Immokalee U. S. A (2008)

Volunteer Growth

Most films are a matter of manufactured narrative and we watch them to to discover what has been shaped by the filmmaker. Most documentaries are like this as well, because the idea is to illustrate a constructed narrative with reality, giving it more power.

But sometimes, and I think very rarely, it is a matter of discovering narrative in reality. When this happens, all else is tossed away and you encounter yourself. It is up what we seek.

There’s a cinematic effect here that will colour your whole day, staying visible whatever you do. It is so remarkable that I will describe it. We’ve been introduced to a man, who I will guess is in his fifties. He tells us who he is, which in his world is a matter of recounting where he has been and what produce he has handled. His cadence is hypnotising; it has a regularity borne from years of internal repetition, patterned by millions of slow steady instances in a context of boredom. There is no hidden intellectual dimension to this man at all. We see the whole being and it brings us closer than we ever could if we met him in person. Very close. Very.

His cadence is punctuated by an occasional syllable, which is his only period of self-reflection, a sort of periodic stepping back and commenting on himself. We immediately enter his story. Its a story of not being chosen for the work teams. We do not learn why. It doesn’t matter.

We meet others. Some wives and children with open faces. A soup kitchen manager. A farmer, who frames the thing with an inevitability. These are all of the working of the world, different facets of fertility. Only this man is a man. We follow him as he goes to the convenience store to use the phone. He has problems getting quarters, then we watch as the phones eat all his coins. Its an incidental narrative. We don’t notice.

Then something startling happens. Until this point the filmmakers are invisible. There is no narration, no external shaping. Except for the title, all we see is what there is, plus a subdued score. No one has acknowledged a camera. If there were shadows from the camera operator, I saw none (though you can see the framer’s mike). Now, one of the filmmakers steps out from behind the camera and lends our man a cell phone.

He calls his brother and we expect the same sort of subdued life we have seen so far. Instead, the man breaks down. He’s stuck without money. He can’t get work and he cannot leave. His countrymen (Guatemalans?) have abandoned him. People try to kill him in the night. He is already dead, he cries into the phone. Its a double startle, having the filmmaker intercede as we would, and seeing this dissolution of soul.

And then the big thing. While this man is dissolving, the camera looks away, just as we would if we were there. But not quite, sometimes we see his face. Then the man says that people are looking at him, and we feel a tinge but then it becomes clear that he is talking about his own people, not us. Nevertheless, the camera spends less time on him, staring out at traffic, at sidewalks, just away.

This happens long enough for us to wonder: the mechanics are just too perfect. Someone must have shot some footage afterward and edited it in to have this effect. It makes us doubt ourselves: why are we here? And then the shot…

Its of a wall, away from the man, but with the vaguest of shadows of him speaking — in his deepest despair. And we see immediately that there must have been two cameras, and one avers respecting this man’s privacy, which another stays fixed so that we cannot escape. This was done reflexively on the spot, immediately, intuitively. There is no other explanation. It really was a profound moment for me. The film doesn’t preach or lead. Its full of just these ambiguities. Its what film-in-life is all about, a balance of discovery and social engagement. Its intense.

We see this fellow later, in a demented state having not eaten for two weeks, on the porch of a soup kitchen too disoriented to go in and get some food. The woman we previously met patiently waits with a muffin. Cut to the farmer showing a volunteer tomato plant. These are talented storyfinders, these.

I have followed this young filmmaker from the beginning. Each film has something in it that shows insight. I think now that we deserve to see him make fiction. Long form and mean it.

Posted in 2008

Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.


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