Fruits of labor

Pub date March 22, 2011
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm Features

FILM One of the first things cinema learned to say was “you are there.” The Lumières sent their lightweight cameras around the world and were soon able to transport their Parisian audience to remote settings — a fine flexing of industrial capitalism. If Werner Herzog used to have the market on art-cinema primitivism cornered, the recent films making up the “First Person Rural” series at the Pacific Film Archive take a different tack, disavowing outlandish narratives of madness and expedition for reality-hungry visions of work and rough beauty. As a group, they privilege phenomenal experience to exposition; affective texture to intelligibility; nonverbal utterance to patent explication. They often seem more in line with epic poetry than documentary realism.

Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s stoic debut La Libertad (2001) led the way to many of the decade’s shorn agricultural narratives. To begin, we watch a young man work a tree into lumber and eat and nap in a lean-to a few shades rougher than Thoreau’s Walden. In the film’s second half, the man turns his labor into capital, transporting, selling, and spending before returning to camp to eat a freshly caught armadillo as lightning flashes in the distance. The slow time of the man’s routines defines the temporality of the film, and Alonso’s bold compositions in turn monumentalize the man’s tasks. What to make of this aesthetic surplus of the man’s labor remains an open question.

The issue of poetic license is even more pressing in Agrarian Utopia (2009), a work of social (hyper) realism focused on a family of Thai subsistence farmers. In contrast to their crushing penury is the rich HD cinematography: every grain of rice and droplet of water makes its stunning mark. Hitching scripted social drama to a loose documentary style joining scenes, director Urophong Raksasad proposes three possible utopic frameworks for the farming family: urban demonstrations calling for political reform, a hippie neighbor’s sustainable farming practices, and the ecstatic vision of the camera itself. The limitations of the first two should give us pause over the third; this is the rare film about poverty that doesn’t imagine its lyricism as a redemptive force.

There’s no question of any kind of utopia in Eugenio Polgovsky’s Tropic of Cancer (2004), a video report from the Mexican desert that’s bruising and cunning in equal measure. Polgovsky shows us the hard lives of peasants who scour the arid landscape for (unfriendly) critters they can sell alongside a godforsaken highway. Their middle-class customers seem primarily concerned with animals’ living conditions — one of many bitter ironies registered in Polgovsky’s sharply assertive montage.

Strong as it is, Tropic of Cancer doesn’t cry out for repeat viewings — not the case with Sweetgrass (2010) and Alamar (2009), both among the finest films of recent years. With Sweetgrass especially, it’s only after you’ve surrendered to its sensory richness as a recording (the multichannel sound mix combines with the physical camerawork for a nearly Whitmanesque extension of perception) that you can begin to digest its cross-purposed contemplation of the final sheep drive across a mountainous western-mythic landscape.

Writing about Jean-François Millet’s peasant subjects, the critic John Berger observed that the French painter’s personal nostalgia extended to history: “Most of what he knew about peasants was that they were reduced to a brutal existence, especially the men. He sensed, it seems to me, two things which, at the time, few others foresaw: that the poverty of the city and its suburbs; and that the market created by industrialization, to which the peasantry was being sacrificed, might one day entail the loss of all sense of history.” The “First Person Rural” films mark this loss with immersion, and in so doing leave us with the lingering sense that it is we and not the films’ subjects who are “out of time.”


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