As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, one of the chapters of my PhD thesis considers the representation of the immigrant in contemporary Spanish cinema, with particular emphasis on the theme of death. The prevalence of death in Spanish films that take immigration as their focus of course represents a particular reality: specifically the very real threat of death faced daily by immigrants, whether in transit, due to poor living and working conditions, or because of xenophobic violence. In the context of Spanish cinema, these issues have been diversely represented in films such as 14 Kilómetros/14 Kilometres (Gerardo Olivares, 2007), Malas temporadas/Hard Times (Manuel Martín Cuenca, 2005), Las cartas de Alou/Alou’s Letters (Montxo Armendáriz, 1990), Bwana (Imanol Uribe, 1996), Taxi (Carlos Saura, 1995), and Salvajes/Savages (Carlos Molinero, 2001). Beyond this significance, my investigation of the intersection of immigration and death in contemporary Spanish cinema is conceptually motivated, addressing both the aesthetics and ethics of the cinematic representation of the death of the immigrant other. In this post, inspired by Niamh Thornton’s recent meditation on the ethics of the use of war photography in fiction film, I consider the aesthetic and ethical implications of the representation of the death of the immigrant in two films: Ilegal/Illegal (Ignacio Vilar, 2003) and Retorno a Hansala/Return to Hansala (Chus Gutiérrez, 2008).
At the crux of this constellation of ideas – immigration, death, and cinema – is the notion of visibility, of making visible. As phenomena that prove problematic at the level of rendering visible, how are immigration and death represented by cinema, a predominantly visual medium? How do immigration and death intersect on screen? How are they made (in)visible? Recent theoretical interventions related to this topic include Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of a ‘subjectivity of the dying’ (Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity 173), and Emma Wilson’s exploration of art and culture as a space for the exploration of death and its meanings (Love, Mortality and the Moving Image). A gap remains, however, in terms of the specificities of these issues in the context of immigration and race. This post is a mere starting point for thinking about these questions.
The metafilmic credit sequence of Ilegal immediately underscores the question of the visibility of the immigrant and of death. A black and white image depicts ocean waves washing over various items of clothing, soaked through and strewn haphazardly on the sand, abandoned on an unidentified shoreline. In a metacinematic gesture, the image is presented as though seen through the lens of a video camera, encased by a circular black frame and edged with textual indicators, such as a battery meter, a flashing red recording light, and the date. The camera continues recording, encountering an abandoned boat, flooded with seawater and filled with more discarded items, an eerie intimation that something tragic has occurred. This reading is supported by the scene’s tense, melodramatic soundtrack. The film’s opening sequence implies, but does not make visible, the death of the immigrant.
Still taken from Ilegal
The camera through which these images are presented belongs to journalist Luis, the film’s central character. The focalisation of the image through the journalist’s camera establishes a hierarchical paradigm of looking, in which the Spaniard looks and the immigrant is looked at, that will pervade the film. This paradigm is intensified by the spectator’s alignment with the film’s journalist protagonist. The metafilmic opening described above not only encourages the spectator’s identification with the Spaniard rather than with the film’s many migrant characters, but also reinforces the immigrant’s positioning as the object of the gaze. The fact that the immigrant is only an implied presence in this sequence can be read as a critique of journalistic and mass media representations of immigrants and immigration. Such representations often disregard the individuals involved, and tend to be more concerned with the totalling of casualties or with creating paranoia around the notion of an uncontrollable flood of immigrants. In this way, Ilegal’s opening sequence immediately foregrounds the visibility of both immigration and death as a challenge to visual media such as film.
In spite of this stimulating credit sequence that draws attention to the aesthetics and ethics of the representation of the death in the context of immigration, Ilegal is at risk of repeating and perpetuating this approach, given its narrative and visual focus on the plight of its two Spanish protagonists, Luis and Sofia. As Santiago Fouz Hernández and Alfredo Martínez Expósito point out, Luis in particular ‘has no qualms about obtaining and then exploiting images of migrants against their will’ (Live Flesh: The Male Body in Contemporary Spanish Cinema 171). His dubious motives thus call into question the seemingly cautious, evocative and ethically-driven credit sequence described above. The film becomes even more problematic at its conclusion, when Luis decides that the images he has captured have provoked too many deaths; because of this, he launches the tapes into the sea. A tracking shot of the tapes floating in the water before they land on the seabed provides the background image of the film’s closing credits. Like its opening sequence, Ilegal’s final images replace the immigrant with a visual remainder of his/her existence, erasing not only the body of the immigrant, but also the visual traces of that body. In sum, the aesthetics and ethics of Ilegal’s representation of the death of the immigrant opens up, even if the film ultimately falls short of addressing, pertinent questions concerning the visibility and visibilisation of this phenomenon.
Like Ilegal, the opening sequence of Retorno a Hansala immediately addresses the visual representation of the death of the immigrant. The sequence depicts the death of an anonymous, unidentified immigrant, who drowns while in sight of the Spanish coastline. Accompanied by the choking sounds of the individual in question, the camera takes on the perspective of the drowning immigrant, dramatically circling above and below the water, and eventually becoming submerged below the water level. The sequence ends with images of the seabed, the ripples of the water dabbled with sunlight. The film’s title appears in white text, superimposed over this image of the seabed. The text dissolves, and the image fades to black.
Still taken from Retorno a Hansala
By aligning the camera with the perspective of the dying immigrant, and in so doing opening up a space for the articulation of a ‘subjectivity of the dying’ (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Touching Feeling 173), Retorno a Hansala undermines the aforementioned paradigm of looking established in Ilegal, whereby the immigrant is always situated as the object of the gaze. The visual prioritisation of the dying immigrant’s point of view prefigures the film’s narrative focus on Leila (Farah Hamed), a Moroccan immigrant who has been living in Spain for five years. As the title suggests, the film tracks Leila’s return journey to her home town of Hansala, the purpose of which is the repatriation of her younger brother’s body. Unlike Leila, Rachid was unsuccessful in his attempt to make the crossing from North Africa to Southern Spain. In comparison with Ilegal, Retorno a Hansala thus approaches a more ethical account of immigrant experience, and particularly of the representation of the death of the immigrant. That said, the problem of visibility remains insofar as the identity of the dying immigrant remains undisclosed, although it would not be too much of a stretch to surmise that this opening sequence adopts the perspective of Leila’s brother Rachid, whose lifeless body washes ashore in the sequence immediately following the credits.
The closing credits of Retorno a Hansala, which are rendered in white text on a black background, and accompanied by the sound of waves crashing ashore, distance the film from journalistic and mass media representations concerning immigration. The credits appear on the left-hand side of the frame, while a series of over-exposed photographs, presumably of immigrants although the contents are difficult to establish, fade in and out one by one. An avalanche of words and numbers follow these images, reminiscent of the vocabulary used in journalistic reporting regarding immigration, and of the incessant tallying of immigrants, whether in terms of the number of foreigners living in the country, or in terms of the number who die trying to make the crossing (examples include: ‘a bordo de una patera’ (‘on board a raft’); ‘83 “sin papeles”’ (83 undocumented’); and ‘Trece inmigrantes ahogados’ (‘Thirteen immigrants drowned’)). In this way, the end credits of Retorno bleakly parody media discourse on immigration. In so doing, they indicate a critical self-awareness of the problem of visibility, in terms of both immigration and death, contained within the opening sequence.
As I said above, this post – which has been written in dialogue with this post by Niamh – is merely a starting point for thinking through extremely complex questions concerning the ethics and aesthetics of onscreen violence and death. In an attempt to continue this thought-provoking and necessary discussion, Niamh and I will follow this post with a conversation about the commonalities and distinctions between the distinct films and contexts we are both working on. In the meantime, any questions, comments, or thoughts are very welcome.
Fouz-Hernandez, Santiago, and Alfredo Martinez-Exposito. Live Flesh: The Male Body in Contemporary Spanish Cinema. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, N.C.; London: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.
Wilson, Emma., Love, Mortality and the Moving Image. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.