Monday, March 07, 2016

189. Colombian director César Augusto Acevedo’s debut film “La tierra y la sombra" (Land and Shade) (2015): A grim, yet amazingly, beautiful tale of the poor when sugar cane is symbolically no longer sweet and can kill

For a debut film, César Augusto Acevedo’s Land and Shade is amazing in its simplicity and quiet power.  

Land and Shade is powerful because it deals with two things that mean a lot to most people--home and family.  When you are poor, home could mean your house, your apartment, your hut, your piece of land that you own. In Acevedo’s Land and Shade—the word “land” refers to all those things. In Land and Shade, in halcyon days decades ago, that piece of land on which a modest house stood benefitted from the shade of a giant tree.  Decades later, the sun is obliterated not by the tree but by smoke—smoke that kills the dogs and humans without distinction in the vicinity. And the smoke comes from man-made fires to burn sugarcane crop residues as a cost effective method adopted by the farm owners to clear the land before planting a fresh sugarcane crop once again. Ecologists have been increasingly critical of this practice as it has several negative effects the industry ignores, which myopically concentrates on profits.  The word “shade” in the title Land and Shade, refers to the shade of a giant tree in the past which has been replaced by the omnipresent ash flakes from burnt sugarcane stubs in the air that blocks out the sun’s rays. The film exudes “quiet” power because its soundtrack is almost devoid of music except towards the end when a song is played—and the song is translated in the subtitles as “love is written with tears.” Ironically nobody cries in this lovely film. And spoken words are minimal.

Acevedo’s remarkable debut film Land and Shade makes one recall the tale and approach of Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi’s Golden Palm winner The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). Both films deal with farm labourers.  Both deal with their dwellings. Both deal with economic disparity between rich and poor on agricultural lands. Both deal with relationships between parents and their offspring.  Both deal with the pain of leaving their rural homes that they liked. Both deal with contrasts of the poor in rural farms of the poor in urban communities. Both films employ unprofessional actors. And more importantly both films are original stories and screenplays of the respective directors themselves. Despite the common threads, Land and Shade is quite different from The Tree of Wooden Clogs. And both prove to be extraordinary films.

Grandfather Alfonso and grandson meet for the first time in their house

Acevedo’s Land and Shade begins with a static camera shot of a man walking towards the camera on a dusty road flanked by sugarcane fields.  You see a truck approaching in the distance behind the man.  As the truck nears the man, he has to step aside, close to the sugarcane fields to let the symbolic monster of industrialization pass. He is covered with dust and ash as it passes.  Much later in the film, a similar situation is again captured by the filmmaker and his cinematographer. This time the same man is walking with his grandson who is enjoying an ice-cream cone. A similar truck approaches them from behind. They step aside to let it pass. The man tries to cover his grandson as best as he can. But the dust spoils the ice cream. Not a word is spoken. The visuals and sound speak louder than words. These two parallel sequences are unforgettable once you have seen them. It is not surprising the film went on to win the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival for the cinematography of Mateo Guzmán, possibly making his debut as a feature film cinematographer as well.
Alfonso's wife (right) and daughter-in-law work as daily wage farmhands
harvesting sugarcane often faced with delayed payments of salaries

Land and Shade is a tale of five members of a rural Columbian family delicately told. Grandfather Alfonso, we are told, left his family 17 years ago (17 years before the film’s tale begins) to live in an urban dwelling. There is no evidence of Alfonso having another spouse or other offspring. His rural house is occupied by his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, and his young grandson. His taciturn wife, who apparently knew where he was living, has called him home to look after his grown-up and married son, who is slowly dying from the ash polluted air after struggling as a daily wage earner on the sugarcane farm. Now his wife and daughter-in-law work long hours in his son’s place to make ends meet alongside male labourers.  Scenes of flying ash from the oppressive fires resemble the locust and fire scenes of Malick’s Days of Heaven.  The intensity of the family ties in the film is not imagined but has roots in the director’s own life.

Father-in-law and daughter-in-law have a moment to themselves
(the windows are closed to keep out the dust)

Director Acevedo’s reveals why he made Land and Shade in the press kit of the film distributed at Cannes Film Festival and available online. His reasons are poignant:

“La tierra y la sombra (Land and Shade) was born of personal pain. When I began writing the screenplay my mother was dead, my father was a ghost, and because it was impossible for me to generate memories, I was condemned to lose them forever. And so arose the need to make a film that would allow me to recover the people dearest to me, using cinematic language. At the time I set out to use the most private, the most important people and events to reflect upon what our lives together had been, and what they might have been. I therefore constructed a house with words and shut everything I desired inside it. I don’t know why I hoped to find them there, in this way, but I trusted in the idea of sharing a little more time together, one last time. I quickly discovered that this was a serious mistake: I’d filled a house with ghosts that wandered from room to room without recognizing each other, incapable of expressing everything they kept inside. It wasn’t easy to understand that I needed some distance in order to construct more human characters, and I was only able to advance once I’d accepted that all I longed for in the world was gone forever.”

“The film became a way of attempting to return to my roots, of facing oblivion. Despite the inevitability of the family breakdown and the solitude this brings about, I wanted to speak of the importance of maintaining the fragile ties that bind us to those we love most, regardless of the violent emotions provoked occasionally by the internal passions that devour our hearts. For this reason I chose to give a different family some time, a final opportunity to find one another and face their guilt and pain before it was too late. The dramatic power in this conflict, however, does not lie in words, but rather in the silences, in the distance between bodies, in the gazes that never meet, and in the small things, like a plate of food growing cold on the table. Because what is truly important is not found in what the characters show or say, but in what they hide from us, or what they don’t even suspect they harbour inside. Because my roots are firmly anchored in the geography of Colombia’s Valle del Cauca region, I also wanted to base the story on the microcosm set up in the film (a family of five, a tiny house, and a tree surrounded by an oppressive sugar cane field), to speak of how a false illusion of progress has threatened the history, memory and identity of an entire people. For this reason I attempted to use cinematic language to make visible some of the greatest social problems inherent in the overwhelming expansion of the sugar industry in this region: modification of the landscape, soil destruction, the bankruptcy of small-scale farmers, poverty, disease, and displacement. To me, this film responds to an urgent need to draw attention to the rural people’s sense of belonging to the land and their valiant struggle and resistance, especially important in a country where the identities of a variety of peoples are constantly under threat.”

“Land and Shade is a hymn to life, liberty, dignity, and hope. An honest attempt to clear our vision and rethink the way we see ourselves. Perhaps in this way we can understand that what binds us is something more than indifference and that only by remaining united will we be able to face oblivion. This project is another contribution to this cause, thanks to having finally understood that my gaze is what I am, and where I’m from.”

The sick and dying son views his bleak future

In 17 years, Alosnso’s house is surrounded by sugarcane fields almost choking the building. But the big tree survives. One of the most moving conversations is between grandfather and grandson. The grandson wishes he had pet puppy dog and wistfully informs his grandfather “We can’t have dogs here because they die.” So the duo tries to attract birds that will hopefully entertain the lonely child, who cannot have a dog to play with, in that fractured environment.

Land and Shade and the 2013 Chilean film The Quispe Girls (based on a true story that took place in 1974) are examples of resurgent South American cinema by committed young filmmakers who discuss pertinent and real issues with non-professional actors, a very well thought-out script and amazing photography in their very first respective feature films. Yes, both are extraordinary debut films. Colombia should be proud of Acevedo’s persistence to make this film against all odds, eventually winning awards at Cannes Film Festival, the Best Film award at the Bratislava International Film Festival (Slovakia), and multiple awards at the Thessaloniki Film Festival (Greece). We should be proud of a man like Acevedo, who recognizes the importance of his parents and record it for posterity through a slightly fictionalized cinematic tale of quality. This is one of the most important films of 2015 proving once again that good cinema can be made with limited budgets by committed, creative filmmakers..

P.S. Land and Shade is on the author’s top 10 films of 2015 list. The three films mentioned in the above review-- The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Days of Heaven, and The Quispe Girls have all been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog.

Official Trailer - LAND AND SHADE directed by César Acevedo from Burning Blue on Vimeo.

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