As Julio Cortazar is one of my favorite South American writers, Antonio Machado remains my favorite Spanish poet. One of my favorite poems of his reads:
The eye you see is not
An eye because you see it.
It is eye because it sees you.
In gist, this is the lesson any documentarian must learn when they turn their camera onto the world, the selfsame lesson that Lourdes (Bárbara Lennie) has to learn, arriving in the small Basque hill town of Obaba equipped with a videocamera, intending to satisfy a school video assignment by recording the history of this small community. And Lourdes learns her lesson: you can't catch fish without getting wet.
Willis Barnstone, reflecting on the above Machado poem in his book of translations Antonio Machado—Border of a Dream: Selected Poems, writes: "[Machado] tells us that the eye of the other already is, and not because by perceiving it you render it living, but because it is there waiting to come into more apparent being by seeing you. In waking you to its being, it gives you life. And you are companions. Like the world, the eye is on its own. And the world and the eye will go on being, when you are darkness." (2004:xix)
This is the marvelous symbiosis achieved by Montxo Armendáriz in Obaba. Self and other, the documentarian and the documented, create the double helix of identity. It is in equal measures mysterious and revelatory, much like a mask serves to conceal and reveal. The past and the present, childhood and adulthood, walk down the cobbled street hand in hand, counting steps (and time) as they go.
As I mentioned in my write-up of Alica Scherson's Play, the worlds created by magical realism are more alternate than other. If narrative shift can induce a new world, then surely memory can do the same, being perhaps the original narrative shift? As Jonathan Holland writes in his report to Variety from the Toronto Film Festival, Obaba "unlocks the past to study its effect on the present, with results that hauntingly jog things out of familiar perspectives." For it is the story we tell ourselves about our own lives that ultimately creates the fictional construct we call identity, and if the story is continually adjusted, accommodated, all the more to prove that identity is fluid, a continual process more than a static state of being. Lourdes repeatedly prefaces her self-inquiries and her examinations of others with the phrase "quiero decir que" ("what I mean is"), which underscores the thirst for meaning inherent in every story. Exact words become substituted by alternate meanings and we understand ourselves (and others) more by approximation, than definition.
Obaba is structured as a series of flashbacks—three to be exact—which account for the presences and absences of key characters in Obaba. Holland synopsizes them well in his Variety review. Why have some remained in this small provincial town whereas others have traveled away? "You can live anywhere," the film attests, "if you're happy on the inside." Interiority becomes a key piece to the puzzle. Where does insanity come from, Lourdes asks the hostel keeper Ismael (Hector Colome), who promptly responds that it comes from the same place as hate, as reason, from within. Ismael is a subtle character in the film. He is the first Lourdes meets on her way to Obaba, encountered at night on a bending road with a lizard firmly in his grasp. He runs the Lizard Hostel, behind which he raises in a shed what might be considered hostile lizards, reputedly able to crawl in through the human ear to feast on their favorite delicacy—the human brain. Allegedly he has made his best friend Tomas (Txema Blasco) a deaf simpleton by putting one of these lizards in his ear. Or at least that is the accusation of Tomas' sister Begona (Inake Irastorza). Or is it simply that she is bitter over spurned advances from when they were children? In one of the final scenes of Obaba it becomes clear that the wounds of childhood fester into adult consequences. What is inside will find its way out. As Miguel Pendás writes for the festival program: "The people of Obaba are trapped in the past, telling stories from their childhood that involve one another in a complicated web of feelings and relationships."
One other thing he writes seems spot on: "Perhaps we were meant to realize that our technological gadgets are incapable of seeing the essence of reality, and that the only way to really know the world is to surrender to its beauty and mystery." The lens of the video camera by which we enter this accomplished film—and which might be thought of as Machado's eye seeing the subject eye—has (as Machado implies) its inherent limitations. This is poignantly examined when Lourdes reviews her tapes to determine if a lizard has entered her ear. Just when she thinks she is going to discover the answer, the camera fails her.
But for the documentarian it is not only the lens of the camera that has limitations, but the process of editing itself; the eye of the editor. Lourdes' inquiries, predicated on a class assignment and committed to videotape, are brought back into the class room where her instructor advises that now is the time to take the compiled footage and edit the images, to give them whatever meaning she deems appropriate. Reality, he teaches her, is not unique and transparent, but rather multiple and complex. Quoting Balzac, he says that life does not make perfect stories but a novelist can.
Lourdes seems to reach an awareness, however, that what is imperfect in humans is exactly what is essential about them and she begins—not to shape stories—but to allow them to tell themselves. She suggests that what is irresolute about human nature might be that which makes a person happy inside. And once you're happy inside, as we now know, you can live anywhere, even in a quirky provincial little town like Obaba.