INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Adam Nayman
“It is a film.” So said Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio when asked by a Toronto International Film Festival patron about whether he would categorize his sophomore feature Alamar (To the Sea) as a “documentary” or a “fiction”—a meaningless-but-inevitable question given its line-blurring particulars. The director’s seemingly off-the-cuff answer drew a smattering of supportive applause, but that didn’t stop another audience member from asking the same question a few minutes later. The session was still fairly entertaining, however, thanks to the presence of one of Alamar’s stars, Natan Machado Palombini, whose response to such queries was to run wind sprints up and down the aisles.
Natan can get away with such things because he’s five years old, but his display of exuberance speaks eloquently to Alamar’s revivifying effects. Running just a shade over 70 minutes, Gonzalez-Rubio’s film is possessed of a poetry of motion, idling for a few minutes in photo-album-essay mode before achieving a serene velocity. These early snapshots are courtesy of the filmmaker’s friends and subjects Roberta Palombini and Jorge Machado—she Italian, he Mexican, and both deeply devoted to their son Natan in spite of their recent separation. “It’s not just a problem about feelings,” muses Roberta via voiceover, addressing her former lover over images of their ecstatic courtship. “The problem…is that I’m unhappy with your reality and you are with mine.”
Roberta’s reality is in Rome, where she lives with Natan. Jorge’s is “in the middle of the jungle at the sea, in the middle of nowhere”—more specifically the boundless blue expanse of the Banco Chinchorro coral reef, where generations of fishermen live and work amidst a casual network of boats and palafittes, single-story houses perched on stilts above the water. Leaving aside the odd roar of an outboard motor, it’s a place out of time, the perfect backdrop for a film that deals in an ancient, if much-abused, narrative: male bonding.
A sort of Mayan-mystic Peter Pan, Jorge descends on civilization to take his darling boy away for a spring in a coastal Never Never Land, an expedition that’s been negotiated—to use a phase that Gonzalez-Rubio attributes to his wild-man star—“for the benefit of all.” Jorge gets to instruct his son on the particulars of his world; Natan gets an adventure out of J.M. Barrie (or maybe Maurice Sendak); and Roberta gets to maintain her reality without denying the men she loves a chance to merge theirs. Gonzalez-Rubio, meanwhile, gets a film’s worth of astonishing footage, almost all of it shot by the filmmaker himself with a single HD camera. (The end credits cite two additional underwater photographers, including Carlos Reygadas’ regular cinematographer Alexis Zabe; no coincidence that the film was produced by Reygadas’ company Mantarraya Productions.) Reviewing Alamar at Rotterdam where it deservedly won a Tiger Award, before opening Berlin’s Generation sidebar, The Auteurs’ David Hudson observed aptly that the film is “just inches away from a National Geographic- style travelogue, but those inches make a world of difference.”
One only needs to add that Gonzalez-Rubio takes pains to efface those measurements. The most spectacular sequences—an extended battle with a thrashing, massive fish or the aggressive descent of hungry seabirds on Jorge’s shack—seem to have been captured rather than composed. The same goes for the intimate (and endearingly unruly) interactions between father-and-son, like an extended grappling session that recalls Where the Wild Things Are (2009) without the giant puppets or the angst. It’s no small feat to stay out of the way on a 12-foot-long boat, or a tiny shack in the middle of the sea, but that’s exactly what the filmmaker does. In return, his subjects—including Jorge’s friend and mentor Matraca, who’s still pretty handy with a spear gun despite his saggy physique—mostly ignore the camera. But there’s also a subtle construction to the proceedings. The scenes featuring a stray, friendly egret dubbed “Blanquita” give the film its thematic spine, foregrounding a quality of elusiveness: it is only after failing to locate the bird during a rare episode ashore an island that Jorge offers his son some parting words.
“When they get older, they will turn white,” says Jorge, directing Natan’s attention towards a blood-red blossom. There’s a lot to this observation, and Gonzalez-Rubio lets the implications hang against a brief shot of the pair walking back into the forest, bare backs to the camera, hands joined. Given the blurry particulars of the film’s production—the trip and the shoot were conceived together, and the director has confessed that certain activities were devised with filming in mind—the temptation is to ask to what degree this moment was “staged.” Which brings us back to that Toronto audience and the redundant-but-inevitable question of what, precisely Alamar is. Documentary? Fiction? Neo-Flahertian ethnography? A superbly wrought home movie? A case for cinéma vérité as family therapy? A persuasive tract on sustainable fishing practices? (The closing credits contain the revelation that plans are afoot to make Banco Chinchorro a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) These are potentially valid angles of approach, if all similarly reductive and downright dismal when measured against the actual thing onscreen. Which is, as its director claims, simply, and finally, a film—albeit one of uncommon and delicately achieved beauty.
CINEMA SCOPE: Can you talk a bit about your first documentary, Toro Negro (Black Bull (2005)?PEDRO GONZALEZ-RUBIO: I made Toro Negro after a very bitter experience in Mexico City working as a cinematographer on a film with soap-opera stars and a very dodgy director. I was 26 at that time, and had been told by people in the industry to accept whatever job I was offered, and to do ads to gain professional experience. Well, I did that for a year, but I got disillusioned by all the bullshit. So I moved to Playa del Carmen and found a job making short documentaries for an ecological organization, and I also travelled a lot in the Yucatán. Some of the towns that I visited gave me what I had been crying out for in those years: a feeling of authenticity in peoples’ eyes and in their behaviour. The idea for Toro Negro came when a friend took me one night to a bullfight. I thought that the character of El Negro, the bullfighter, was very interesting. I felt empathy for him. He was a total outcast, and I felt the same way that he did: I wasn’t working for the big advertisement industry. Instead I was there with my own camera doing things my own way and enjoying every place I discovered, every new taste—the rat in the wooden hut by the jungle, the sweat dripping down mosquito bites, the drunken evenings with Mayan people in dodgy canteens. I loved the sense of danger that I was courting. I tried several times to get the perfect shot by going into the bullfighting ring. I was truly an anonymous happy motherfucker with a camera. But during the shooting we were also like prisoners of our subject. We followed him everywhere, to the darkest corners he could find. He was unable to relate properly with the people around him, family and friends. All the communication was through verbal and physical fighting. Actually, it felt as if the characters were used to that, otherwise they would be indifferent to one another. It is like it is the bullfighting ring, where the relationship between man and bull is developed through a battle. The bull doesn’t trust the man, and the man drags the animal down to his destiny. SCOPE: You also said Alamar is a film preoccupied with communication. I wonder if you could give me a precise explanation of what you mean. GONZALEZ-RUBIO: Mainly I think it is about relationships. What I meant probably when I was talking about communication has to do with the fact that Jorge and Roberta don’t have much in common anymore, but their separate worlds coexist though their son Natan. This pure human being, with no preconceptions of any sort, is learning as fast as the beating wings of a hummingbird. This idea of communication is portrayed through the relationships between these characters, and also in their relationship to nature, which is very subtle and careful. Matraca teaches Jorge to be patient when he is fishing, and Jorge in turn teaches lessons to his son, like to be gentle with the egret so he can gain her trust. He also teaches him to be careful with the crocodile, to just let it be. I guess I would say Alamar is a utopian vision of a father and son relationship. I never had something like that myself, so it’s probably a fantasy that I wanted to portray through this medium. And then at the end, we go back to reality. Everything is impermanent. One day, Blanquita is gone. One day, Natan has to leave Chinchorro. But no matter which parent he is with, Natan is in the present, and he is being loved.
SCOPE: You’re very good about showing us that Roberta’s relationship with Natan is as tender and loving in its own way as Jorge’s. But for the most part, the mother is structuring absence in the story: she has to stay home while the boys are off playing in a Never Never Land. If Jorge is Peter Pan, she’s sort of like Wendy. Did she have any reservations about you taking the two of them to make this film that is, as you say, a utopian vision of father-son-relationship? GONZALEZ-RUBIO: I talked to her about it very honestly. I told her that the film was going to be about Natan and his father. I wanted her to be a part of it, because, as you say, she’s the one who is there for Natan when the trip ends. She raises him, she takes him to school, gives him a shower, takes him to the doctor. I know this because I was raised by my mother. We were able to talk about it and she was okay with it. I was surprised, though, that she was willing to talk about such intimate things, about the fact that she doesn’t relate to Jorge anymore, except through Natan. She thinks now that they were only brought together through some sort of divine intervention, just to make Natan.
SCOPE: You met Jorge when he was working as a guide in Banco Chinchorro. At what point did you know that you wanted to put him in a movie? GONZALEZ-RUBIO: I had seen Jorge doing different things: playing the didgeridoo with great technique; performing shamanic rituals; giving tours to European tourists in the ecological area where he works; making beautiful handcrafts from seeds and wood. He is a multitalented person, so I knew he would be able to do anything we needed for the film. But it is when I saw the location that all the pieces came together. Banco Chinchorro was the perfect environment for this story to grow, because of its isolation and its Zen-like quality.
SCOPE: What was your shooting strategy when you arrived in Banco Chinchorro? Did you have a lot—or any—time to worry about camera set-ups? Did you and your sound recordist mostly find yourselves reacting to situations and trying to capture them as they happened?GONZALEZ-RUBIO: The camera setups were the least of my concern. What I focused on were activities that could help the relationship between Jorge and Natan evolve, to strengthen their bonds little by little And the ultimate activity was work! You have a child on a small boat, and it’s the first time that he’s seeing this world—his father’s world —but at the same time, if we got distracted from work, we didn’t eat. The first activity we did on our first trip was painting the house, and putting the peace flag on the façade of the palafitte. These scenes clearly show the fiction inside the story. I wanted the house to be painted inside because, in a metaphysical way, it was bringing the sun into oneself. We actually made a new window in Matraca’s house, like we were opening a window to this other world. I would occasionally mark the pace at which they were doing certain activities. Rhythm was very important for me, not only in the editing but also during the shooting. Also, if you watch carefully, the camera is often one step ahead of the characters: it’s inside the bus when they hop on it, it’s inside Matraca’s boat when he picks them up, it’s inside the palafitte when they arrive. So there is some planning going on beforehand, but it has to feel intuitive so we can surf on the wave of reality. Obviously no rehearsals, otherwise I kill the precious qualities you get with a child: spontaneity and surprise. SCOPE: How did you meet Matraca?
GONZALEZ-RUBIO: We actually spent the entire first week of shooting with other fishermen. But we were staying at Matraca’s home, and so he was the one that we were getting to know best. At one point I abandoned other fishermen because of the natural bond that had evolved between Jorge, Natan, and Matraca. He was the only one who had gained Natan’s trust, and so I sat down with him for a cup of coffee on day seven and asked if we could continue accompanying him, and if we could be on the same team. Not only on the palafitte, but also outside, on the sea. He was very excited about that.
SCOPE: You’ve talked about the physical toll of shooting on Banco Chinchorro, and that if you had only spent time in Mexico City, you wouldn’t have been able to survive the elements.
GONZALEZ-RUBIO: Totally. I like to think of my way of filmmaking with the spirit of Kerouac, being able to tell the stories from my own experience and personal relation to them. I wouldn’t have been honest if I had shot this intimate story and then slept at night in another place, rather than in the palafitte on a hammock, waking up with the first rays of sun. Only someone who has actually slept in that palafitte would be able to know the exact sound of the night. The humidity, sun, and salt are things that I was used to, doing those short docs for the ecological centre and living in Playa del Carmen. I don’t see that sort of environment as exotic; I am able to leave out all the exoticism and go right to the purity of the character-landscape relationship. One thing that was certainly difficult, though, was the way that lenses kept getting splashed by saltwater. I had to clean them very often, but first I would have to put a lot of cleaning liquid to get all the salt out. Otherwise you could scratch the lenses and you definitely don’t want that in the middle of Banco Chinchorro, which is far away from any place where you could get replacements. Charging the batteries was also an issue, but luckily Matraca had solar panels connected to a car battery. But these are technical things that shouldn’t even be noticed, and that are part of the beauty of filmmaking.
SCOPE: You mentioned the “fiction inside the story,” the process of shaping the real experiences you were filming into some kind of narrative. At what point in the shooting did you realize that Blanquita, the egret, was going to serve as a kind of thematic throughline—as a metaphor for the beauty and elusiveness of childhood experience?
GONZALEZ-RUBIO: When the egret arrived it was on our second trip, during the migrating season. I guess she had spotted some bugs and cockroaches on our palafitte from above. Those cattle egrets are very good at that, actually. Natan’s first reaction was full of curiosity, and the desire to get near her. So we relied on Jorge’s experience with wild animals to gain her trust. I shot most of this process, how both father and son were looking for the best way to get near her, collecting bugs in the palafitte to feed her. Then the unexpected happened: the same egret came back the next day. I think their encounter tells a lot about the very essence of this story. It is man face-to-face with Mother Nature, it is coexistence between species under free will and then it is letting go, continuing with one’s own path. Natan discovers many things through the brief encounter with Blanquita and I would like the spectator to come up with his or her own conclusions about what those things are.
SCOPE: One of the key lines of the film comes near the end, when Matraca muses that he’d like to see the way that people live elsewhere. We’ve spent the entire film looking at a way of life that seems somehow impossible, and yet the people living it are wondering about the lives of others. And then shortly thereafter, you cut back to Natan and Roberta in Rome.
GONZALEZ-RUBIO: We only had three days in Rome. I wanted a bird’s eye view, so I asked Roberta to take us somewhere where we could see the whole city. She took me to a place called Giancolo, and we saw that somebody had written some graffiti on the bridge, and I asked her what it meant. She translated it as, “You are my present.” The words were just there, and so Roberta didn’t have to say anything to Natan, and he didn’t have to say anything to his mother. And then they blow a bubble together and it pops. It’s just like Chinchorro—you try to grab it and he’s gone.
SCOPE: I want to ask about another line in that scene. When Natan is drawing those pictures of all the things he’s seen on the trip, his father asks him if there is anything else that he remembers. He says “the camera.” It plays as a totally spontaneous moment, but it’s also very self-reflexive: Is it part of the “fiction?” GONZALEZ-RUBIO: It’s something that he said on his own. We didn’t ask him to say it. I actually made an editing mistake there, though. In the original shot, he’s asked about all the things he’s seen, and he thinks about it and thinks about it and then, after a long time, he says, “The camera.” In the film, the question is asked and there is a cut to him saying “the camera,” so that the wait it shorter. I probably should have left it alone. SCOPE: His response is the most explicit acknowledgement that Alamar is part of a recent cycle of films that another writer called “the cinema-of-in-betweenness.” Do you have any thoughts on this as a possible genre, and have you seen some of the other films that feature into this conversation? GONZALEZ-RUBIO: I haven’t seen much lately, but I did watch Tulpan (2008), and I thought that it was beautiful. There are many scenes that couldn’t have been achieved if it weren’t for the miracle of reality. When they are herding and the shot starts in a small tornado then pans to the sheep surrounding the camera, then the character holds one of the sheep. It is pure poetry. Since Italian neorealism, we have seen other examples of this technique. Obviously, cinematic language is always changing and evolving, and right now, I think that some of us like to “write a book with only a pencil and paper”—no need for all the paraphernalia. I like to think that a film doesn’t have to be dogmatic with regard to its genre, it length, its aesthetics, or its theme. I like to think of films in terms of what they provoke in me. I like the film to grow more and more in me, to breathe inside of me. Those are the films that I love.