Straight off, Adam Nayman deserves some kind of commission for convincing a small squadron of film journalists to catch Pedro González-Rubio's sophomore feature Alamar (To the Sea, 2009) at its last public screening at the Isabel Bader. Boasting its world premiere in TIFF’s Visions sidebar, Alamar was already part of my scheduled coverage of this year’s Latin American fare, but it’s always heartening to share a viewing experience with such accomplished journalists as Andrew Tracy, Danny Kasman, Fernando Croce, Darren Hughes, Girish Shambu, Richard Porton and Dan Sallitt. Talk about fraternity! Though I didn’t quite agree with Nayman (or Danny Kasman at The Auteurs) that Alamar was the "find of the festival"—for me that honor fell to Oscar Ruiz Navia's El Vuelco del Cangrejo (Crab Trap, 2009)—I could certainly understand their shared enthusiasm for Alamar's pellucid simplicity. "Pedro González-Rubio," Kasman writes, "has found a documentary subject and turned it into a lovely, modest, and sweet fiction of the real world." In a word, the film is beautiful, with stunning aquamarine cinematography contributed by Alexis Zabé (Silent Light, Lake Tahoe).
Mexican Jorge (Jorge Machado) and Italian Roberta (Roberta Palombini) have fallen in love and given birth to Natan (Natan Machado Palombini), now five years old; but, their relationship can’t endure their contrasting temperaments so Roberta has decided to return to Italy with the boy, but not before allowing him the chance to spend quality time with his father and grandfather Matraca (Nestor Marin). Jorge seizes the opportunity to take Natan to Chinchorro, Quintana Roo, home to the second-largest coral reef on the planet and one of the few places in the Mexican Caribbean with an intact ecosystem. Living simply in a wooden palafite (a shack constructed on stakes) in front of the quay, little Natan eases into a fisherman’s life, acclimating to the natural world alongside his father and worldly-wise grandfather. Linaje (lineage) and a sense of knowing one's origins becomes a father’s parting (and lasting) gift to his son.
So what is it that makes this spare tale so resoundingly resonant? Is it that Alamar achieves fiction without narrative intervention? During the Q&A following the screening, González-Rubio was asked the inevitable question: is Alamar a feature film or a documentary film? He responded quite honestly, "I think of it as just a film." Circumventing strict categories, and suffering no delimitations, Alamar forges its own waters. As filmmaking, it recalls Antonio Machado's poetic assertion that there are no paths at sea, only wakes.
In a serendipitous bit of elucidation, Mark Peranson provided advance copies of the Fall 2009 issue of Cinema Scope to press attending TIFF and—perusing same on the flight home to San Francisco—I was quite delighted with Robert Koehler’s essay "Agrarian Utopias/Dystopias", which more than aptly captures the spirit of Alamar in its exploration of "the new nonfiction" or "the cinema of in-between-ness." Koehler writes of a "zone of a cinema free of, or perhaps more precisely in between hardened fact and invented fiction" that "permits all manners of wild possibilities", especially with regard to nuanced observations "specifically applied to subjects about humans working on the surface of the earth." Koehler's essay addresses the suspicion posed during the Q&A that Alamar was neither fact nor fiction: "This deliberately contradictory nature is a fundamental part of these films' essence. If any finding is made at all, it is that the categories are finally quite pointless."
Indeed. How could it be otherwise? How else could the poignancy of a film like Alamar be so evocatively articulated? The profound sadness at the heart of the separation between father and son, between a boy and his native country, echoes the "overwhelming sadness at the process of collapse and the end of things, alongside the unspoken drama of human beings stuck in a cycle with no escape." Marriages collapse, families fall apart, lineages are disrupted, and only memory can soothe distance and rupture; the memory, perhaps, of a befriended cattle egret who flies into the film—and into the lives of its "characters"—as if to remind that one need go no further than an observation of the natural world to find a story that will last a lifetime; a story whose heart is perhaps not fiction but unadorned observed truth.
10/25/09 UPDATE: Alamar swept the audience and jury prizes at the recent Morelia Film Festival. Produced by Mexico’s Mantarraya Productions and Xcalakarma Films, Mantarraya will handle Mexican distribution for Alamar, with France’s MK2 as the film’s international sales agent.
01/03/10 UPDATE: In his Senses of Cinema Toronto dispatch, Dan Sallitt agrees with me that—though Pedro González-Rubio's documentary hybrid Alamar "generated a surprising amount of critical buzz during the last days of TIFF"—he "somewhat preferred another Toronto premiere with a wilderness coastal setting, Oscar Ruiz Navia's El Vuelco del Cangrejo (Crab Trap)."
Sallitt writes that Alamar's story—"slight to begin with"—"almost vanishes behind the didactic mission of the project, as the son's learning experience is entirely coincident with ours. The film has considerable travelogue appeal, and the beautiful natural light and waterscapes of the Chinchorro region create an idyllic atmosphere. But director Pedro González-Rubio's documentary-style hovering camera doesn't do very much to organize the experience; and the issues accompanying the father-son relationship are too suppressed even to be called latent."
Cross-published on Twitch.