Saturday, September 10, 2011

VLAFF 2011: También la lluvia

“Water is life, you don’t understand.”

So says Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), the local indigenous community leader in the town of Cochabamba, Bolivia, in También la lluvia. His town’s water has just been privatized and even the local well purchased and maintained by a local indigenous group has been co-opted by a large water company based in California. The local laws seem to be complicit in this privatization scheme, as no one is permitted to own a private water reservoir and that it’s illegal to collect even the rain and turn into drinking water. (Although it’s curious that such a scheme for recycling rainwater is perfectly legal on the other side of the world, in Australia, and so many other cities have such green initiatives in place.)

A Mexican film crew has arrived to make a film about Columbus’s arrival in Bolivia, the missionary who opposed their draconian governance, and Hatuey, the legendary local hero who leads the revolt against the oppressive Spanish Conquistadors. Since Daniel is the unknown actor cast as Hatuey, the parallels between his role in the unnamed film-within-a-film and his fight to stop the privatization of water are unmistakable. The film is directed by artistic, slightly mad Sebastién (Gael Garcia Bernal), who casts the untrained Daniel and his charismatic daughter Belén in the film against a coterie of blowhard, self-satisfied actors, and produced by the pragmatic Costa (Luis Tosar), who is financially-minded and risk-averse but has an unexpected social awakening over the course of filming and the film. As the local political situation becomes more intense, so too does the filming, and it doesn’t seem like a complete accident that the film and the film-within-a-film have storylines running in parallel.

The film-within-a-film structure is not new, but here it takes on an added level of superficiality that contrasts the hostile political situation surrounding the filmmaking. The film opens with a helicopter carrying a large, stories-tall wooden crucifix over the city, much to the filmmakers’ delight. Cineastes will undoubtedly recognize this as a parallel to the opening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, with the helicopter flying over Rome carrying a giant statue of Jesus Christ. The difference is that although Fellini’s seminal film explores the vacuity of the characters, Bollaín’s film is full of urgent political purpose.

Director Icíar Bollaín makes her political film without any subtlety, and that adds to the ferocity of her work. Daniel makes an impassioned speech at a demonstrating asking, if they take away their water and can’t even gather the rain to survive, what more can they take: the sweat from their brows, or even their tears?

Bollaín deftly masters the art of contrasting both the Columbus film and the actual political struggle. The scenes with Columbus are majestic and vividly pulse with exceptional detail to time and place, even if the drama is overly scripted and contains some rather overripe dialogue from time to time. Yet she shows complete control over these epic crowd scenes, so much so that I had hoped to see the film-within-a-film released on its own as a separate project. The water war in the town has immediacy and captured by an always-vibrant camera, zoning into the action with an intense focus that lends the film a documentary film, as if we were following a news crew into the centre of the action.

If the film has any drawbacks, they might be contained in the philosophical and moral questions posed at critical junctures in the narrative. Would a certain character, faced with an inhuman situation, respond in such polarized manners? Thankfully, Bernal and Tosar are such skilled actors that they overcome the slight implausibility of what happens at this and a few other crucial moments in the narrative. (And who’s to say that we wouldn’t have done the same?) Aduviri, in a breakout performance, is exactly the kind of charismatic popular leader needed to fill both the role of Daniel and of Hatuey, and you can't take your eyes off him whenever he's on-screen.

For those of you thinking that this sounds like a great work of fiction, since a large part of its structure was also used in the 2008 Bond film Quantum of Solace, take note that this was based on a real incident. The 2001 Water War of Bolivia was an actual fight between government, private companies and the local population over the privatization of water. The company’s scheme to privatize the entire water supply is not only odious, but it’s also not economically viable in the long run. Sebastién asks an oily local politico, if the wage for an extra on their film is $2 a day, and that’s already higher than the daily living wage in that town, how can anyone afford a 300% increase in their water supply? For added verisimilitude, También la lluvia was even filmed in Cochabamba.

The ongoing issue with access to safe, clean drinking water remains an issue in parts of Bolivia to this day. Prior to today’s VLAFF screening at Pacific Cinematheque, the film’s community partner was introduced. The Bolivian-Canadian Clean (BCC) Water Network is a locally run organization headed by current UBC Master’s student and organization co-founder Trevor Hirsche, who himself lived in Bolivia and witnessed first-hand the struggle for water.  BCC is dedicated to working towards the promotion and availability of clean running water in Bolivia. You can find out more about their organization’s work at their website

También la lluvia enjoyed a brief commercial run in North American earlier this year, timed to coincide with the film’s unsuccessful campaign as Spain’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards (it was not even nominated). It has been selected as one of the two Festival Favourites for VLAFF 2011, and will enjoy one final screening at Pacific Cinematheque on Sunday, September 11 at 7:30 pm. For more ticket information, click here.