The Saturday photo, part IX: the Citadelle Laferrière, Haiti.
I just saw Eugenio Polgovsky’s Los herederos. It’s a quite remarkable film.
The movie’s topic is, essentially, child labor in rural Mexico. With no voice-over, no interviews, no title cards, and no framing or explanation, it follows a series of campesino children from diverse parts of the country as they go about their daily tasks. These range from domestic duties such as fetching firewood or water, making tortillas or feeding the family’s animals, to artesanal, industrial, or agro-industrial enterprises such as carving and painting handicrafts, making bricks, helping to plough and sow a field, or working in the harvest for tomatoes or beans.
The children involved in these activities are of all ages, from (literally) babes in arms, who are on their mothers’ or sisters’ backs, or set down to sleep in a row of crops, to young adolescents. On the whole, however, the focus is on kids of around seven, eight, or nine years old.
What’s striking first is how fully and unquestioningly these children are part of the labor process. There is very little discussion or conversation at any stage. At no point is there any protest. Equally, however, at almost no point does anybody have to tell them what to do: they already know, and simply get on with it. Moreover, with rare exceptions (a trio of young boys bringing home a mule, for instance), there is little if any larking around. Nor, on the other hand, is there much sign of boredom or even tiredness. The kids are almost entirely focused on what they’re doing.
This focused attention comes perhaps from the children’s sense of the importance of their labor. Or from their recognition of the risks that it involves. One young boy is carving what eventually appears to be a cat from a block of wood, first with a machete and then with a sharp knife. He cuts his finger, but continues until blood starts to get in the way of his work. He asks (what is presumably) his little brother to “get the tape.” He asks him to do it “quickly,” but there’s no real sense of urgency, and he carries on whittling in the meantime. The tape turns out to be regular scotch tape, which he wraps around the tip of his finger before continuing on.
In short, there’s a certain affectlessness that pervades the movie. It’s broken from time to time: we get the occasional grin, the occasional instance of self-consciousness in front of the camera. Sometimes the smallest kids stumble and fall, but almost none of them cry or scream. No wonder the director should state that he felt fueled by “rage and awe”, as though to supply an affect that was otherwise missing.
In watching his film, however, which steadfastly refuses any discourse of denunciation–indeed, any discourse at all–it is now we, the audience, who are compelled to bring to the experience the missing affect.
First, the English title Milk of Sorrow is not even close to the Spanish original. I would have translated it as “The Nervous Tit.” I haven’t seen the film myself yet, but I would hope that the resonance with “nervous tic” might prove appropriate. Of course, some could think that the film was a psychological portrait of a common garden bird.
Second, this here blog has tried to provide a guide to Peruvian cinema. I’d like to think that this collection of reviews is the most comprehensive to be found online in English. It even features an essay on the topic, complete with a fairly detailed account of Llosa’s previous movie, Madeinusa.
The final shot of Carlos Reygadas’s Japón has to be one of the most extraordinary long takes ever filmed…
The following is a draft of something scheduled to appear in an upcoming number of the LASA Forum…
The central concern of literature is not so much inequality, but difference. And so it should be. Literature enables an exploration of otherness, variety, and singularity. It does so by allowing readers to feel or sense other worlds, different from their own, thereby relativizing their own experience, such that they recognize that they, too, are different. Hence literature differs from film, at least as described by the Frankfurt School theorist Siegfried Kracauer: film often encourages its spectators to see themselves as the same, as part of a mass; but literature tends to emphasize either individualism or a much more diffuse sense of commonality. Film constructs a mass audience of equals; literature posits a common readership characterized by diversity. Even critic Benedict Anderson’s famous argument about the role of the novel and novel-reading in the construction of nationalist sentiment stresses the range of sensastions to which, for instance, picaresque narratives expose their readers: a “tour d’horison,” in the case of José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi’s El periquillo sarniento, of “hospitals, prisons, remote villages, monasteries, Indians, Negros,” whose exemplary differences combine to constitute the collectivity that will be called Mexico. In short, literature is more about imagination than calculation, experience than measurement, affect than effect.
Read more… (.pdf document)
Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “The Three Faces of Sans Souci” takes the Haitian ruins of Sans Souci as a case study for his investigation into historiography and the “silencing of the past.” What’s interesting is that he regards the ruins themselves as both complicit in this silencing and as a form of resistance against it.
Sans Souci refers, in the first instance, to the lavish palace built by Henry Christophe, self-styled post-revolutionary King of Haiti (or rather, the north of the country) in the early nineteenth century. In the second instance, it refers to another palace of the same name, built a few years earlier by Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great in Potsdam, near Berlin. Finally, Sans Souci was also the name of a now almost forgotten Haitian revolutionary who had, in fact, been put to death on Christophe’s orders.
Trouillot’s argument is that the Haitian palace is named for Christophe’s former rival, in order both to establish and to extirpate his memory. On the one hand, “Henry killed Sans Souci twice: first, literally, during their last meeting; second, symbolically, by naming his most famous palace Sans Souci . . . [which] erased Sans Souci from Christophe’s own past, and it erased him from his future.” On the other hand, “Christophe may even have wanted to perpetuate the memory of his enemy as the most formidable one he defeated” (59). However, now that it is generally assumed that the source of the name was its German precursor, even that original silencing is itself silenced and the revolutionary Sans Souci effectively disappears from history. The final result is “an erasure more effective than the absence or failure of memory, whether faked or genuine” (60).
Yet Trouillot also suggests that acts of erasure such as Henry Christophe’s are “silences of resistance, silences thrown against a superior silence,” specifically here the silence “which Western historiography has produced around the revolution of Saint Domingue / Haiti.” In this context the now “crumbling walls” of the former palace “still stand as a last defense against oblivion” (69). They recall at least one move in the internecine strategies played out among those who led the Haitian revolution, disrupting both the heroic narrative preferred by Haitians themselves, and also the broader attempt to portray the revolution as some kind of non-event.
Finally, Trouillot further argues that history is necessarily incomplete, and so warns against the hyper-empiricist fantasy that “an enlargement of the empirical base” will necessarily lead to “the production of a ‘better’ history.” No: “Silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing” (49). As such, history is always a collection of ruins; it is history itself that is, at root, ruined in advance.
He or she seems to have been affiliated with the Mohawk College of Applied Arts and Technology in Hamilton, Ontario.
Many thanks to all those who have dropped in over the past few years.