Thursday, July 29, 2010

Through Child-Like Eyes

As our world grows increasingly cynical, true innocence becomes a surprisingly precious commodity. We hear so many lies from corporate executives -- and so much feigned innocence from media whores and celebutards -- that we often must turn to simpler minds to remember the joy of discovery, the freedom of unabashed delight, and the ecstatic glee of an unexpected moment of happiness.

As the following two videos demonstrate, dogs (even after learning certain types of behavior) do a remarkable job of retaining their innocence. Indeed, for some dogs there are tricks that can never grow stale.

Capturing a genuine sense of innocence onscreen is easier said than done. When working with kids, one has to find children who are not self conscious, who can just relax and be themselves. If kids feel that they have to perform for the cameraman, their actions become more calculated. If they are being manipulated by parents and/or directors, their smiles can seem artificial. Their behavior can quickly become forced.

Two new films capture a childlike kind of innocence from very different perspectives. In one, a child takes delight in the world around him. In another, a mentally challenged young woman does the best she can to cope with a sudden change in her surroundings.

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Written and directed by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, Alamar (To The Sea) focuses on the last summer a five-year-old boy will be able to share with his father and grandfather. Natan (Natan Machado Palombini) was conceived during a period when his parents were young, impetuous, and not really thinking about the future. His father (Jorge Machado) is a fisherman of Mayan descent who lives an extremely simple life in a watery paradise. His mother (Roberta Palombini) lives halfway around the world in the bustling environment that is modern-day Rome.

If there are many moments when Alamar feels like a documentary, that's because the filmmaker has chosen to let nature take its course. The audience watches Natan and his father leave the city, travel to Jorge's remote water house on stilts, and spend the summer fishing with Natan's grandfather (Nestor Marin). Some of their catch is sold, but they eat most of what they take from the ocean.

Natan spends his summer learning how to fish (a newly hooked barracuda puts up one hell of a fight), dive for lobsters, and be careful about the crocodile that lurks under his father's shack. He happily chases after an elusive white egret he has nicknamed Blanquita, all while living in a home with minimal electricity that is far from the civilized life he leads in Rome. As Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio writes in his director's notes:
"I first traveled to the Mexican Caribbean at a very young age. Some of the images in my mind are of dirt roads surrounded by a dense jungle, crabs and iguanas crossing it, a sea with plenty of colorful fish right underneath the pier. Six years ago I moved to Playa del Carmen, probably driven by that childhood experience. Many things had changed. What once used to be a fishermens' village now was the epicenter of the fastest growing urbanization in Mexico.

At this touristic oriented development area, I've witnessed the lack of environmental awareness: the destruction of an extensive coral reef to make a long dock for cruise ships, the destruction of hectares of mangrove along the coastline to build big chain hotels, polluting the sea with sewage water, hence affecting the whole ecosystem of the area and pushing many of its species to an ill-fated future.

Banco Chinchorro, the main location where the documentary takes place, was declared a Natural Reserve of the Biosphere in 1996 by UNESCO and serious efforts are being made to make it a World Heritage Site. It is home to thousands of different species and the biggest coral reef extension in our country. By photographing and developing a story based on the current relation between man and his habitat in Chinchorro, I intend to portray my love for this region and the admiration and respect I have towards the lives of its fishermen.

Natan Machado Palombini

I didn't want to take a distant or intellectual approach in this film. What I wanted was to achieve a visual experience that could trigger emotions of empathy with the characters. During the same time of research I was working on a story based on a father and son relationship. In Alamar I was inspired by the simplicity of happiness.

The day-to-day activities at Chinchorro and the interaction with Matraca, the old fisherman, resulted in a perfect experience for Natan to learn about an ancestral interaction between man and nature. He is a child who moves between both worlds: one an austere life while spending time with his dad and the other in urban society along with his mother. Not that any of the realities is better than the other. They are simply different. The child is able to be himself in both, free from any preconception or judgement. I tried to focus on the boy’s point of view, to accomplish a pure feeling in every way.

The main location embraced the characters naturally as if they belonged there, in a timeless sense to the environment. But the idea of impermanence is present in the characters’ reality from the very first moments of the story to the last frame. The father’s decision with the present is to go back to his origins in order to teach his son the true values in life."
Natan Machado Palombini and Jorge Machado

Watching Alamar is a very curious experience. Much of the film feels like a nature documentary with the human interest factor hovering in the background. However, Alamar also depicts the kind of easy bonding between father and son that many people never had. Set in a watery paradise far from urban congestion, the film offers viewers a visit to a lifestyle that is unimaginable to city dwellers.

What Gonzalez-Rubio does, however, is show that although Natan's parents have grown apart from each other (and no longer share any interests other than their son), they both accept and respect each other's choices. Unlike many couples that have separated, there is no vindictiveness or sniping between them. They both want the best for Natan and take great joy in watching him develop. Here's the trailer:

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A deeply moving film from Argentina, Anita was recently screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Written and directed by Marcos Carnavale, Anita stars Alejandra Manzo as a young woman with Down syndrome whose life is shattered after a terrorist bomb explodes in her neighborhood.

Anita Feldman and her mother Dora (Norma Aleandro) live above a small stationary store in Buenos Aires. Anita's brother, Ariel (Peto Menahem), is a tense business executive whose obsession with soccer causes him to renege on his promise to take Anita to the zoo. Although they have a long-established dance routine in which he pretends to be the "turdy monster" whenever he greets Anita, his devotion to his developmentally disabled sister is genuine.

Alejandra Manzo as Anita Feldman

On July 18, 1994, a terrorist attack on the Acociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, killed 85 people and injured many more. In Carnavale's film, Anita's mother has just left to run an errand to the AMIA building and promised her daughter that she will return "when the big hand [of the clock] hits the top." Dora is killed when the car bomb explodes. The blast from the explosion knocks Anita off a ladder as she tries to tidy up in the store.

Alejandra Manzo as Anita Feldman

As Anita crawls out of the wreckage and heads into the street, she has no way of knowing that her mother is dead. Because of her limited vocabulary and difficulty communicating with strangers, she finds it hard to identify herself or even ask for help. Although in her late teens, the only name by which she knows her mother is "Mommy." She doesn't know her home address or how to contact her brother.

What Carnavale's film demonstrates is just how easy it is for someone like Anita to become invisible or be treated as an annoyance in a big city. As she wanders the sidewalks of Buenos Aires in a daze, people rush by her.
  • A street performer tells Anita to move away from his spot and stop cramping his style.
  • As she leaves the examining room in a local hospital, no one notices her exit in the midst of a crisis.
  • A drunk photographer (Luis Luque) gives Anita shelter for two nights, but eventually ditches her on a city bus.
  • The owner of a small Chinese grocery store keeps accusing Anita of trying to steal food until the owner's mother invites the confused young woman to dinner.
  • A scavenger finds Anita hiding under a highway during a downpour and brings her home to his sister, Nori (Leonor Manso), who is a registered nurse.
Meanwhile, Ariel and his wife have all but given up hope that Anita could still be alive. When word finally reaches them that she has been found, Ariel is afraid the news could be a hoax.

Although there is much to admire in Anita, this film is no tearjerker. Alejandra Manzo gives a breakout performance in the title role, mostly by just being herself. Whereas Natan (the young boy in Alamar) is innocent and capable of soaking in new knowledge like a sponge, Anita is using what little knowledge she can access in order to survive. Anita is a magnificent story -- a film that should not be missed. Here's the trailer:


Anonymous said...


Alex Rubinshteyn said...

We watched Anita yesterday - very nice movie. It seems that Anita's brother didn't believe he can find her, only the power of his wife could do this.