December 16, 2017

Film Review

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Return to Bolivia: an ode and a lament

"We met Janeth and David in late 2004, when they set up shop, a verdulería or green grocer's store, right next to our home. (Janeth and David) not only worked but also lived on the premises with their children Jhosely, Camila and Brian," say filmmakers Marina Boolls and Mariano Raffo, the joint authors of the docu-drama Return to Bolivia, released this week in BA.

"We soon began to do our shopping grocery there and started to befriend them. Every single day, running errands, we chatted the hours away. Every recipe, every cultural habit, their cosmovision, fuelled our curiosity about (their country of origin), Bolivia" they continue.

Like so many projects that come to fruition on the spur of a moment, the project to make a movie documenting the family's trip to their motherland, came out of a joke. Janeth and David, the Bolivian couple who, after years of hard work, managed to thrive in the Floresta neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, jocularly invited Boolls and Raffo to spend carnival in Oruro, Bolivia, a city renowned for its fabulous yearly celebration of this pagan festivity.

Half seriously, half jokingly, Boolls and Raffo accepted the invitation, on one conditon: "We take a camera with us and we make a movie."
It was a long time before the project came about. It was not to be that year, but the following, with more time available for planning and, most importantly, getting to know each other better, the Argentine couple and the Bolivian family decided it was time to hit the road.

I don't think I'm being too tough on the male gender when a woman, her arms akimbo, shouts out loud: "Who's wearing the pants around here?" In my experience, and running no risk of being unfair to my own gender, it's always women who are out there to confront and stand up to adversity, to any kind of problematic situation, mainly the ones that involve swift decision-making.

This is clearly seen, right from the start, in Return to Bolivia. Janeth and David have come from their native Bolivia escaping poverty and deprivation, and hoping for a new start for their young family, and for the relatives they left behind. Eight years have elapsed, eight long years of daily toiling to finally find themselves, in their own words, "thriving."

"We may not own a house, we may never be homeowners, but there's four or five businesses (negocios) we're running here, several verdulerías that allow us to live with some measure of dignity," Janeth explains.

But economic prosperity isn't everything: David, snowed under tons of fruit and vegetable boxes - waking up at 3am to make it to the Mercado Central and then back, keeping shop until after 10pm and getting a few hours' sleep only to see the whole process start anew - has been trying to suppress a yearning, a longing, a much feared desire and need to go back to Bolivia, to find himself, the family he left behind, the elderly father who has never met his grandchildren, the places that were once familiar ground for him.

Being mostly animistic in their approach to religion, it is Janeth who eventually expresses her husband's urgent need to look back, to confront the ghosts of the past. "I dreamt last night," she says matter-of-factedly. "I dreamt," as though this were not a daily occurrence but, instead, something rather exceptional. "I had this dream," she continues, and continues to explain that, the way syncretism goes, she has heard voices. Those voices, she insists, told her about the urgent need to go back and settle personal scores with both the present and the past.

It was in January, 2006, that Boolls and Raffo and their Bolivian friends embarked on a long, long bus trip. First, a stopover in Villazón, on the border between Argentina and Salta, to visit Janeth's relatives.
Almost always, every journey is a journey of self-discovery. But a trip, well, a trip cannot always be equated with a journey. A trip may just be the transportation of people and objects to another location, no proper change or transformation entailed.

Janeth is visibly more perceptive, more courageous and more realistic than David will ever be. The fair sex is usually the stronger too. Janeth confronts David with the inexorable issue of temporality. "Your father is an old man, you never communicate much with him, he may be dead before you know it." A hard blow on the face, this one.
Somewhere in between, never at either end of the divide, their children take it all in stride, with the kind of natural surprise you'd rightly expect from infants who hardly, if ever, have been far from the Flores neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, where their parents have set up shop and where the whole family lives.

Boolls and Raffo were invited to join; they accepted, on condition of being allowed to make some sort of indie road movie. The greatest achievement of Return to Bolivia, perhaps, is that the camera focuses in on a tiny detail or panscans for a more comprehensive view, but it never makes itself felt, it never becomes an intrusive technological element.

A bus trip from Buenos Aires to Bolivia is long, incredibly long, but viewers are spared the unnecessary itemization, concentrating instead on the children's awe at the changing landscape, at Nature, the cerros and mountains, the wild animals, which they probably thought existed only on TV. The documentary-makers' smart choice here is that there's no sense of overwhelming encounter, of cultural clash. Everything is new to these children, but they take it all in with the kind of unabatable, natural reverence to be expected from people first exposed to a reality they had no palpable proof of its existence before.

It is David, husband and father, who finds it relieving to revisit all these places and memories in the company of wife and children. His eyes, like his children's, are as full of awe and admiration as anyone's would when first encountering these breathtakingly beautiful landscapes.

Return to Bolivia was made with a technical crew of only four: director, assistant director, cameraman, and sound recordist. It was shot on a shoestring budget, saving every penny for any contingency.

The way Return to Bolivia unfolds, visually, you'd think several cameras, light spots, expert cinematographers and sound engineers had been summoned and put to work. We all know it's been the other way round, that the movie has been shot with scarce means, facing all manner of adversity. But the intelligent narrative and the skilful editing make Return to Bolivia a remarkable documentary, not just from a technical point of view. Indeed, Return to Bolivia, more than just a camera following the travails of a group of people, is about life and death, death and life, the exploration of which is never easy.

If Thanatos and an eerily ominous feeling could be perceived in Janeth's voicing when recalling her dream about hers or David's relatives summoning them to go back, calm has long been restored before the first stopover. For both Janeth and David, this is, perhaps, the first break they've allowed themselves to take since migrating to Argentina, escaping poverty and fighting for a better future. Distance and time come more naturally to Janeth. It is David, overworked as his wife but, unlike her, unable to look back to then look ahead, who fears the encounter with a past he's been running away from.

Since film consists basically of sight and sound in juxtaposition, it is the aural background and the utterly beautiful music by Zelmar Garín that punctuates the action and underlines the script's concept - if one was written at all - and the visual discourse. Apart from musical instruments, Garín, who often resorts to objects for sonorous effects, has scored an experimental soundtrack that both illustrates and delves into the authentic aural landscape of northern Argentina and, finally, Bolivia, the final destination. Contrary and paradoxical as it may seem, his music illustrates the coalition between man and his surroundings, but also humankind's sense of estrangement when sounds spontaneously, harmoniously play the function of companion to the camera's eye: a viewfinder, just that, albeit in permanent motion.

Adding to their dexterous use of the scarce means at hand, both Boolls and Raffo let their friends narrate the story not by looking into the camera, but rather into each other's eyes, into their own selves, their own insecurities and doubts, their joys and sense of discovery.

Other than a beautifully narrated account of a whole family's return to their roots, Return to Bolivia has the additional merit of immersing viewers into one side of reality, into the lives of people one often walks by without caring to, if not exort, at least perceive a more intimate side of.

Boolls and Raffo let the camera roll in an unforced manner, depicting the reunion of father and son, and having grandpa and grandchildren meet for the first time. The animistic nature of Bolivian people flows naturally from grandpa's tales of fabulous animals and fabulous deeds, and it is this sense of homecoming, of reunion of the selves, that pervades the whole movie in a sweetly melancholy yet joyful manner.


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