Monday, June 6, 2011

Even the Rain

I saw a provocative and important movie this past weekend. Even the Rain, about a year old, available, at least on my cable system, on demand for five bucks. It's about a film crew that's come to Cochabamba, Bolivia, in the year 2000 to make a movie about the arrival and subsequent actions of Christopher Columbus and the Spanish colonizers in what are now the Americas. The movie they are making has a progressive slant; it shows the horrors inflicted on the Indigenous inhabitants by the invaders; it does not portray Columbus and the rest as heroes; it highlights the efforts of Bartolome de las Casas and the now lesser-known Antonio Montesinos against these horrors. And yet, for all their good intentions, the European director/writer, producer, crew and most of the actors, from the moment they arrive for the shoot, themselves engage in the same racism, exploitation and oppression that they're supposedly committed to exposing when it's safely 500 years in the past. Ironies abound, but really irony is the wrong word because there's a bourgeois disengagement to artistic irony, a trap into which Even the Rain does not fall. Rather, I should say that this film does a great job, careful but clear, of depicting a latter-day invasion—not physically cruel, brutal or violent but nevertheless oppressive and exploitive in many ways, and clueless about its oppressiveness, utterly insensitive—an invasion in this case by a moneyed force, that is, a movie production.

Although that alone would be interesting enough, there's much more. For the film crew arrives just as the great water wars of Cochabamba are hitting a fever pitch. No one—actors, director, producer, crew—remains untouched as the Bolivian peasants and workers organize, take to the streets, shut down the city, battle street by street to defend a most basic, precious right. The fulcrum of it all, of the struggle and of the movie and of the movie within the movie, is the character of Daniel. He and his daughter have been hired for the movie, he playing the pivotal role of Hatuey, the Taino rebel who led the resistance to the invaders and was crucified for it. At the same time, Daniel is a leader of the  actual real-life struggle to block imperialism (it was the U.S. company Bechtel) from stealing the people's water and forcing them to pay for it. This struggle coincides with and interrupts the shoot, and it forces the producer and director to make hard decisions about what matters most—a movie or a struggle for justice, an investment or a human being.

The acting in Even the Rain is very good, especially that of Juan Carlos Aduviri as Hatuey and Luis Tosar as Costa the producer. The director is Icíar Bollaín; I'm not familiar with her work but would gladly see more of her movies. The writer is Paul Laverty, who also wrote Bread and Roses about the Justice for Janitors strike in Los Angeles and the great great The Wind that Shakes the Barley about the Irish republican struggle. The movie is dedicated to Howard Zinn, a signal of the filmmakers' orientation toward truth telling.

A final note. I mused a bit after watching Even the Rain about why the filmmakers hadn't simply made a movie about the Cochabamba water wars and how the peasants and workers drove Bechtel out of Bolivia. Wouldn't that be a great, exciting, dramatic movie, and don't we desperately need movies that show the class struggle in action? So is this one more case of foregrounding European central characters (the Spanish moviemakers of the movie-within-the-movie) onto a story that is not theirs, of telling a story of Indigenous resistance through European eyes? In one way, yes it is, it's undeniable, that's what this film does. In another way, though, I think the artists behind Even the Rain deserve some leeway, some credit, even. I think they very consciously framed the story the way they did, not to provide some through-privileged-eyes surrogate viewpoint, but rather to make a particular point about how what Columbus started is still going on. How Europe (now joined by the U.S.) continues to rob the riches and resources of Latin America and the Caribbean (and Asia and Africa)—in the most pernicious, overt ways, as with Bechtel's water grab, and also in less obvious or extreme ways, as with the moviemakers-within-the-movie paying extras $2 a day, putting them through physical and psychological hardship, swooping in to spend the least possible money for the highest possible later profit, all the while trying desperately to ignore the class war swirling all around them.