Tag Archives: aesthetics

Corpses and Cows: The Representation of Death in A Perfect Day (León de Aranoa, 2015)

Scanning through Netflix the other day, I happened to discover that A Perfect Day, Fernando León de Aranoa’s latest film, is currently available to stream in the UK. His sixth full-length feature film, A Perfect Day is the critically-acclaimed filmmaker’s first foray into English-language filmmaking. The work blends the director’s acute visual style, combining dynamically composed images (for example through the use of mirrors – a technique deployed throughout his filmography) and an impactful soundtrack, with noteworthy performances from a star-studded cast including Tim Robbins and Benecio del Toro. The film garnered a host of critical nominations at the Goya, Feroz and Cinema Writers Circle Awards in Spain, with León de Aranoa picking up the Goya for Best Adapted Screenplay (the film is based on a novel called Dejarse llover by Paula Farias).

Though I watched the film earlier this week, I haven’t had much of a chance to collect my thoughts on it as yet. But there were a handful of images and tropes connected to representations of death that caught my attention during my viewing of the film. I wanted to record these ideas here as León de Aranoa is one of the filmmakers I work on in my research and I may well analyse this film further in the future.

Netflix categorises A Perfect Day as a comedy and while the streaming site’s cataloging of films is sometimes questionable, this work does indeed deploy León de Aranoa’s now trademark acerbic sense of humour alongside the more dramatic and tragic events of its plot. The action takes place in 1995 during the Balkan conflict and revolves around a group of aid workers attempting to resolve a complex situation within a conflict zone. The problem? A corpse submerged within a well, contaminating the region’s water supply. The film focuses on their attempts to remove the corpse from the well, having to negotiate with both locals and intervening military and peacekeeping factions.

Figure 1: The Silhouetted Corpse


Figure 2: From the Perspective of the Corpse

The corpse is a recurring motif throughout the film. Given that the plot centres on this troublesome dead body, it is perhaps unsurprising that it figures centrally within the cinematography. While the corpse itself is not shown explicitly instead silhouetted and framed from below (Figure 1), the camera frequently adopts the perspective of the corpse. These point-of-view shots form an important visual component of the film’s aesthetics. Indeed such an image adorns the promotional poster for the film (Figure 2).  To adopt the perspective of the corpse is to position death and the subjectivity of the dead at the core of the film in aesthetic terms without sensationalising the image of the dead body.


Figure 3: Cow = Carcass or Corpse?

The corpse in the well that appears in the opening sequence is the first of many dead bodies that feature throughout the film. The carcasses of cattle appear as road blocks on a few occasions, apparently placed in the road in order to divert traffic towards landmines buried by the roadside (Figure 3). Whether these constitute “corpses” or not is a dilemma diegetically addressed by the volunteers, sparking a subtextual debate about the line between humans and animals as well as suggesting that conflict brings out the savage characteristics of the human race. These carcasses additionally symbolise the political role of death in conflict – that is, an obstacle to be negotiated according to political ends rather than an abhorrent phenomenon eliciting compassion and inciting action.

The most striking scene involving dead bodies concerns the parents of a young local boy who winds up accompanying the volunteers. When the group arrives at his home, they discover that the house has been ransacked and the parents of the boy have been brutally murdered, their bodies still hanging in the internal courtyard of the house. This scene is arguably the most powerful of the film. The bodies remain just out of view of the camera, framed in a similar manner to the corpse stuck in the well. Furthermore, a dark and rocky cover version of the Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams are Made of This” accompanies the scene, echoing the impact this harrowing event has on the young French volunteer. We learn that this act was sparked by the cross cultural relationship between the boy’s parents. This once again reinforces the savage nature of war.

In short, death permeates both the narrative and mise-en-scène of A Perfect Day, reflecting upon the centrality of death in war without sensationalising images of the dead victims. While the film deals with dark subject matter, it balances this with a lighthearted tone that serves to render the topic more palatable. Overall, a film that merits further consideration – which I hope to afford the work in due course.

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The Politics of (the Image of) the Dead Child

Last week, one image dominated most media outlets: that of three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi.  The image first appeared on my Twitter timeline on Wednesday night.  On Thursday morning, I went to work (I work in a supermarket) to see that the image had been printed on the majority of that day’s newspapers including The Guardian and The Daily Mail.  It was Friday before I saw any mention of the young boy’s name on Twitter.  Subsequent images have appeared reappropriating the original photograph, including a cartoon and a sand sculpture (neither of which I am prepared to upload or link to here).

This image has provoked awareness of the gravity of the situation in Syria and what now seems to be being referred to as the ‘global migration crisis’, as well as outrage in the form of demands for political accountability and for the provision of aid and assistance for those caught up in the crisis.  This is of course a welcome change given the prominence of narrow-minded and xenophobic attitudes towards migrants and migration often championed in some media outlets (Daily Mail, I’m looking at you).  However, I am struggling with the politics and ethics of printing and/or sharing this image.  I will try to articulate my reasons here, hopefully with some degree of success.  I appreciate that this is an emotive topic and that not everyone will agree with my position.  But my contention is that the image of the dead child is not only unethical, but also politically-charged and highly manipulative.

Continue reading The Politics of (the Image of) the Dead Child

Review: Stockholm (Rodrigo Sorogoyen, 2013)

Stockholm (Image taken from http://www.elmundo.es/baleares/2013/10/24/5268e7770ab740db2a8b457b.html)
Stockholm (Image taken from http://www.elmundo.es/baleares/2013/10/24/5268e7770ab740db2a8b457b.html)

I finally got round to watching Stockholm(Rodrigo Sorogoyen, 2013 – trailer here) the other night.  I’ve had the DVD for a while, and I’ve been looking forward to watching it.  The film won the 2014 Goya for Best Newcomer for Javier Pereira, and was nominated for Best Director and Best Actress.  I can’t remember now where I first heard/read about it, although it was most likely on Twitter.  There were two aspects of the film I found particularly intriguing: firstly, the fact that the film was crowd-funded, and secondly, the much-discussed ‘twist’ halfway through the film.  It more than lived up to my expectations.

The film’s financial profile is particularly relevant, given the dire economic climate in Spain generally, and with regards to the film industry in particular.  I’ll offer a brief overview of the scenario here.  State funding of Spanish cinema has halved in the past four years, with the most recent budget cuts (October 2013) meaning that the national cinematography fund will receive only €33 million (£28m) in 2014.  This constitutes a 14% drop on last year, and is only just enough to cover the industry’s debts.  These cuts have been described as politically-motivated by, among others, Enrique González Macho, President of the Spanish Cinema Academy, who has remarked that this represents the extent to which the current PP government are scared of the culture and cinema, and their potential for change and impact.  These cuts have significantly affected the amount of films being made in Spain.  Indeed, 2013 saw 28% fewer films in production, and, consequently, enforced unemployment.  To add to this, VAT on ticket sales has risen to 21% in Spain.  (You can read more about this here.)

Against this dismal financial backdrop, the producers of Stockholm turned to the crowd-funding website Verkami to secure funds to complete their film.  The DVD includes a press conference, in which one of the producers talks about their move from the more creative side of filmmaking to the financial side as a necessity because the various sites in which they would usually seek funding had closed down.  The credits list all of the Verkami contributors, in a gesture that underscores the value of their contribution to the project and acknowledges that contribution as part of the labour through which the film was produced.

Alongside the film’s alternative path to funding, the second element I was initially intrigued by was the much-discussed ‘twist’ halfway through the film.  Stockholm begins as a very conventional teenage/youth scenario, in which boy meets girl and claims to be in love with her.  While she initially resists his advances, they spend the entire night walking around the city, until eventually they end up back in his apartment.  And this is where the twist occurs – which I won’t reveal in order to avoid any spoilers for those who are still to watch the film (and I recommend that you do!).  Suffice to say, this twist constitutes a moment of rupture that splits the film in half, separating the initial, conventional ‘boy-meets-girl’ narrative of the first half from the tense, dramatic, second half of the film, which is more akin to the thriller than the romance genre.

"Him" and "Her" (Image taken from http://criticasen8.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/stockholm-la-luna-luce-mas-de-noche.html)
“Him” and “Her” (Image taken from http://criticasen8.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/stockholm-la-luna-luce-mas-de-noche.html)

The film’s aesthetics constitute a site in which these two intriguing aspects of the work converge.  Because of its modest budget, Stockholmwas filmed in just twelve days.  The limited funds, and thus time, available led to a strikingly minimalist aesthetic.  Indeed, the majority of the film’s action takes place on the streets of Madrid at night in the first half, and within the apartment of the unnamed male protagonist (known as ‘Él’ (‘He’) in the script) in the second half of the film.  This split between an exterior and an interior location mirrors the narrative and genre split between the two halves of the film.  This is further underscored by the colour palette of both halves.  Darkness, at times tinged with accented red and blue lighting, dominates the first half, symbolising intrigue, the unknown, and the excitement connected with these qualities.  By contrast, a stark, bleached whiteness overwhelms the second half, signifying the cold, harsh truth the characters face the morning after their night together.  These diverging aesthetic approaches produce a fissure in the texture of the film, a fissure embodied by the unnamed female protagonist (known as ‘Ella’) quite literally in the colours of the clothing she wears: a black cardigan over a white dress.

"Her" (Image taken from http://www.sensacine.com/actores/actor-417322/fotos/detalle/?cmediafile=21045863)
“Her” (Image taken from http://www.sensacine.com/actores/actor-417322/fotos/detalle/?cmediafile=21045863)

All in all, this is a striking film, aesthetically pleasing, with an engrossing soundtrack, and displaying incredible performances by both lead actors.  Highly recommended!

 

Visualising Violence in Homicidios

Having discovered that Telecinco’s website features an on-demand viewing service, I recently watched the TV series Homicidios (2011), which stars Eduardo Noriega as Tomás Sóller, a psychologist turned university lecturer, who becomes an associate consultant in a police investigation into a serial killer.  Over thirteen episodes, the series follows Sóller and the team as they attempt to track down the man responsible for the various murders they are investigating.  Things become increasingly personal, as the killer’s contempt for Sóller in particular is revealed, as the team and their loved ones are specifically targeted by the killer, and as Sóller becomes more and more involved with head of the team, and ex-lover, Eva Hernández (Celia Freijerio).  The series’ conclusion is simultaneously satisfying and frustrating.  While the mystery man behind the killings is revealed and brought to justice, the characters and their lives have been completely upturned by their experiences investigating these crimes.  Watching the series’ closing images, the viewer is uncertain whether Sóller and Hernández will be able to rekindle their romantic relationship, a narrative thread which has pulsed throughout the series.

I found the series entertaining, gripping, and thrilling.  I didn’t watch it with the intention of blogging about it, or of thinking/writing about it in any way.  However, as the series went on, I found myself thinking specifically about the way in which violence was visualised.  (This is perhaps in part because I have been thinking about violence more recently in relation to my PhD research (and beyond) – see here and here for examples of how I’ve been dealing with this theme).  As a series centred on serial killing, it is unsurprising that violent events are frequently depicted in each episode.  What interests me about this series’ representation of violence is the ways in which these events are replayed throughout the episode.  This often happens in the form of audiovisual playback, in a meta-televisual/-filmic gesture that draws attention specifically to the ethics of visualising violence.  For example, the perpetrator frequently records the violent acts he commits and sends the footage to the police unit, or leaves it for them to find, so that they can re-watch the footage, as is the case with Helena (Esmerelda Moya)’s murder, or when the perpetrator films Helena’s killer, tied up and beaten, before sending the video to Sóller.

Homicidios_1
The recording of violent acts in Homicidios
Homicidios_2
The re-watching of violent acts in Homicidios

The recording and re-watching of violent acts and events imbues the series with a meta-narrative/microcosmic dimension.  Just as we, the spectators, are watching the representation of violence through the audiovisual medium of television (or through an on-demand viewing service, in my case), the police officers investigating the serial killings vicariously experience the violence enacted through these audiovisual recordings.  As I near the end of my doctoral project, I am beginning to think about the possible directions my research might take beyond the horizons of the PhD.  I think the reason Homicidios grabbed my attention in this way is because I am becoming more and more interested in questions of ethics and aesthetics in representations of violence.  These issues are most certainly at stake in Homicidios.

Childhood in Post-Franco Spanish Cinema

As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, one of the chapters of my PhD thesis explores the figure of the child in post-Franco Spanish cinema.  Given the diffuseness of this subject matter, and the relative gap in terms of scholarship on the child in Spanish cinema (Sarah Wright’s recently-published monograph The Child in Spanish Cinema is the first book-length study of this topic), I narrowed the focus of my chapter to the intersection of childhood and history in four key films: El espíritu de la colmena/The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973); Cría cuervos/Raise Ravens (Carlos Saura, 1976); El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001); and El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006).  This term I’ve suspended my PhD studies to take up a temporary Teaching Fellowship in the department of Film & Visual Culture at my institution, and have had the opportunity to teach an Honours module based on my PhD research.  As a result, I’ve recently rewatched three of the above films (Espíritu; Cría; Laberinto) with my Honours students, and in so doing, my curiosity in the visual rhetoric that circulates amongst these films was renewed.

The most recent of the three films – El laberinto del fauno – repeatedly and explicitly engages the previous two films through visual citations.  Clearly, the films are narratively and thematically comparable in that they all deal with the child’s escape into fantasy, imagination, and fairytale, with death, and with the politics of the Civil War and Francoist Spain.  However, this post focuses on the implicit visual connections between the films.  I’m certainly not the first scholar to point out that the later film references the earlier two films – see, for example, this piece by Paul Julian Smith.  That said, I think the parallels are worth restating because they reveal the extent to which Mexican director del Toro inserts his film within a specifically Spanish history of cinematic childhood.

Indeed, within the first few minutes of the film, El laberinto del fauno visually cites both Cría cuervos and El espíritu de la colmena.  The car in which protagonist Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) stops so that the latter can get some fresh air.  As Carmen composes herself, Ofelia wanders off into the woods, looking up at the trees above her.  The point-of-view shot recalls a moment in Cría cuervos when Ana (Ana Torrent) looks up at the trees in her garden, before she sees/imagines herself leaping off the roof of a nearby building.

PL_trees
Still from El laberinto del fauno
CC_trees
Still from Cría cuervos

This is followed by a reference to the Don José sequence in El espíritu de la colmena, when the young Ana (Ana Torrent) grants the class mannequin the ability to see by attaching his eyes.  In place of a mannequin, Ofelia encounters a stone statue, and inserts a round stone, which she finds on the ground nearby, into the open eye socket.

PL_stone_statue
Still from El laberinto del fauno
EC_Don_Jose
Still from El espíritu de la colmena

Moreover, the Falangist symbol of the yoke and arrows, which adorns the cars in which Ofelia and her mother travel, constitutes a further visual reference to Erice’s film, in which the same symbol appears on a building of the village Hoyuelos in the opening sequence.

These visual citations appear throughout El laberinto del fauno.  For instance, the Captain is repeatedly pictured shaving in his quarters – an act which reminds us of the playful moment in El espíritu de la colmena when, in the absence of their father, Isabel (Isabel Tellería) instructs her younger sister Ana how to shave.  Similarly, the mud-encrusted Ofelia’s emergence from the tree, having completed her first task, recalls the mournful Ana and her mud beard in Cría cuervos.

PL_muddy_Ofelia
Still from El laberinto del fauno
CC_Ana_mud_beard
Still from Cría cuervos

Furthermore, the bearded doctor of El laberinto del fauno recalls the bearded doctor, who, at the end of El espíritu de la colmena, insists that Ana will recover from her traumatic experiences.  In addition, the monstrousness of maternity embodied by Ofelia’s mother Carmen in El laberinto del fauno resonates with María’s cancerous womb in Cría cuervos.  This link is underscored by the visual echoes between the scene in which Carmen gives birth to Ofelia’s baby brother in El laberinto del fauno, with women bustling around with bloodied sheets, and the scene in which María is dying in Cría cuervos, where the maid Rosa acts as a nurse, removing bloodied sheets from the bed.  The significances of these visual citations are tied up with gender, a theme which has, for the most part, not yet been analysed in detail, and this is precisely one of the themes I investigate in my thesis.

A handful of visual citations concerned with death, devastation, and destruction also link the three films in question.  Vidal’s broken pocket watch recalls Fernando’s pocket watch in El espíritu de la colmena.  Its unreliability, combined with the careful attention the Captain affords to its cleaning, demonstrates an obsessive concern with order and precision that is destined to fail.  The train wreck caused by the maquis in El laberinto del fauno reminds the viewer of the symbolic importance of the train in El espíritu de la colmena.  The train’s derailment in the later film constitutes a symbol of how progress was brought to a halt under Franco.  The burial of Ofelia’s mother, who dies during childbirth, recalls the proliferation of death in general across these films, but also more specifically Ana’s isolated ceremony of mourning for her guinea pig Roni in Cría cuervos.  Finally, Ofelia drugs the Captain by spiking his drink, implicitly referencing Ana’s attempts to poison her father and aunt by lacing their drinks with what she believes to be poisonous powder in Cría cuervos.

Clearly, the resonances between these films extend beyond what I’ve pointed out in this short post.  However, what I hope to have demonstrated here is that El laberinto del fauno, in spite of its transnational production history (directed by a Mexican filmmaker, starring both Spanish and Latin American actors and actresses, financed by both Spanish and Mexican production companies), is positioned within a lineage of Spanish films centred on the intersection of childhood and history.  In my thesis, as mentioned above, I dedicate a chapter to the exploration of these three films in conjunction with El espinazo del diablo.  As I’m still working towards the completion of my thesis, any thoughts, pointers, comments are most welcome on what I’ve presented here.

Discussing Cinematic Representations of Violence in Hispanic Contexts

This discussion between myself and Niamh Thornton took place through Skype instant messages on Friday 7th February.  Our aim with this conversation was to expand on our previous blog posts.

[09:42:41] Niamh: In your blog I was really interested in the shared use of the media as a motif. In Pacific Rim TV news is used as a form of commentary and economical mode of storytelling. In Bordertown and the Virgin of Juarez the female protagonists are both journalists.

[09:45:12] Fiona Noble: It’s really striking that this is a feature shared by the films we are both working on – and I don’t think that this is exclusive to these films.

[09:45:43] Niamh: Do you think that it’s about telling stories about disenfranchised others in the films you are writing about?

[09:46:14] Fiona Noble: I can think of other examples in the Spanish context which include media reporting/representation as a visual motif – Las cartas de Alou springs immediately to mind but there are many others.

[09:47:29] Fiona Noble: Yes, I think on the one hand there is as you say the need to tell the other’s story.

[09:47:38] Niamh: In films and literature about Juarez it is a repeated trope. Frequently, they are journalists from outside (US, Spain, UK…).

[09:48:23] Fiona Noble: So, it is the external other who tells the story, who has the voice?

[09:48:54] Niamh: Yes, and the power to go above the local strictures.

[09:49:42] Fiona Noble: I think this provides a point of contrast then between the films/contexts we are working with – it is usually the Spanish characters who are journalists in the films I’m working on.

[09:49:58] Niamh: There is an important Mexican female journalist character (likely based on a real individual) in Bordertown who provides valuable information. But, the film is still focused on an Other as victim.

[09:50:43] Fiona Noble: Ilegal is the perfect example of this – protagonists Luis and Sofia are a journalist and private inspector, respectively.  The plot places them in a position similar to that of an illegal immigrant, and so seems to expect us to empathise.

[09:51:28] Niamh: Is the assumption that we wouldn’t empathise if we followed the story of one of migrants?

[09:51:55] Fiona Noble: It seems that way – at least that is how the film has been read by others (i.e. Santiago Fouz Hernandez).

[09:52:36] Niamh: There are films that do take that position, though. Is that not the case?

[09:52:57] Fiona Noble: A more empathetic/sympathetic portrait of immigrant experience, you mean?

[09:53:12] Niamh: A more subjective one

[09:53:32] Fiona Noble: Yes, I think that’s what I was trying to map out in my original post.

[09:54:03] Fiona Noble: Ilegal is now ten years old – the more recent Retorno a Hansala seems to gesture towards a more subjective representation of immigrant experience.

[09:54:35] Niamh: Do you think that this trope of outsider experiencing/witnessing these events is successful?

[09:55:01] Fiona Noble: I think it can be.

[09:55:24] Fiona Noble: In the Spanish case, most films about immigrants/immigration are not made by those who have direct experience of this phenomenon (Santiago Zannou is the only director I know of who is a second-generation Spaniard, whose parents were African immigrants). So, I think to have this outsider framework can show a certain degree of respect for the distance between director/production team and topic.

[09:56:39] Niamh: Necessarily?

[09:56:54] Fiona Noble: That said, I think it can also be an extremely risky strategy – as in Ilegal where the immigrants are mere secondary characters, barely glimpsed in the background, while the Spanish protagonists take centre stage. What are your thoughts on this?  How does it play out in the films you are working on?

[10:01:45] Niamh: I agree. That is often the case with Juarez. In the films on Juarez the victims are often multiply marked as others: working class, indigenous, country girls vs urban, cosmopolitan, middle class journalists. Also, the victims are to be read as “good” victims i.e. religious (sometimes to the point of superstition), virginal and innocent. They have none of the messiness of “bad” behaviour of real life. How does that play in terms of the immigrants you consider?

[10:06:32] Fiona Noble: It varies.  In Ilegal we are offered next to no information about the immigrants who are the victims of persecution/ill treatment/death. They are illegal immigrants who are smuggled into the country. This is all we know. Retorno takes a slightly different approach: it begins with an unidentified illegal immigrant drowning. The film then follows legal Moroccan immigrant Leila and her attempt to come to terms with the death of her brother Rachid while attempting to make the crossing to Spain from Morocco.

[10:08:51] Niamh: In both films about Juarez the women survive being left for dead and arise from the grave in ways that are reminiscent of horror films.

[10:09:59] Fiona Noble: And, is it indicated that their “good” characters has something to do with their survival?  Is this a sort of triumph over evil?

[10:11:26] Niamh: It does appear to be. They are deserving of re-birth/second chance. But, their “goodness” and naïveté means that they must be protected by these stronger US women.

[10:12:13] Fiona Noble: So, we’re back into the hegemonic conceptualisations of self/other that we spoke about before.

[10:12:30] Niamh: Yes, no doubt. I suppose, now the question arises whether we are comparing like with like? Is there something unique about the migrant story and its tropes and can we talk about violence and its ethics alongside films about other themes? That being said, the border looms large in the Juarez film and there is some crossing of it by the privileged journalist and the victims. This might take us back to thinking about violence and how we write about its representation on screen. Can we have common strategies when writing about violence?

[10:16:08] Fiona Noble: I think this is an excellent point – one of the things I’ve been thinking about in response to our dialogue has been about the cultural specificity of violence. In your post you talked about having to make ‘multidisciplinary borrowings’, and, I wonder, to what extent we can compare the films/contexts we are working on?

[10:18:33] Niamh: Considerably, it would seem. But, also, it’s necessary to return to context and specifics.

[10:19:43] Fiona Noble: It certainly seems that our films share a similar visual grammar.

[10:20:39] Niamh: Yes. It can be useful to have tools from other contexts to use. Do you think that Spanish filmmakers pay much attention to the Mexican-US border narrative?

[10:21:33] Fiona Noble: That’s a really interesting point.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any specific examples where other border discourses come into play in Spanish films about immigrants/immigration.

[10:22:18] Niamh: I suppose it’s difficult to tell unless a filmmaker expressly lays claims to influences.

[10:22:41] Fiona Noble: I guess.  The example that springs to mind is Inarritu’s Biutiful.

[10:23:15] Fiona Noble: This film does situate contemporary immigration in Spain within a wider, global context. Although the link to Mexico is more historical than current – indexing Republican exile to Mexico in Spanish Civil War through Uxbal’s father.

[10:24:25] Niamh: Yes. There is that film which has 3 stories: one in Mexico-US, the other in Cuba and the third in Morocco. I can’t remember the name.

[10:24:39] Fiona Noble: Babel?

[10:25:27] Niamh: No. But that is an interesting example of the wider context and linked global experiences

[10:26:05] Fiona Noble: I’m not sure of the one you mean.

[10:26:28] Fiona Noble: But, it sounds like it would be an interesting one for both of us.

[10:27:29] Niamh: Just found it online, Al otro lado. Yes, because one of the stories is about a child going from Morocco to Spain. All of the migrants are young children and therefore necessarily sympathetic.

[10:28:05] Fiona Noble: Title sounds familiar – will check it out. I wonder if there’s a distinction to be made when events are based largely/primarily on fictional narratives (Pacific Rim) and when they are based on real events (such as the Juarez films).  How does the treatment of violence differ in these contexts? You did talk about this in your post, but I wondered if we should elaborate on this.

[10:29:16] Niamh: It’s interesting because the distinction is about intention, but not necessarily about visual grammar. For example, Pacific Rim is very deliberately about spectacle in a way that would be tasteless if it were about a real event.

The violence inflicted on the women in Bordertown, for example, is ridiculous, because it seems that the director fails in making it convincing although his intention is to be sensitive. In the key attempted murder scene the woman is being strangled by a man who is raping her. He has his face contorted in ways that are exaggeratedly grotesque, while her face is acting “real” anguish. The problem is that a woman’s body on screen is always already objectified, so in an attempt to avoid this we are shown the violence either in long shot or the camera lingers on her pained and tearful face, and his grotesque expression, but the contrast between their performative styles in this one is jarring. Consequently, for me, it is unsuccessful.

[10:36:07] Fiona Noble: Which brings us back to the points you made at the beginning of your original post – about the difficulty of representing/writing about onscreen violence. That is, in spite of its prevalence.

[10:37:27] Niamh: Yes. Do we have new conclusions from today’s discussion, I wonder?

[10:37:45] Fiona Noble: Or more questions?

[10:38:15] Fiona Noble: I think we have ascertained that the films we are working on, in spite of their distinct production contexts/subject matters, share a certain visual grammar.

[10:38:18] Niamh: Which can be more productive in ways…

[10:38:28] Fiona Noble: Absolutely.

[10:38:57] Niamh: This is true. Also, we are still convinced that multiple tools are required to analyse these. Context can never be forgotten, but should not limit comparisons.

[10:39:41] Fiona Noble: I agree. And, we’ve also talked about the relationship between subjectivity and mass media across the distinct contexts, and the various possibilities/problems that this framework offers.

[10:40:39] Niamh: All worthwhile. It’s been good chatting about this. I certainly find it useful to know the commonalities and differences.

[10:42:51] Fiona Noble: I completely agree. Much definitely remains to be said not only about the complexities of representing violence onscreen, but also about scholarly approaches to the topic. The fodder of future blog posts and Twitter exchanges, I’m sure.

The Death of the Immigrant in Spanish Cinema

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.

Ilegal_Opening

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.

 

Retorno_Opening

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.

References:

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.