Two recent films share the theme of Latino men returning to their native countries and all the dislocation this entails. The first is “Aquí y Allá” (Here and There), a film that has been making the film festival rounds this year, including a screening at the NY Film Festival at Lincoln Center last month. The other is “The Return of Lencho” that opens today at the Quad Cinema. Both are modest efforts financially and not without the flaws often found in first-time feature films. But they more than make up for that in dealing with issues of some urgency, namely the continuing failure of Mexico and Guatemala to provide a social and economic framework for full human development.
“Aquí y Allá” tells the story of Pedro, a thirtyish man who has just returned to his small mountain village in Guerrero after working in the U.S., presumably as an “illegal”. He has hopes of making it as a musician, pouring much of his hard earned money into an electric keyboard and other equipment. His group is “Copa Kings”, named after his village. They play the cumbia, a Colombian style that has made its way into Mexico. He starts out trying to assemble a band and lining up bookings but runs into obstacles of one sort or another. The men he tries to recruit are reluctant to take a chance on such a venture and the pay per performance is barely enough to pay for the basics of living.
After years of living in the U.S., his teenaged daughters have trouble bonding with him even though he tries hard to win them over. When he plays the guitar and sings for them, they giggle uncontrollably. It is not so much the laughter of a young girl at a Justin Bieber concert but the nervousness that comes from a barely-suppressed fear that their father is wasting his time and money.
After Pedro’s wife becomes pregnant, she develops complications that threaten her life and that of her embryo. She checks into a hospital that Pedro visits every chance he gets. When the doctor tells him that a certain medication is necessary, the only option is for him to go to local pharmacies to see if they have it and pay for it out of his own rapidly declining funds. It is about as stunning an indictment of the Mexican health care system as you are likely to see anywhere.
Despite this ostensibly melodramatic part of the narrative, “Aquí y Allá” is understated, almost to the point of minimalism. Much time is spent listening to people making small talk or working in the nearby cornfields, as dry and as unpromising as the lives they face.
If and when “Aquí y Allá” comes to your local theater, I suggest putting it down on your calendar. Whenever I see a Mexican in my neighborhoods slaving away as dishwashers, take-out food deliverers, or non-union construction workers, I often wonder what kind of life they led at home and why they would take a chance at being arrested as an “illegal” and to work in such brutal and underpaid conditions. This film allows you to understand their conditions better than any newspaper article.
As a side-note, I was fascinated to see that the production company is led by an Israeli émigré who used to work in the Fixed Income Electronic Trading group at the now defunct Lehman Brothers. I dare say that this evolution would form the basis of a screenplay in and of itself.
“The Return of Lencho” refers to Lencho Aguilar’s return to Guatemala City after spending some years in the U.S. developing his career as an artist. He is the son of a journalist who was murdered by the army during the “dirty war” against the leftist guerrillas in the 1980s. Lencho’s time is divided between art projects in Guatemala City and researching his father’s death in the newly released archives of the dictatorship.
Despite the end of the dictatorship, Guatemala is still a dangerous place for leftists. Not long after he returns home, the cops begin plotting to kill the young artist who they assume will be taking the side of Indians just like his father.
Unlike the 1980s, there is no mass movement for artists to hook up with. When Lencho and a friend spot a small demonstration against a Canadian mining company, they take heart despite its smallness. But most of his rebelliousness is tied up with street graffiti of the sort that became popular in places like New York and San Francisco in the 1990s. Lencho feels it gives him “street cred” even though his girlfriend worries about the dangers involved and the hit-or-miss messaging of most graffiti artists. She urges him to stick with murals since they generate income and don’t risk arrest or beatings, something he suffers almost the first time out with a spray-paint can. The cops have obviously been tailing him.
Director Mario Morales, a Guatemalan who went to CUNY, originally intended to make a film more about graffiti than politics but decided to combine the two after an incident traumatized him:
El Regreso de Lencho was born out of anger. After six months of research for the film about the violent situation in Guatemala, my younger brother and a friend were kept captive by the police in Antigua, Guatemala for no reason, besides of course, being young and having tattoos.
A police patrol car randomly started shooting at them; my Brother’s friend, the driver, crashed and they both got out of the vehicle with their hands in the air, clearly communicating that they had no weapons or drugs on them. Four police officers bearing AK-47 and AR-15 weapons approached them and started beating them with out any provocation. They hit them on the chest with back of their rifles and then kicked them. As soon as one of them realized that my brother had a tattoo on his calf, he was shot in his lower hip and the bullet exited below the knee.
They were taken to the police station without being offered any medical attention. My brother was handcuffed to a window bar and was left in a standing position all night.
The police department did not answer any questions regarding the case until the next morning, when our Mother went to the station with a lawyer. My Brother was being charged with illegal gun and drug possession; those charges were dropped the moment the lawyer stepped in the station. Days after my family took steps to take the case to court, we started receiving calls from friends in the Government advising them to stop the process, and that my brother needed to leave the country.
This is the case for many young Guatemalans, but very few can afford a lawyer. Young Guatemalans are killed daily by the PNC (Guatemala’s national police department), in connections with alleged gang membership. The PNC has become a military police force. The use of heavy caliber weapons and military style operations aimed at suppressing any kind of youth movement has defined them as a force against intellectual and artistic expression.
Clear proof of the Government’s plan to destroy any youth movement is the case of a young member of our cast, Carlos Chacón, who belonged to a hip hop collective. Two years after finishing the shoot for my film he was killed by the PNC in his neighborhood public school were he was teaching break-dancing to 11 year-old children. The film is dedicated to his memory.
Although I tend to mute my criticisms of earnest and socially aware films such as these, the flaw contained in both is so similar that I will mention them now in the hope that the directors might take them into account in their next film. Although I found both films compelling and just the sort that my regular readers will seek out, they both neglected to consider the key element that makes the best films work—namely a conflict between principal characters. This could have been between Pedro and his daughters in “Aquí y Allá” or Lencho and the cops in “The Return of Lencho”. In the first film, the feelings of alienation remain underdeveloped and the cops in the second function more as a deus ex machina at the end. But to repeat, both of these films are important works that should be sought out given the growing ties—both negative and positive—between the imperialist colossus of the north and our compañeros to the south. The negative, of course, is based on economic exploitation and the positive on the growing political collaboration that will be necessary to take imperialism down.