Sunday, September 16, 2007
As part of the "deal" I struck with the press accreditation committee at TIFF, I was to place write-ups at both Twitch and Greencine and, thus, my "dispatch" to Greencine was shaped by films seen from both the Masters and Discovery Programs (namely, The Man From London, El Pasado, Ulzhan, Flight of the Red Balloon, Alexandra, Blind, King of the Hill, La Zona, and The World Unseen). The one Discovery title that did not meet the Greencine deadline was the Mexican film Cochochi, the first-time feature of writer-directors Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán, with Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna sharing executive production credits.
Cochochi, which ran in the Horizons Program at the Venice Film Festival, received a five-minute standing ovation. Variety's reviewer Alissa Simon was less than gracious, however, describing the film as "attenuated", "simplistic", "stiff" and "stagy", consigning it to festivals where audiences "have a so[f]t spot for this sort of thing." Consider me proudly just such an audience and, apparently, I am not alone; TIFF's Deisel Discovery Award—voted on by the festival press corps—was awarded to Cochochi.
I like Jason Buchanan's succinct yet sensitive synopsis for All Movie Guide: "Two young indigenous brothers from the La Sierra Tarahumara region of northwest Mexico return home from Benito Juarez elementary boarding school, only to find their fates pulling them in opposite directions in director Laura Amelia Guzmán's dramatic meditation on the value of culture and the cost of progress. Evaristo and Luis Antonio Lerma Batista have graduated from boarding school. Though 12-year-old Evaristo would like nothing more than to continue his education, learn Spanish, and lead a bicultural existence, his 11-year-old sibling couldn't see things more differently. Antonio is thrilled to be finished with school. Despite being a considerably bright student, Antonio would much rather spend his days on the family ranch than in the classroom. As both brothers take their tentative first steps into the adult world, they are assigned the task of delivering a package to a faraway community and lent the family horse to get the job done. After taking a wrong turn down a narrow and winding canyon, Evaristo and Antonio decide to tie the horse to a tree and attempt to find a way out. Upon returning some time later, the brothers discover that the horse is missing and they decide to split up. Now, as Antonio searches for the horse and Evaristo sets out to deliver the package, these two brothers will experience a side of Tarahumara culture that can't be taught in a classroom."
Cochochi (which fragrantly translates into "land of the pines") succeeds precisely for its simplicity and the organic feel of its being improvised from the inside out. Real-life siblings Antonio Lerma Batista and Evaristo Lerma Batista "enact" the two Tarahumara brothers (or Raramuri as they call themselves) who—in effect—are two sides of the same coin. As the Buena Onda synopsis amplifies: "For the Lerma Batista family, school represents a loss of time and money. In fact, children are sent to elementary school just because there they are fed and taken care of for free. If Evaristo keeps studying he would have to go far away and wouldn't be able to work in the community of Okochochi where, every day, he learns about Tarahumara cultural heritage. Meanwhile, Luis Antonio (Tony), 11 years old, is very happy to have finished school forever. Even though he is a smart kid and has a strong chance of securing a grant to move on to high school, he prefers to live life on the ranch, where the kids grow up at very young age. Now Tony and Evaristo are not kids anymore, but small adults who can take care of themselves and make their own decisions."
How they each arrive at decisions that ultimately serve their natural instincts is inferred by the presence of their grandfather's white horse. Tony suspects the horse has been robbed and sets out to find the thief. Evaristo is convinced the horse broke free because he didn't know how to properly tie a knot. In time Tony's suspicions are diffused as it becomes clear that, yes indeed, a loose knot might be the cause of their loss, but—rather than lay blame on Evaristo—he gently mollifies his brother by saying that knowing how to tie a knot is not something they teach you in school. After mining for excuses to tell their grandfather about why they lost the horse, the boys reach an honest bedrock and the film reaches for a resolution where each achieve individual integrity.
One user comment at IMdb complained that the acting was terrible and that the subject matter would have best been served by the documentary format. I find such a critique shortsighted and culturally imperious. The filmmakers have indeed taken tender care to capture an indigenous momentum of life that is gradually disappearing but it is exactly the lack of emotional affect (too readily conflated with "acting") that provides authenticity to Cochochi. The telling of this tale is on Raramuri terms. The directors not only allowed them to develop the script from their own experiences but relied on them to translate Spanish into their native dialect. If there are moments when the characters appear to be thinking about what to say next, it's because they are actually translating what needs to be said.
As Chiara Arroyo reports to Screen Daily, Ramirez and Guzman came up with the story for the film after meeting the two boys, who lived with their uncle and aunt in San Ignacio de Avareko, a town with more than 2,000 Raramuri. The story developed from a question posed to the boys: what would happen if you lost your grandfather's horse? This collaborative artistry is what impresses me most about Cochochi.
"Their daily lives are a source of simple stories and life lessons with universal appeal," Ramirez explains, "They keep their own traditions."
Diego Luna adds: "This is a very important project for us. We are working with young and very talented people and are very happy to be part of it because it has so much integrity and soul. This is the kind of film we would like to see more often in Mexico."
Perhaps with the attention the film has received at both Venice and Toronto, Luna's hopes will bear future fruit.
Cross-published on Twitch.