Notes from the LFF: La jaula de oro/The Golden Dream (Diego Quemada-Díez, Mexico, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Latin American cinema, London Film Festival 2013, Transnational Cinema

In a Q&A session after the screening of The Golden Dream, director Diego Quemada-Díez compared his film to a western.

The film follows the journey of four youngsters travelling from Guatemala towards Los Angeles across Mexico – in a bid to have a better life in the north of America. They include Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Martínez), Samuel (Carlos Chajon) and an Indian boy, Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez).

During their arduous and unforgiving journey (not all them make it to the United States), we see Juan pose for a photo session dressed as a cowboy, while Chauk is dressed as an Indian.

Although the analogy is neither perfect (Juan is not necessarily a Yankee, even though he is both most determined and most successful in his bid to get to the USA) nor subtle (to have Chauk pose as a ‘Red Indian’ is something of an ‘obvious’ image), we sense nonetheless that Quemada-Díez is suggesting that the migration of Latin American peoples (here, from Guatemala) to the USA is a direct result of the settling in what was to become the USA of white Europeans.

That is, The Golden Dream seems to suggest that it is American/US history, replete as it is with imperial/economic expansion into the rest of the continent, alongside a longer history of European colonialism, that has caused the economic imbalances that lead to people wishing to travel north to places like Los Angeles in order not to live in a slum (Juan), and in order not to work on a garbage tip (Samuel).

However, where (in broad terms) the western is about the taming and ‘civilisation’ of nature, in particular via the suppression of the savage ‘Indian’, here nature is the dog-eat-dog world of the railways and stopovers that span the length of Mexico – and its conquest ultimately, for Juan, at least, is (*spoiler*) to eke out a similarly ‘bare’ life working in a meat factory north of the border.

That is, the ‘golden’/American dream is severely compromised – as in fact ‘civilisation’ has resulted in huge economic imbalances that in turn bring about a morality that is far removed from that of Ransom Stoddard and Will Kane. Indeed, The Golden Dream does not pull its punches in terms of showing how fraught life is for those on the margins of the USA and who are hopeful of ‘getting in’ (as one apparently ‘gets in’ to ‘the industry’ that is cinema – without any need to qualify ‘the industry’ as ‘the film industry’, since for many people the manufacture of images is the only industry that really counts).

Quemada-Díez also mentioned Eduardo Galeano’s blistering text, The Open Veins of Latin America, in his Q&A. In other words, he (Quemada-Díez) seems determined to locate his film within a history of exploitation that is indeed made most clear at the film’s climax in the meat factory: necessary labour is taken on without papers and job security, such that the USA is now importing from countries south of its border the single resource that is perhaps Latin America’s strongest, its human workforce.

The Golden Dream has an excellent bedfellow the similarly-themed and disturbing film, Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga, Mexico/USA, 2009), while also offering a similar structure to Michael Winterbottom’s masterful migration tale, In This World (UK, 2002).

Indeed, Winterbottom – among many other filmmaking luminaries, including Fernando Meirelles, Gillo Pontecorvo and others – is thanked in the film’s end credits. As are some 600 real-life migrants/would-be migrants whom the filmmakers encountered and filmed along the way during the film’s making.

Diego Quemada-Díez gives a Q&A at the London Film Festival 2013.

Diego Quemada-Díez gives a Q&A at the London Film Festival 2013.

Although staged, then, The Golden Dream is a strong film that has many documentary elements – not least real-life participants in such fraught journeys (Sara’s fate, in particular, is too horrific to recount here).

Nonetheless, The Golden Dream also features many poetic elements. Quemada-Díez has a fascination with trains – a key component of the journey, as well as using spaces that are former buildings now reclaimed by nature. It is as if we have, then, something like an anti-western – the return of the ‘wild’, the ‘savage’ to haunt the USA, because it is upon the wilderness and the ‘savage’ that the USA relies – much as the tradition of Thanksgiving is founded upon European settlers in America receiving aid from native Americans, who (broadly speaking) were then summarily exterminated in recognition of their help.

Particularly of interest is the way in which ‘dream’ images of snow, initially linked to Chauk, who has never seen snow, become the reality of Juan. It is problematic that the Indian boy must be sacrificed for Juan’s ‘dream’ to come true; but the truth is far from being as beautiful as a dream, and snow certainly is nothing like gold. One dreams of comfort, and instead one has cold.

One does wonder why Chauk’s native dialogue is not subtitled; while it conveys the way in which Juan, Sara and Samuel do not understand what he is saying, it also runs the risk of having Chauk appear an incomprehensible ‘other’, a fetishised ‘body’ who in fact cannot speak, because no one understands him. That is, while we in fact are given access to Chauk’s dreams (of snow) and visions (of Sara, after she has been separated from the boys), we are at risk of having no ‘real’ access to him, because we (Western viewers) are not privy to his words. The decision is as problematic, then, as it is pointed.

But Quemada-Díez has made a superior film about the issue of economic migration/would-be migration – and his ability to mix the documentary with the poetic, potentially problematic in that he might mythologise too much what is a real world issue, in fact seems sensitively handled and makes for harrowing viewing.

Brief thoughts around Iñárritu and Loach

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Spanish film, Transnational Cinema

Both Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico/Spain, 2010) and Route Irish (Ken Loach, UK/France/Italy/Belgium/Spain, 2010) hinge upon moments of great unbelievability. Or at least, moments that don’t, to me, quite add up.

In Biutiful, the film reaches its apex when Barcelona-based fixer Uxbal (Javier Bardem) buys some cheapo gas heaters for the illegal Chinese workforce of a local associate. It turns out that the heaters are dodgy, and as a result the immigrants stuffed into the basement all suffocate and die.

Without wishing too sound inconsiderate, this sequence pushes belief. Having idiotically left on overnight a gas hob connected to the mains (as opposed to a gas limited to the contents of a single tank), and in a space significantly smaller than the basement in Biutiful, and having lived to tell the tale, I find it hard to believe that this would happen. Not least because the basement in Biutiful has windows and a door, and the place does not seem as though it would be devoid of drafts.

That is to say, whether for reasons of ill judgement or otherwise, I found/find myself incapable of believing this twist in the film’s plot. And yet, as is perhaps to be understood, the accidental deaths of the Chinese workforce, indirectly Uxbal’s own fault, are supposed to be a defining moment in the film.

Hereafter, we are given a ride into Uxbal’s feelings of guilt. And herein is the fundamental problem, or, for me, weakness of Iñárritu’s film. For, the death of the Chinese labour force seems to be an excuse for Uxbal to exercise his sense of redemption and to exorcise his demons as he heads towards his own death. This is arguably made most clear by the conceit that Uxbal can see the dead – and that he can guide them through limbo to Heaven. That is, by seeing the dead, Uxbal arguably needs dead people to live. Rather than the film considering the dead Chinese workers as people, then, Biutiful treats them as an excuse for the journey of one man towards his own death. The film, finally, is Uxbal’s fantasy, then, perhaps even his own Heaven in that he is already ‘dead’ – and he needs the dead bodies of others to find his own way to Heaven.

Similarly, Route Irish sees the plot hinge upon a voicemail message left on a landline that, given the prevalence of mobile phones in the film, really should have been left on a mobile. Harim (Talib Rasool), a singer and translator, leaves a message for Fergus (Mark Womack) on his landline. In it, he explains/translates the voicemails and text messages left on another mobile phone belonging to a now deceased Iraqi boy. This mobile phone was sent to Fergus from his also deceased best friend Frankie (comedian John Bishop), and it contains evidence, in the form of a video, that could potentially lead to the conviction of a private security contractor, Nelson (Trevor Williams), who killed the Iraqi boy and whom Fergus also suspects of killing Bishop to save himself from investigation.

The coincidence is that the voicemail is discovered by Nelson as he goes through Fergus’ stuff in a bid to stop the story going any further.

As such, it is not that the voicemail on the landline is beyond the realms of possibility, but it is overtly functioning in the film as a plot driver, and as such sees the intrusion of artifice – much like the deaths of the Chinese workers in Biutiful – in a film that, even more than Biutiful, tries to ground itself in realism.

That the film then leads to Fergus enacting a prolonged revenge for Frankie’s death – killing Nelson, his two bosses Walker (Jeff Bell) and Haynes (Jack Fortune), and their secretary (whose name I cannot find) – suggests that Route Irish is similarly set up as Fergus’ own revenge fantasy.

Unlike Biutiful, Route Irish does see Harim explain that he should have released on to the internet the video on the phone of the assassination of the phone’s owner, his friend, and a taxi driver carrying a family in his ride. In this sense, more than Biutiful, Route Irish does try to emphasise the loss of life that its key incident entails.

However, both films seem to use the death of innocents as a reason to justify a narrative centered upon Western characters to put right wrongs that they have done. That is, the films both to a certain extent demean loss of life for the sake of Westerners’ redemption for their own wrongs.

To be fair to Route Irish, this is not the film’s only ‘purpose’ as I see it. It does also take swipes at the cowboy status of independent security contractors in Iraq, in that they are a law unto themselves, while also bringing to the fore the complexity of their job, in that they are under fire from local militants who do often look like civilians, and who do also use devices such as mobile phones to set off bombs. That is, in Iraq – and especially on Route Irish, the road that leads from Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone – one can easily lose one’s own life if one does not act in an overly cautious, but perhaps too aggressively a cautious, fashion. In other words, Route Irish does point out the lucrative and exploitative nature of independent security contract work in places like Iraq, while at the same time grounding what work those contractors do in real-life circumstances of kill or be killed – with ‘collateral damage’ a reality of this.

Furthermore, the film is also a critique of Fergus, a former soldier who saw a get-rich-quick opportunity in joining an independent security contractor firm, in that he cannot easily adjust back to normal life, is haunted by his own demons, and who cannot seemingly escape from the cycle of violence that going to Iraq commences. He is not ‘right’ in enacting his revenge, either, for he also kills the secretary, who is more or less marked as ‘collateral damage’ in the film beyond the ‘bad guys’ Haynes and Walker.

As it is, then, there are no easy answers offered by Route Irish. Even though Fergus talks about the poor behaviour of Americans in Iraq, the video track in the film sees him in flashbacks beating up Iraqi families, suggesting that he is at best being economical with the truth in his spoken account of events there. Fergus, then, is not beyond criticism.

However, the fact remains that both Biutiful and Route Irish take on heavy topics – contemporary migration and the war in Iraq respectively – and offer a predominantly ‘Eurocentric’ take on such matters. As such, the films are open to critique, for by being fantasies of redemption for their Western protagonists, they do not necessarily get to grips with the effects of the protagonists’ actions, and particularly those of others around them. Migration and Iraq, then, remain relatively unexplored in these films, which prefer instead to confer a central place to the paranoia and instability of their central characters.

This does not make the films ‘bad’ – and offering such a judgment is not necessarily the point of this blog. But it does perhaps point to the difficulty that filmmakers can have in offering up a truly balanced portrayal of contemporary events and concerns.