Opening at the IFC Center on November 20th, “Mediterranea” is a timely narrative film about immigration, an issue that has been dominating the media for the past year or two. In this instance, the characters are not political refugees but a couple of brothers from Burkina Faso who are trying to make to Europe in hope of a better life.
While most people who have been following the immigration story are aware that the voyage across the Mediterranean Ocean on rickety boats has cost the lives of more than 2000 people this year, the film dramatizes the hazards that must be faced even before they reach the boat. The two brothers, Ayiva and Abas, join a group of about twenty people who must reach their point of departure in Algeria by first traveling through the Libyan desert. Relying on a guide who they are told to trust implicitly, they are ambushed by Libyan bandits who obviously got tipped off by the guide. They are ordered to surrender their hard-earned cash and other valuables. When one man begins complaining loudly even as he has complied with their demands, he gets a bullet in the head.
Eventually the two brothers make it to Italy—just barely—where they make their way to a small town in the countryside where they hope to hook up with other Burkina Faso immigrants. After being warmly greeted in town by their brethren, they are escorted to their new home—a room in a shantytown hovel. Between the two brothers, there are conflicts over their situation with Ayiva seeing the glass half-full and Abas seeing it as ninety percent empty.
Like most of the other male immigrants, they end up as farmworkers picking oranges for an Italian family that looks upon them kindly but patronizingly. The grandmother insists on being called Mother Africa while the teenaged granddaughter turns over a carton of oranges because she is feeling bitchy. Her father is fair to his workers but only so far as it goes. When Ayiva practically begs him to help secure the papers necessary for permanent residence, the man lectures him about his grandfather who relied on nobody except his family when he came to the USA.
The film is remarkable by staying close to the realities of immigrant life without resorting to the melodrama that many of these types of films deem necessary. It is about the daily struggle to make a living in difficult circumstances and the small pleasures that come with the gatherings of fellow Burkina Faso men and women at night as they share drinks, listen to Western music, and shore each other up for the next day’s travails.
The press notes indicate how the director came to make such a film:
It would be pretentious on my part to claim that I have experienced anything remotely close to what the immigrants are experiencing —I can only be an outside observer here. However, because of my own background, I could approach the story of African immigrants in Italy with some personal connections. My mother is African-American and my father is Italian. And I’ve always been very interested in race relations, with a particular interest in the role of black people in Italian society. So when the first race riot took place in Rosarno in 2010, I immediately went down to Calabria to learn more about the circumstances that lead to the revolt. It was an event of historical proportions because it opened up for the first time the question of race relations in an Italian context. So I started talking to people and collecting stories about their lives. I settled there permanently and began to think about a script.
Although it should not be a factor in either reviewing or seeing this exceptionally well-made and politically powerful film, a few words about Burkina Faso would help you understand why such people would take the arduous trip across the Mediterranean to an uncertain future.
In 1983 Captain Thomas Sankara, who was to Burkina Faso as Hugo Chavez was to Venezuela, led a popular revolution in Upper Volta, a former French colony. Once in power, he changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso, which meant “Land of Upright Men”, and embarked on a bold series of social and economic reforms targeting the country’s poor, especially the women. Called the “Che Guevara of Africa”, he consciously modeled his development program on the Cuban revolution.
Unlike in Venezuela where Hugo Chavez was saved from a coup attempt by the power of the people, the Burkina Faso experiment had a tragic outcome. Blaise Compaoré, acting on behalf of Burkina Faso’s tiny but powerful bourgeoisie and their patrons in France, overthrew Sankara in 1987.
For the next twenty-seven years Blaise Compaoré created the conditions that forced people like Ayiva and Abas to risk everything on a voyage that could cost them lives at worst and at best to end up picking oranges for minimum wages. In 2006 the UN rated Burkina Faso as 174th in human development indicators, just three places from the bottom. With cotton plantations dominating the rural economy, the country is locked into the traditional neocolonial, agro-export dependency.
Last year when Compaoré proposed a change to the constitution that would allow him to run for office once again after the fashion of Robert Mugabe, the country erupted in protests and he fled the country. In the aftermath, there have been various attempts by military figures to run the country temporarily until elections were held next year. Suffice it to say that none of them measures up to Thomas Sankara. One hopes that the same kind of courage and determination that led the characters in “Mediterranea” to make the arduous trip to Italy will serve to make Burkina Faso the “Land of Upright Men” once again.
Following in the footsteps of this year’s “A Second Mother”, a Brazilian film about class divisions between master and servant in a wealthy household, “Casa Grande” incorporates much of the same tensions and even a central character—a teenage son who is uncomfortable with privilege.
In “Casa Grande”, which opened yesterday at the Cinema Village in New York, we meet Jean the teenage son early on as he sneaks into the bedroom of Rita, one of the family’s two maids. Overloaded with raging hormones, he can barely restrain himself as Rita—a beautiful young woman—tells him about a tryst she had with a motorcyclist whose name she did not even know. He took her to an alley, lifted up her skirt, and began kissing her bottom. As Jean begins to make a move on Rita, she holds him off and sends him back to his room—the only power that she can exercise in a house where class privilege is on display every minute of the day.
Hugo, Jean’s father, is impatient with Jean who has a slacker temperament. It is not just that the youth is unmotivated, although that is a problem, it is more that he is not very smart—the same flaw that existed in the young man in “A Second Mother”. That does not stand in the way of the close relationship he has built with the hired help and in fact makes it more possible. For someone barely capable of passing Brazil’s onerous entrance exams for college, there is little point in pretending that he is something other than a kid who likes music and women. When Severino the chauffeur drives him to school in the morning, the main topic of conversation is how to “score”. It is clear that Jean has much more of a rapport with the driver than his martinet of a father who expects him to join Brazil’s bourgeoisie.
This is a bourgeoisie that Hugo is barely clinging to having lost his job as an investment adviser and who is now deeply in debt, so much so that every penny must be accounted for in Casa Grande. Before the family gathers for dinner in the evening, he reminds them to shut out the lights in their room before they sit down at the table. We eventually learn that Hugo, despite all his displays of privilege, has not paid the servants for the past three months and that he will be forced to sell their mansion in a gated community designed to keep out people from the lower classes.
When Jean develops a relationship with Luiza, a young woman of mixed ancestry, race joins class in forcing Jean to decide where his loyalties lie. The main topic of conversation at dinner gatherings is Brazil’s new affirmative action law that will allot 40 percent of the posts in many public institutions to Black or brown people, including Luiza. When she insists to Hugo that she deserves a spot in college because of the new law’s commitment to compensating for slavery, he spits out that he earned his place in society. Nobody ever gave him anything.
His place in society is exactly what is in jeopardy now. Although the information will be familiar to Brazilian audiences, I had to research the nature of Hugo’s immanent downfall on the net. It seems that he owned thousands of shares in OGX, the second largest oil and gas company in Brazil after Petrobras. This is a company that would go broke eventually because of the mismanagement of its CEO Eike Batista, who was an even bigger screw-up than Hugo.
In 2008 Forbes listed Batista as the 8th richest man in the world. Five years later he would be ruined because OGX was pumping only 15,000 gallons of oil out of the ground rather than the 750,000 it predicted. This year Brazilian cops seized seven cars from Batista, including a white Lamborghini Aventador, and all the cash he had left.
If you want to understand the turmoil in Brazil today, there’s no better place to go than the Cinema Village to see this brilliant dissection of a society falling apart at the seams.
Finally, there’s “Barge”, a 71-minute documentary showing tomorrow at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas on 260 W 23rd St, between 7th and 8th Avenues as part of the NY Documentary Film Festival that runs until the 19th (the schedule is here: http://www.docnyc.net/schedule/).
In this marvelous work by Ben Powell, we accompany a crew as they navigate the Mississippi River from Rosedale, Mississippi to points northward. The film alternates between gorgeous vistas of the river, the men at work on the boat, and interviews that you have to strain a bit to understand since the drawls are so thick you can cut them with a knife. (Will Patterson’s minimalist film score is a winner, the best Philip Glass-inspired work I have heard in decades.)
The interviews are what make this film stand out. If you have read Studs Terkel’s “Working”, you’ll get an idea of what inspired Ben Powell to make such a film. In a period when workers are undervalued, you’ll be impressed with how the crew see themselves—as men who help keep the country going. One nails it this way: most of everything you touch gets there on a barge, including the concrete of the sidewalks you walk on and the plastic your groceries are packaged in. With so much of American society consumed with “making it” on an individualist basis, it is great to see a collectivist ethos that goes back centuries at least.