Does Aqui y Allà (Here and There) take you anywhere?

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The Mexican art film Aqui y Allà (Here and There) opens this Friday.
  • The Mexican art film Aqui y Allà (Here and There) opens this Friday.
Since I reviewed it last fall, I've often found myself thinking about a shot in the Turkish film Honey. From a stationary position at the top of a hill, the camera looks down at a middle-aged woman picking tea leaves. There are countless rows of plants behind her and presumably even more past the camera's location. The shot, which lasts for a minute or two, leads us to assume that the woman has been at this for a long time. Far longer than the average shot of a mainstream movie—and notably lacking music or sound effects that might make it more entertaining—it briefly encourages the viewer to imagine the monotony of her work.

If you watch international art cinema on a regular basis, you've likely seen plenty of shots like this in recent years. The subjects tend to be impoverished, living in undeveloped areas, and employed in some kind of menial labor. The visual style is purposely uncomplicated, marked by minimal cutting and exacting compositions, as if to reflect the characters' uncomplicated lifestyle. If you're unfamiliar with this mode of filmmaking, you can see it in Aqui y Allà (Here and There), a Mexican film about farm laborers that opens this weekend at Facets Multimedia, and in Sharqiya, an Israeli film about impoverished bedouins screening at Block Cinema a week from Friday. Surely I'm not the only person who finds it odd that movies from Turkey, Mexico, and Israel should look so similar?

A few years ago, someone introduced the term "slow cinema" to describe this global phenomenon. I've never been comfortable with that label; it sounds reductive, if not vaguely insulting. (Are we supposed to call the directors of these movies "slow filmmakers"?) Anyone can recognize the seriousness of these films, which present the sorts of lives neglected by mainstream media and whose style stands in opposition to the manipulative tendencies of global blockbusters. They also draw attention, by way of counterexample, to the "fast reality" that most cosmopolitan moviegoers inhabit, an environment defined by the steady bombardment of information, music, and advertisements.

I watch these movies, as I suspect other urban spectators do, in a state of acute self-awareness. The filmmaking, though born out of respect for the locations and subjects, can feel unobtrusive to the point of passivity. It always makes me come back to how much separates my life from the ones on-screen. Maybe this is why I find these films so alike no matter where they're made—they lead me to the same insight.

Rarely do I feel the sort of empathy for the characters that I do when watching Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparjito, The World of Apu) or Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, to name two notable precedents to the current international movement. Like the directors of Honey, Aqui y Allà, and Sharqiya, Ray and De Sica cast nonprofessional actors—who were often impoverished themselves—to heighten the authenticity of their characterizations. But they still directed their performers as actors, encouraging them to externalize their emotions and thus better appeal to the spectators'. (Since many of Ray's performers were illiterate, he would draw pictures showing how people might appear when they felt a certain way.)

In a characteristic scene of Aqui y Allà, the main character sits with his wife and daughters and plays them a tape of a song he recorded some years before. The girls have never heard his music (he'd spent the past several years in New York, working odd jobs to send money home), and the wife probably hasn't heard it in years. This is a revelatory moment for all of them, yet the nonprofessional performers convey this through only modest gestures. And the camera further deflates whatever impact they might have made by sitting several feet away from them.

It was during this scene that I thought of that beautiful shot in Honey, which took a couple minutes to explain what a Hollywood filmmaker might have established in ten seconds. In both cases, what registers most strongly is the subjects' resistance to being assimilated by movies.

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