Striking a balance between art and accurate depictions of human rights concerns sounds like a complicated, almost impossible feat. In their own words, Human Rights Watch state that: “staff of the relevant division of Human Rights Watch also view the work to confirm its accuracy in the portrayal of human rights concerns” as a precondition for choosing which films to feature in the Human Rights Watch film festival. When I first read that, I was glad that I was not one of those staff members. I would’ve been caught up in questions of whether art needs to achieve some sort of accuracy in order to be effective, or how can accuracy ever be achieved in modes of representation. It only took one film to render this scepticism lurking in the back of my mind irrelevant.
‘Even the Rain’ is a film which blends medieval (or early modern) events with recent historical developments and questions the process of representation itself. The film was brilliant. Following two film makers who set out to Cochabamba, Bolivia in order to recreate Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, the idealistic director Sebastian is determined to re-imagine the Spanish Colonial efforts in South America as a cruel, heartless venture, seeking profit and slaves in the name of Christendom.
At the same time, privatisation of Cochabamba’s water supplies, prices many of the poor “Indian” population out of basic rights to clean water. Slowly, the two struggles seem to merge. “White” Government officials mirror colonialist discourse when speaking of the indigenous populations, and riot police act like slave masters chasing their fleeing slaves with dogs (Christopher Columbus famously introducing the use of attack dogs against native Americans). Columbus’ Christianity is replaced by capitalism, as privatisation becomes the only path to modernity according to government officials who insist that the natives, if they had their way, would drag the country back to the Stone Age.
The film distorts any sense of time so well by presenting the period scenes as if they were part of a film about Christopher Columbus. They are extensive, even harrowing scenes which force you to momentarily forget that you are watching a film being made within a film.
Even the morality and idealism of the film makers who are intent on exposing the truths of Spanish history are called into question. From the outset they capitalise on the cheap labour opportunity which the natives present. The director also places much emphasis on Spanish calls to end the atrocities of empire and slavery, through the resistance presented by Bartolomé de las Casas, effectively reducing the narrative of the native resistance. The resistance to Spanish colonialism is re-imagined as a very Spanish affair by the director, with hardly any voice given to the narrative of the natives, who seem to simply engage in physical acts of resistance rather than giving heartfelt and powerful speeches.
As the film progresses, more telling attitudes are revealed, the film makers implore their cast not to take part in protests so that the film may be completed, and they begin to see their own retelling of the story of colonialism as something far above the need to resist the present form of colonialism imposed upon the natives.
This film therefore acknowledges its limitations in a rather refreshing way. This is not a film which attempts to grasp at truths or lay claim to objective historical facts; it is about the very nature of representation and the implications of it. Conceptions of modernity can have us condemning the past, while remaining dismissive, apathetic or oblivious to the exact same abuses which occur in the present.
This is even more effective once realising that the script during the period scenes remains true to the letters and diaries of the Spanish colonialists and the events of the water wars, which occurred only slightly more than a decade ago, are also just as accurately presented. Thus while the film represents Columbus’ arrival in America as a ridiculous comedy, the words of the government official contain a deeply malicious air about them. The problem of representation itself therefore comes to the fore. While the facts remain accurate, they are used in different ways.
The 2012 Human Rights Watch film festival has featured some excellent films but I particularly enjoyed Even the Rain. Though the film suffers from a few unexplained plot developments towards the end, this is mainly to do with the ambitious attempt to string together three very different plot lines (which for the most part the film succeeds in doing). In any case, these hiccups are most definitely minor inconveniences to be bared for the sake of such a thought-provoking, heartfelt piece of filmmaking.
While we may still wonder whether or not accuracy, art and human rights can comfortably walk hand in hand, Human Rights Watch should be applauded for bringing such exceptional films to us Londoners. Even if these films aren’t to your tastes and you retain your sense of scepticism, such films demand their audiences to take notice of some shocking, and very real human rights abuses. Plus, there is no other festival that I know of where writers and directors will openly call to try the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for torture.
Even the Rain is released in the UK on the 18th of May 2012
The 2012 London Human Rights Watch Film Festival is running until the 30th of March
Image from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/18/movies/18even.html?_r=1
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