Monday, March 21, 2011


"Film must provide audiences the opportunity to discover questions."—Lisandro Alonso.

When I interviewed programmer Diana Sanchez at the 2010 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), she admitted—within the parameters of curatorial taste—her fascination with the appearance of a new genre she was noticing in such films as Pedro González-Rubio's sophomore feature Alamar (To the Sea, 2009), Oscar Ruiz Navia's debut feature
Crab Trap (El Vuelco del Cangrejo, 2009), and the films of Lisandro Alonso, José Luis Guerín, and Miguel Gomes; a genre that she described as "a mix of documentary and fiction with a real sense of play between these two forms."

The Pacific Film Archive (PFA) celebrates the appearance and critical popularity of this new documentary-fiction hybrid with their upcoming series "First Person Plural: The New Nonfiction." Jason Sanders observes in his program notes: "In the past decade a new breed of filmmaking has emerged, not quite documentary, fiction, or experimental, but a combination of—or liberation from—all three genres. Lisandro Alonso's
La libertad (2001) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours (2002) heralded the beginning of this movement, which, while ranging across years, filmmakers, and continents, still shares several elements: quiet, observational long takes; direct-sound recording; and a 'narrative' that unfolds like a documentary, seemingly just 'happened upon' while the camera was rolling, which is sometimes true, but often false. Tellingly, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, makers of Sweetgrass (2010), refer to themselves not as 'directors,' but 'recordists'; the concept that reality is merely being recorded, not 'directed,' is key (as is, of course, creating the illusion of this). Most of all, these films share an embrace of a cinema of and for the senses, a way to document and prioritize the natural world through both sight and sound. A pastoral cinema, true, but one that investigates humanity's complicated relationship, or lack thereof, to its environment. This series is largely drawn from the 2010 Flaherty Film Seminar, which considered how film explores work and the agrarian ideal.

"The influences are many: the avant-garde landscape portraits of James Benning; the ethnographic details of Jean Rouch; the contemplative fictions of Pedro Costa, Albert Serra, Lav Diaz, and others. For these sensory recordings of the rural landscape, however, categories like documentary, ethnography, fiction, and avant-garde seem not only outdated, but ultimately worthless. It is the image, the senses, and what viewers find on the screen, and in themselves, that matters."

The series kicks off this coming weekend with Lisandro Alonso's 2001 feature La Libertad, and I felt now would be a good time to revisit my notes taken from Alonso's presentation of the film at the Northwest Film Forum's 2009 retrospective "At the Edge of the World"

* * *

La Libertad (Freedom, 2001) screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, and scored nominations and wins on the film festival circuit, including the FIPRESCI prize. The son of a cattle rancher and disinclined to carry on with the family business, Alonso was a 25-year-old recent graduate of the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires when he made La Libertad; "outside of Buenos Aires but within Argentina." Alonso met the film's protagonist Misael Saavedra on his father's ranch. Misael, logger by trade, epitomized non-urban youth for Alonso; his reaction to the then-popular trend in Argentine cinema to revel in urban narratives. Perhaps it was Alonso's rural background that granted him familiarity with Misael's incommunication?

Alonso spent eight months in the Argentine Pampas with Misael. It was a difficult cohabitation because they had little in common to talk about; but, slowly, they developed a trust. Once he gained Misael's trust, Alonso proposed making the film. Fueled by his anger that his film proposals were not being considered by the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires, Alonso took on
La Libertad independently. The shoot consisted of 10 days with a 12-person crew. The film remained "in the box" for eight months because neither friends nor family liked it. He was frustrated. But then—unexpectedly—La Libertad became a festival darling.

Alonso's method of filming consists of long takes (usually four minutes) which he restructures in the editing room, making minor manipulations to create—as he puts it—"strange expressions of natural everyday things." The result is—as the Harvard Film Archive program capsule

James Quandt observed in his insightful essay "Ride Lonesome": "So matter-of-fact and uninflected is the film's recording of Misael's daily routines (faithfully re-created from weeks of Alonso's close observation of the man's actual life and edited so that several sequences seem to adhere as real-time) that
describes—"a poetic meditation on labor and landscape."La Libertad has been hailed as the apotheosis of Bazinian realism."

Quandt further tracked that at Cannes "the film elicited inevitable claims that the boundary between fiction and documentary had been blurred, collapsed, or straddled." Alonso, however, argues that La Libertad is not a documentary, though he grants audiences the sovereignty to think however they want about the film. He stresses his concern is more with the point of view of the audience than his own.

The issue of labor chafes against the film's title. "
La Libertad subtly questions the 'freedom' and identity alternately gained and lost by the daily burden of hard labor," the Harvard program capsule concludes. At Slant, Ed Gonzalez notes that "the film's long takes and the cyclical, labored nature of the man's daily grind force the spectator to question the nature of freedom." At Parallax View, Jay Kuehner comments: "Clearly, here was a director who had denuded his cinema down to its sheerest essentials, and what remained was a nominally minimal but ultimately voluptuous portrait of a beautifully forlorn landscape inhabited rather efficiently by a man and his work. Nature, and civilization. The banal, and the mythic. The story was not new—who hasn't worked an arduous day's labor at some time? But the grammar with which it was told was. Radically so." At Elusive Lucidity [broken link], Zach Campbell wonders whether the title is ironic: "Is the protagonist, Misael, free in the nature of his labor and solitude, or is he burdened by its necessity?" "The irony," Robert Koehler concludes at Film Journey, "is that there's nothing absolutely Argentine about La libertad. Its freedom is a freedom from nationality, time-space, narrative laws, camera laws and the expectations that audiences instinctively impose on themselves. But pay attention to the actual translation of the Spanish title: 'Liberty'—a harder, more profound word than 'freedom,' a word pointing to a greater leap, a commitment to an ideal, an identifier for an equation that even describes its opposition—oppression. Liberty is harder-won. Liberty is that thing that the films that really matter aspire to. This one just has the balls to take it as its own name."

In the film's final "quietly confrontational" sequence, Misael munches on roasted armadillo and then stares directly at the audience "as if"—Ed Gonzalez suggests at Slant—"daring us to question or challenge the integrity of his way of life", or what Sean Axmaker describes as "the integrity of the quotidian." "As if" becomes a convenient way to extrapolate Alonso's otherwise notoriously withheld motivations. Alonso admits that by encouraging Misael to look directly into the camera, he deconstructed documentary expectations and created a direct relationship with the audience. Alonso simply told Misael to "act" as if were looking at someone who was eating across a table from him.

The film's original ending had Misael laughing outloud while looking into the camera—achieved by Alonso unexpectedly dropping his pants; but—persuaded by the Cannes Festival to (as Quandt puts it) "remove this Brechtian breach"—Alonso settled for the somber, more atmospheric ending.

Many critics of the film have suggested it would have sufficed better as a short; but, aware that no one recovers costs on a short film, Alonso chose to make a feature in hopes he might recover some of his family's investment. His father was the film's producer.

When La Libertad premiered at Cannes, one of the critics from Cahiers du Cinema complained that Alonso treated his non-actor Misael like he was a monkey. "I'm sorry to tell you, but he's wrong about how I direct my actors," Alonso asserted defensively. "I'm not trying to make any money from the films. I'm not trying to use them." He knows he's working with non-actors and has to develop specific approaches with them. He can't ask them to behave like professional actors. Nonetheless the question of Alonso's artistic sincerity clouded the film's Cannes reception. As Jay Kuehner summarized at Parallax View: "The question persisted whether Alonso's film was, to reduce the argument, an act of abstract humanism. Was it possible that esteemed auteurs held a kind of deep faith in their wounded protagonists yet had little regard in reality for their more immediate brethren?"

Cross-published on Twitch.

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