the story of Daniel (Pablo Pineda), the first person with Down’s Syndrome to graduate from university in Spain. Daniel starts to work with the Seville council team, where he spots and then meets Laura (Lola Dueñas). He falls in love with Laura, who has 46 chromosomes, and who, according to various characters in the film, is an unsuitable partner for him.

However, in spite of the supposed disadvantage that Daniel has, he develops a strong friendship with Laura, a Madrileña who is going through something of a personal crisis in Seville (escaping from a relationship with her father that may well have been abusive) – and eventually, though for one night only, they become lovers.

Daniel is articulate and witty – rebuffing all of the unthinkingly prejudiced things that people say against him as the film develops – in particular attitudes regarding his sexuality and, by extension, the sexuality of Down sufferers in general. “Have you ever thought about prostitution?” Laura asks him at one point, making reference to the fact that Daniel finds it hard to control his sexual urges. “Do you think women would pay to sleep with me?” replies Daniel.

There is even a scene in which Daniel mocks those who are mentally disabled by hitting himself repeatedly over the head as Laura explains in a lift and in front of two onlookers that she is not interested in him as a lover. As Laura tells him to stop acting “subnormal,” the female onlooker rebukes Laura for talking that way to someone who is obviously ‘afflicted,’ which prompts Daniel – and then Laura – to burst out laughing. It is the prejudices of the onlookers that have been exposed, not those of Laura – and Daniel is mischievously pleased with pointing this out.

As Sharon Willis, among many others, has noticed, difference is a core part of the study of film: how film portrays people who are of different colours, different creeds, different nationalities, and different sexualities. Some films even attempt to address how mainstream cinema stereotypes, say, old people, although the issue of age difference (whether between people in relationships or just the treatment of old age in general) is underexplored. Similarly, ‘disability’ is relatively unexplored in cinema, even though Oscar perenially hands over his greatest prizes to ‘abled’ actors performing semi-retarded people (although as we have learned from Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, USA, 2008), he rarely gives awards to actors who go “full ‘tard”).

And so in many respects, Yo, también is an important film to counter the prejudices of ‘abled’ audiences towards people suffering from Down’s Syndrome. Although that Daniel can mock – lovingly or otherwise – people who are mentally handicapped in other ways does beg the question about ‘hierarchies’ of disability.

Daniel is educated – something the film makes clear that he owes to his parents: his mother (Isabel García Lorca, a niece or great-niece of Federico García Lorca) treated him normally, insisted that he go to school, and regularly reads to him in English, while his father (Pedro Álvarez-Ossorio) is a university professor, who similarly, we presume, treats Daniel like a normal human being. And because Daniel is educated, he has gained access to a different world not normally open to people with Down’s – or people who suffer from other physical and/or mental disabilities: he can look down upon those who do not share his abilities.

This is manifested in the film by the way in which Daniel does not take part in the dance classes organised for Down’s people by his brother Santi (Antonio Naharro, one of the directors of the film) and his sister-in-law-to-be, Reyes (María Bravo). Daniel in fact says that he does not like to dance, and only does so in the film with Laura when he is drunk. Otherwise, repeatedly we see Daniel looking down at the dance classes from an elevated position behind a glass partition. That is, Daniel is physically separated from the ‘normal’ Down’s people in the film – suggesting that he has, through his education, reached a ‘higher’ position in life.

Daniel is laudible: the film opens with an impassioned speech that he gives at a conference, and in which he asks that Down’s people be treated as equals to abled humans – particularly by giving them work to do. Obviously, Daniel has work. While it is rare that we ever see anyone actually doing their mundane daily grind in great detail in movies, it is striking that we never really see Daniel doing any work at the council. Instead, he mucks around at the photocopier and he gazes longingly at the women in the office, including Laura. What is striking is my own prejudice that was revealed to me: for, if I never normally question a ‘normal’ person’s ability to carry out work when watching movies, here I found myself wondering whether Daniel was in fact doing any work – or whether he was being retained by the council as a gesture towards equality. I should have supposed that of course Daniel can do this work, but I do suffer from lingering suspicions. (This despite having many years ago worked with a capable man with Down’s in a bar while at university.)

What condescension I have, though, I wonder Daniel also has. His education has made him an exception and, as Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has argued in a vastly different context, exceptions prove the rule; they are a product of the rule; they are inside that from which they are made outside when they become exceptional. The rule to which Daniel is an exception is the rule that Down’s sufferers are not allowed to work. But Daniel perhaps reinforces that rule as opposed to challenging it – not least because he is so insistently marked as different from the other Down’s sufferers, as suggested by the use of space in the dance hall.

In this respect, by telling us the story of Daniel, who is exceptional, we get little, or at the very least less, insight into the lives of others with Down’s, the lives of ‘normal’ Down sufferers. That is, Daniel through his education does not have to suffer so much from the prejudices of others – and can even mock the prejudiced (and, indirectly, those with ‘greater’ disabilities than himself). But how about showing us the hardships of those who do not have the advantages that Daniel has? If actors don’t get Oscars for going full ‘tard, so, too, have the makers of Yo, tamién told us a story about someone who is ‘normal’ enough – thanks to his education – so as not to be alienating to audiences.

But by paying such respect to audiences, the film’s ambitions are revealed as being somewhat slight. That is to say, yes, the film rightly raises awareness about the wants, needs and desires of people commonly thought of as disabled, but who want to and can in fact be contributing members of society. But it does not take us fully into the world of those with Down’s – using the educated Daniel instead as a mollification of an existence that people might not otherwise want to see but which, if they truly wanted to see or know the toughness and resilience that presumably are involved in the life of a Down’s sufferer, they perhaps should see.

Let’s not overlook the important love affair that takes place in the film between Luisa (Lourdes Naharro, presumably a relative of Antonio) and Pedro (Daniel Parejo), two Down sufferers whose relationship is seemingly outlawed by both the dance school at which they are partners, and by Luisa’s baker-mother. They run away and in a telling scene, they mock Daniel for his condescending manner towards them in explaining safe sex to them. As Daniel puts a condom on a banana, Luisa tells him that it is not an erect penis, but a banana. Daniel eats the banana – perhaps having seen something of his exclusion-through-education from his ‘own’ group.

Luisa, in perhaps the film’s most powerful scene, then tells her mother that she needs to live alone and be an independent woman. This is a key moment in the film, and there is much in these moments that contradicts aspects of the arguments I have so far been making in this blog. But on another level, one wonders why the film was not about Luisa and Pedro from the off…

Sex looms large in Yo, también. Daniel looks at porn on his computer at home and we have access to his fantasies about his co-workers dressed in bondage gear, bikinis, and the like. He lusts after Laura something silly. And sex between a Down sufferer and a ‘normal’ person seems to be the big taboo broken in this film. More heartbreaking, though, is the proscription of sex between Down sufferers that people try to place on Luisa and Pedro.

Furthermore, while the film has a liberal attitude towards sex in some respects (even Down sufferers want it and should be allowed to have it – with whomever they please), the film also rehashes stereotypical sexist points of view, in that Daniel lusts after women in quite a reactionary way. He has fallen in ‘love’ with Laura, it seems, before he has spoken to her – and so his conception of love and desire is as objectifying of women as it is ‘normalising’ of Down sufferers, in that we understand ‘them’ (as us) to have sexual desires and, perchance, needs. ‘I have a right to desire,’ the films seems to say; ‘but I also have a right to objectify women’ is the problematic point of view also put forward.

Finally, as the film was introduced, the speaker comented on the power of Dueñas’ performance as Laura. Surely Dueñas is excellent in this role. However, no mention was made of the Down actors. It seemed almost as if their performances were not registered as performances because they are, after all, full ‘tards already: the implication is that theirs are not performances.

And so while Daniel is self-consciously a performer within the film, Pineda, Naharro and Parejo, among others, receive no credit for their equally excellent performances.

When earlier I wondered that we perhaps need a film about ‘normal’ Down sufferers, unlike Daniel who has had a long and thorough education, a question is raised. Am I asking for a film made by a Down sufferer? Am I asking for a documentary about the condition? It is easy to imagine at times that Yo, también is a documentary/that this is not a performance. This is one of the chief tricks that the film pulls off in order to hide the elements within it that are retrograde (the singling out a single, ‘special’ hero whose specialness lies in being more like ‘us’ than ‘we’ thought others of his ‘kind’ to be – i.e. his specialiness lies in being not very special, in the sense of unique or different to us, at all – even if this marks him out as different to other Down sufferers; furthermore, the latent sexism in the film is also covered over in this way).

To give the Down actors their due as actors would be to make more prominent the at-times problematic (to me) politics of the film. This is not a fault with the film itself, which does credit the actors. But I wonder that the introduction which singled out Dueñas and not the Down performers reveals something odd – a hypocrisy of sorts, in that the film calls for Down’s people to be considered equals, and yet already they are removed from the system of judgment that is involved in rating a performance as good or bad. Furthermore, to do this (to assume that these are somehow not performances) means that we do not judge, say, Daniel’s sexism as precisely that, sexism, because we are instead induced into thinking ‘aw, Daniel/Pineda is being himself, we cannot judge him, the poor tot, because of his disability.’

Au contraire. Nobody’s perfect, as we know from Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, USA, 1959). But we live in a world where criticism and critiques are made and, painful though criticism often is for those receiving it, these are always ways for us to conceptualise and then perhaps to act upon ways of being ‘better’ people, perhaps even happier people. Treating Down’s sufferers with kid gloves will only perpetuate preconceptions of/prejudices against disability. Daniel’s a smart guy – he can come to understand that he should not treat women the way that he does. So let’s tell him what perhaps he already knows/learns in the film: don’t look down on others if you can help it. Then they will not perhaps look down on you (no pun intended).

One thought on “Yo, también/Me Too (Antonio Naharro/Álvaro Pastor, Spain, 2009)

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