Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 7, 2020

Song Without a Name

Filed under: Film,Peru — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm


Opening today as Virtual Cinema is a deliberately understated, black-and-white, art film titled “Song Without a Name”. Its potentially explosive theme is about the theft of new-born babies in Peru during the late 1980s in order to be sold on the adoption black market. Slowly paced and staying close to the historical record, it has little in common with Hollywood conventions. If Stephen Spielberg directed such a film, there would be danger lurking behind every corner, especially when an investigative reporter is told that the people running the baby-stealing ring are very dangerous. Whatever “Song Without a Name” lacks in dramatic impact, it more than makes for in authenticity.

Georgina and her husband Leo are expecting their first child. They live in a village in the highlands made up of fellow Quechuan Indians, who constitute the base of the Shining Path. Despite being poverty-stricken and without much hope for a better future, they eagerly await the infant’s birth. Each day they descend down a mountain into a nearby village where both make their livings from potatoes, the Incan food that the conquistadores brought back to Europe. Leo works for a wholesaler lugging bags of potatoes around and Georgina sells some in the local marketplace. The money they earn is barely enough to keep them alive, but revolutionary insurgency is the last thing on their mind. They are steeped in Quechuan rituals and only hope to enjoy the company of their first-born.

One day as Georgina is hawking potatoes, she hears a nearby radio advertising free medical care for expectant women. Without thinking through the ramifications of anything free in a country where the capitalist class treats indigenous people like slaves, she shows up at the clinic in labor. As they advertised, there’s no cost in delivering a baby girl. However, they don’t give her the infant as promised. Instead, they escort her out of the hospital and lock the door behind them. The next day the clinic is shut and the staff and her newborn disappeared.

Georgina tries to file a report with the cops but they are totally uncooperative, a function no doubt of them being on the take. Growing more and more desperate, she barges into the newsroom of a major newspaper and begs to speak to a journalist. When told that she needs a pass to get to first base with a reporter, she breaks down sobbing with the words “they stole my baby” pouring out of her mouth. A reporter named Pedro Campos is touched by her grief and takes her aside to get the story. The remainder of the film consists of him trying to get to the bottom of the baby-stealing ring. As I said, this is not a detective story. Instead, it is a portrait of two people playing different parts in a society that has been marked by savage inequality since the days of the conquistadores. He is a righteous man standing up to the rotten and corrupt elites who hope for Shining Path’s defeat. You might even say that Pizarro’s colonial conquest was made easier by the feudal-like system of the Incas that included human sacrifice.

This debut film was written and directed by Melina León, a Peruvian graduate of the Columbia University film school. She is the daughter of Ismael León, a journalist who helped to found La República in 1981, a newspaper that broke the baby-theft story. The training she received at Columbia helped her make a technical decision that put its stamp on the film’s texture. As this excerpt from a press notes interview would indicate, she was influenced by the minimalism of earlier filmmakers of art films rather than by Stephen Spielberg. Of course, the irony is that Hollywood has ground to a halt, while the art films and documentaries are flourishing under Virtual Cinema.

With the black & white and the 4:3 frame, the film develops a very formal austerity. What made you and Inti Briones (the DOP) choose this sober style? Did you have influences to guide you? We really wanted to see the world as our characters saw it, so we figured that we needed to trap them. A wide landscape didn’t seem appropriate for those days when we felt so constrained. Since our budget was so limited, we didn’t have much control over locations so we figured we’d better use the format to achieve this feeling of entrapment.

Also, we felt that we needed to use every possible resource to contribute to transport people to the 1980’s and of course 4:3 was the TV format in those days.

The choice of black & white comes from my memory of the photographs in the newspapers of the 1980’s. They were not printing in color yet.

Inti and I watched films by Béla Tarr and Andrey Zvyagintsev and found our inspiration and common ground. We also talked a lot about Yellow Earth by Chen Kaige – which was shot by Zhang Yimou – and about the films of Jia Zhangke.


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