FROM BERLIN TO GUADALAJARA, CONT.
By Robert Koehler
By my count, although there are several films here direct from Berlin, only one is from Berlin’s most interesting section, the Forum: Ishtar Yasin’s astonishing debut, El Camino. This is the kind of film Forum was built for, and that Guadalajara would do well to show more of–intensely committed personal cinema that brooks no compromise, and expects an audience that demands no less. Yet El Camino is made of, and about, simple things. The opening sections seem to blow right out of the head of Lino Brocka, with warm images of Nicaraguan kids in an outdoor classroom asked to describe the making of Lake Managua contrasted with hellish, smoke-drenched images of a massive and thoroughly disturbing landfill, where young Saslaya (Sherlyn Paola Velasquez) and little brother Dario (Marcos Ulises Jimenez) live with their grandfather (Cornelio Flores Meza) in a shack at the landfill’s edge. Dario, like the girl in La rabia, is mute, but has his big sister’s hand to hold onto; Saslaya is viewed by Yasin as a watcher, trying to get a fresh view of her hell by looking at it through a shard of found glass, the first of several moments in the film where art is made out of bits and pieces, and in the moment.
Saslaya and Dario hit the road–el camino–after grandfather is seen by dim Vittorio Storaro candlelight trying to molest Saslaya in their hammock. The desire is to find their mother, working somewhere in Costa Rica, but the impulse is also to flee extreme physical and psychic danger. The road, and all of its dangers, is better than this, the film says wordlessly. (Yasin was born in Moscow of an Iraqi father and a Chilean-Costa Rican mother, and studied at Moscow’s State Film Institute as part of the first post-Communist era batch of graduates, and she shows a deep regard and respect for Russian silent cinema and its love of the natural world.) Their adventure has been described as “picaresque,” but this isn’t actually the tone that Yasin takes. Instead, she’s most interested in conveying the pure experience of willing oneself to leave home, walk (and boat) to a point unknown and know that somehow it’s possible to get there. If there’s belief behind this, it’s the belief in being able to make the journey, a belief harbored internally and never expressed verbally, only sensed. Many scenes play out like documentary, or if they’re pre-arranged, then all of the feeling of arrangement has been drained out of them, very much like Alonso. Only an episode with a urchin who badly needs playmates seems to literally salute neo-realism; otherwise, the film is directly, harshly, real.
Just days ago, British-born and Mexico-based documentary filmmaker John Dickie (El diablo y nota rota) was describing to me the terrifying and inhuman conditions of life in today’s Central America, how “it gets worse the further south you go.” Watching El Camino little more than 48 hours after our conversation rendered his disturbing word pictures rather mild, as the film emits the stench and torpor of existence there, so lived-in is every scene and sequence. Despite all of this, and quite counter-intuitively, Surrealist comedy floats through like thought bubbles: A pair of Roman Polanski-esque guys carry a table from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, trailing Saslaya and Dario beat by beat. After Brocka, Alonso and Pudovkin–and maybe, who knows, a touch of Apichatpong, when things move into the deep jungle during the final border crossing–who could’ve guessed that the film ends in a shadowy Costa Rican brothel setting that out-disturbs David Lynch? The ending is much like the way dreams end–abruptly, on a note of possibly impending doom (or at least change), on a detail that can barely be perceived (ceiling cornice, I believe), with thoughts drifting possibly toward oblivion, or to the light.