An invitation to discover and rediscover recent productions under the thread of a thematic line of thought

American Borders

American cinema has accustomed us to the celebration of freedom and, through the western genre and the rhetoric of the cowboy, this has often meant the representation of a borderless West front...

The paradox of anarchy

American cinema has accustomed us to the celebration of freedom and, through the western genre and the rhetoric of the cowboy, this has often meant the representation of a borderless West front. In this model, the width of the desert works as the embodiment of the ideal void into which, or from which, the American man can exercise the “modern” gesture of constituting or instituting new juridical entities – even if all of this often amounts just to the anarchic “creation” of new lots of private property… This is the reason why the celebration of freedom in American cinema goes together with the celebration of the fence, of the self-made protection against any kind of foreigners. The apparently oxymoronic coincidence between freedom and separation, or exclusion, expresses nothing but the inner paradox of anarchy.

Paranoia as an identity builder

This is the historical and cinematic background in which one can take delivery of the recent proliferation of documentary films on the borders between the United States of America and Mexico. Behind the evident political issues such as the construction of a wall or the exploitation of the migration fluxes from the South, the southern border of the States draws the (also conceptual) place where the American person can define him/herself through the rejection of the possible – probably inevitable – intermingling with the Latino culture. Films such as Broken Land (Stéphanie Barbey, Luc Peter, 2014) and Borderland Blues (Gudrun Gruber, 2016) analytically underline the paroxysm of paranoia as a strategy of creation of meaning, in the hopeless essay of establishing an identity, even a tradition. The focus on the denaturalization, i.e. on the bureaucratic dehumanization, of the relationship with the Other does not necessarily open to a compassionate humanism but highlights the more complex themes of the technological mediation of a societal handling that has forgotten the intrinsic bond with nature and the landscape.

Aesthetic without aestheticism

To this respect, Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki’s El mar la mar (2017) is able to put together an anthropological analysis of the violent emergence, or resistance, of the natural elements, here in the Sonora desert. Social behaviour and geography reveal themselves to be inseparable, and constitute a deeper level of understanding of the geopolitical issues. For this, the putting forward of the aesthetic layer in the films has not simply a decorative function but an essential role in order to thematise that deeper layer of reflection on the borders as a place where the relationship with the nature, with the Other, with one’s own identity, is also a matter of experience.

Exclusion and the family

If these three documentary and essayistic films approach very directly the theme of the American border – the Southern one – the depth that they attain makes us understand the immediate connection with less physical declinations of the theme. Through the common thread of the confrontation with the desert, Nicolas Steiner’s Above and Below (2015) (interview with Nicolas Steiner in Logbook) focuses on the borders where the search for freedom does not meet the act of excluding the Other, but the fact of being excluded. America has an internal border where the marginalized, the eccentric or the solitary are gathered “outside of the fence”. From this point of view, Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side (2015) seems to prolong this reflection in showing the connection between seeking freedom, being marginalised and developing strategies of aggression, all under the paranoid obsession for protection. One particularly interesting aspect of this documentary work is the brilliant demonstration of how the paradoxical correlation of the anarchist rhetoric of freedom is not only the fence but also the idea of family – a value that expands into the myth of America as a large family to be defended.

The internal borders of America

Exclusion and protection, family and aggression; they appear to constitute a cocktail that draws the map of the “internal borders” of America. Along the external border of the line of the fence between the States and Mexico we can experience a journey that interestingly parallels Travis Wilkinson’s historical and auto-biographical journey in his Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017), which perfectly expresses the internal border of America. Here we see how the aggressive correlate of the American family to be defended is nothing but the exclusion, marginalization and eventually suppression of the black people, insofar as they represent the internal Other. Here we see how the Indian impeding the freedom of the cowboy to expand throughout the West joins the Latinos and the Black people, all as archetype of the Other that defines, respectively, the external and internal border of American identity.

The reviews

The simple line of thought that intersects the previous six films is meant just to eschew the starting point for a discussion that should go deeper into the complexity of the theme of the American borders. One way to do this, perhaps indirectly, is to come back to the reviews on each film, which contemplate their cinematic specificity.

For an expansion on the theme of the black people in America, an interesting path can be followed through these films and their reviews: Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (2016), Lech Kowalsky’s I Pay for Your Story (2017, see also the interview with Lech Kowalsky), Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest’s For Ahkeem (2017) and RaMell Ross’ Hale County, This Morning This Evening (2018, see also the interview with RaMell Ross).

The "Case" Myanmar

In recent history, Myanmar has certainly become a “case” due to its long geopolitical isolation.

The military dictatorship and the rigorous application of Buddhist principles to the civic life have almost frozen the society and its habits. With the end of the dictatorship, the opening of Myanmar to the rest of the world has meant the (re-)“discovery” of Myanmar, but also a period of incredibly fast modernization – thus creating another “case” Myanmar.

One of the first ever film productions to come out of Myanmar, The Monk (2014, The Maw Naing), stresses the theme of societal transformation, focusing on the life of a young Buddhist monk, caught between tradition and modernization. Two films that premiered at Visions du réel in Nyon last year directly approach this theme: Waves of Transition – Ma Yan Chan by Jonas Scheu and Burma Storybook by Petr Lom. Through these works it is possible to realize the incredible speed of change with its violent consequences, and even the propensity to resist the transformation. Our position as viewers oscillates between sympathy for the emancipation from almost medieval habits and a romantic desire to preserve an exceptional simplicity of life.

The films are also an opportunity to discover how complex the Myanmar society is, with its 135 ethnic groups and 6 language families. In Lom’s documentary particularly, the central role of poems in society reveals the political function of the word, as an element of resistance of the various minorities against the Burmese (and Buddhist) hegemony. Plurality, even if it is not an ideal in Myanmar but a matter of fact, is thus “used” by the State as a source of conflict. The military power can subsequently exert its authority and have influence again over the provinces that are rich in profitable resources, such as jade or oil.

This situation is at the root of the humanitarian catastrophes in several parts of the country, of which the oppression of the Rohingya people is the most known. Forced emigration becomes a new reality, on which three recent films have focused, more or less indirectly. A direct and realist way is Wang Bing’s one in his Ta’ang (2016), whereas Edmund Yeo’s We, the Dead - Aqerat (2017) (interview with Edmund Yeo in Logbook) and Akio Fujimoto’s Passage of Life (2017) (interview with Akio Fujimoto in Logbook) assume the drama of the refugees both as documentary reality and a symbolic tool to reflect, more universally, on the conditions of minorities. From the multi-layered society of Myanmar, the cinematic reflection in these last two films opens up to a multi-layered vision of Myanmar, from the point of view of China, Thailand, and Japan. Through the intersection of a subjective dimension in the films, it is a chance to interrogate one’s own identity, so pushing the viewer to do the same. Myanmar becomes in this way a “case” for ourselves.

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