Indie film's new, globalized realism

Do low-budget American films like "The Pool" (made in Hindi) and "August Evening" (made in Spanish) signal a new wave of cultural exploration, or just hipster tourism?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 4, 2008 11:14AM (EDT)

left, Doki-Doki Productions, right, Courtesy Bluemark Productions

Left: Pedro Castaneda and Veronica Loren in "August Evening." Right: Venkatesh Chavan and Nana Patekar in "The Pool."

Chris Smith, the director best known for his 1999 documentary "American Movie," went halfway around the world to make his improbable narrative debut, transposing a short story that was set in Iowa to the beachfront Indian state of Goa and making an entire film in Hindi, a language he does not speak. In an undiscovered corner of our own country, among the Mexican immigrants of southwest Texas, independent filmmaker Chris Eska (who is white and English-speaking) made a feature entirely in Spanish about an aging undocumented worker and his family, writing the screenplay in English and asking his two lead actors to translate it. Is this cultural imperialism or the globalization of indie film? Liberal tourism or a counter-xenophobic breath of fresh air?

Both these movies -- Smith's "The Pool" and Eska's "August Evening" -- open this week, and both belong to an intriguing current of American realistic filmmaking that has coalesced over the last few years in the lower-budget realms of independent cinema. As Anthony Kaufman observed last February in the Village Voice, many of these movies seem to originate with New York-based producer Paul Mezey, who helped make "The Pool" and such pictures as Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace," Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's "Half Nelson" (along with their forthcoming Latin-baseball flick "Sugar") and Azazel Jacobs' "Momma's Man."

I have some issues with the desirability of realism as a goal, and with the way it gets fetishized by some critics and artists. (I'm not even sure I know what it means.) But let's leave that debate for another time and observe that the current phenomenon is clearly broader than one producer or one circle of friends; Mezey had nothing to do with "August Evening," for instance, or with Ramin Bahrani's mesmerizing and terrifying "Chop Shop," probably the best new American film I've seen this year. With the exception of "Momma's Man," a peculiar and personal creation that doesn't have anything to do with this trend, these movies involve a literal and figurative boundary-crossing, an attempt to bring the audience's natural empathy into unknown territory. Like most realistic cinema of the last 60 or 70 years, they derive from a quasi-Christian, quasi-Marxist urge to minimize cultural difference and argue for the essential equality of human lives and aspirations.

In "The Pool," two illiterate kids scrape out an existence on the streets of Panjim, Goa's capital, dreaming of the luxurious life represented by a swimming pool they discover hidden behind a villa's walls overlooking the city. In "August Evening," a recently widowed ranch hand who speaks no English is abruptly fired and thrust into a wandering, marginal existence. "Sugar" and "Maria Full of Grace" are also set largely within Spanish-speaking social worlds, and "Half Nelson" was about a white teacher in a predominantly African-American school. The Latino characters in "Chop Shop" are English-speaking, but their setting -- a desolate auto-repair district of Queens, N.Y. -- is more Third World than First.

In "The Pool," I think the strengths and weaknesses of this particular multiculti filmmaking model come into clear focus; this film's strengths and weaknesses, in fact, are so closely allied as to be virtually identical. Like the other filmmakers in this new tradition, Smith is drawing partly on the Italian neorealism of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, partly on cinéma-vérité documentary and a little bit on recent European realism, like the films of Belgium's Dardenne brothers ("L'Enfant," "Rosetta," et al.). The first thing to say is that "The Pool" is a lovely, warm, unforced film that gives you time to get to know its characters and isn't propelled by any artificial narrative conventions, or for that matter by any Dickensian social outrage. On the other hand, well, read that sentence again in a less charitable light: We're not talking about a story that's going to keep viewers riveted to their seats. That said, it's almost miraculous Smith got the picture made at all, shooting on the other side of the world in a culture he didn't know well, whose well-established film industry is not all that welcoming to outsiders

When perennially cheerful Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan), the older of the two Panjim street kids, finally gets to know the teenage girl (Ayesha Mohan) who lives with her near-silent father (Bollywood superstar Nana Patekar) in that impossibly deluxe hillside mansion, there's the barest suggestion of a possible romance between them. But the social gulf is almost unimaginably vast. Ayesha is a bored, upper-crust teen who writes depressive poetry and reads young-adult novels in English; Venkatesh scrubs hotel toilets and sells plastic bags and can't read, period. When he brings her cups of chai she turns up her nose, and when he takes her to a street vendor's stand for papadums, she asks in disbelief whether he really intends to eat all that fried food. It's meant to be enough that Venkatesh and his brash, younger orphan buddy Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah) can share a laugh, a handful of outings and a few stolen, sour mangos with Ayesha before she gets in the Mercedes and goes back to Mumbai.

It's almost enough. As with the tentative relationship that builds between chatterbox Venkatesh and Ayesha's stone-faced father (played by Patekar with marvelous stoicism) you can feel the delicacy and integrity behind this film. But Smith is self-evidently seeking to emulate the late Indian master filmmaker Satyajit Ray here, and if it was brave to venture onto Ray's turf and make a story about class relations in a city Smith had visited once as a tourist, it was also foolhardy. What survives in my mind from "The Pool" is a succession of marvelous long-take images: Panjim's crumbling Portuguese architecture and lush tropical vegetation, Venkatesh and Ayesha's dad working in the yard. Ray could have taken a story this slight, or slighter, and mysteriously invested it with a potent dramatic undertow; Smith's film is so small and so quiet it recedes into picture-postcard prettiness long before it's over.

To my taste, Eska's "August Evening" is a more sensual and less blatantly pictorial film. It's got some dirt under its nails and isn't afraid to rely on an utterly basic boy-meets-girl narrative to keep us interested. Furthermore, Eska doesn't shy away from conflict quite as much as Smith does; for a story whose subject matter involves a collision between wealth and dire poverty, "The Pool" comes off like a benign idyll with little consciousness of human suffering or evil. This wishy-washy, there-are-no-bad-people brand of humanism is a known hazard of realist filmmaking in its less successful modes (you certainly don't encounter this problem with De Sica or the Dardennes), but it's exacerbated enormously when an artist is working in an alien culture. I'm not saying Smith was paralyzed by p.c. guilt or something, just that his depiction of Indian society is a little hesitant.

As distant as the lives of immigrant Texas farmworkers may be from those of middle-class Americans who eat the food they produce, the geographical and cultural distance Eska traverses is less challenging. "August Evening" won last year's John Cassavetes Award (a Spirit Awards category for films with production budgets under $500,000), and it's easy to see why. There's tremendous dignity and emotional depth to this story of two bereaved people -- aging chicken-farm laborer Jaime (Pedro Castaneda) and his lovely daughter-in-law Lupe (Veronica Loren) -- who aren't quite ready to move on to the next chapters of their lives.

Some years earlier, Jaime's beloved son (and Lupe's husband) Manuel died in circumstances we never learn about, and Lupe has evidently lived with Jaime and his wife, Maria (Raquel Gavia), in their rented shack outside Gonzales, Texas, ever since. When Maria dies suddenly and Jaime loses his job, this odd couple become dependent drifters, moving from the overcrowded house of Jaime's underachieving son, Victor (Abel Becerra), to the suburban McMansion of his meddlesome, mainstream-assimilated daughter, Alice (Sandra Rios). At first Lupe barely notices Luis (Walter Perez), a handsome young neighbor of Victor's, but Jaime understands that Luis holds the key to new lives for both of them.

As in "The Pool," the heart of the movie is not in its plot but in its characters and atmosphere. Castaneda, a nonprofessional actor who runs a towing company in San Antonio, gives a towering, Robert Duvall-style performance as a granitic man in late middle age whose internal world of pain and love and knowledge occasionally flickers to the surface. Instead of the tropical wonderland of Goa, Eska and cinematographer Yasu Tunida have sun-blasted chicken ranches, the dilapidated downtown of Gonzales, and various nondescript landscapes of urban and suburban San Antonio to show us. It's a milieu that seems not just picturesque but lived in, redolent of jalapeños and cold beer, love and grief, the unsaid and unsayable elements of human experience.

What kind of a goal is "realism," and what does the word even mean? It's not a question I can pretend to answer, except to suggest that the illusion of reality is only one tool among many in the magician's toolbox, and that even calling a work of fiction realistic is itself a kind of mystical incantation. To my taste, the most powerful moments in these two films come when the characters step out of what we would normally call their real existence and into mythic or archetypal roles. When Venkatesh, Jhangir and Ayesha go boating or adventuring, they're just three kids from a bucolic children's tale, social roles suspended, out for dirty, innocent mischief. When Luis and Lupe find themselves alone together at a late-night carnival, with tawdry, glorious neon explosions all around them, they're suddenly free from their past, their future and their status as exiles far from home, free to gaze at each other in amazement and fall in love.

"The Pool" is now playing at Film Forum in New York, and opens Sept. 12 in Chicago and Philadelphia; Sept. 19 in Los Angeles; Sept. 26 in San Diego and San Francisco; Oct. 3 in Boston and Denver; Oct. 10 in Washington; Oct. 17 in Atlanta and Minneapolis; Oct. 24 in Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis; and Oct. 31 in Portland, Ore., and Seattle. "August Evening" opens Sept. 5 at the Village East Cinema in New York; Sept. 19 in San Antonio, Texas; Sept. 26 in Los Angeles; Oct. 10 in Austin, Texas; and Oct. 31 in Portland, Ore., with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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