My Ten Years in a Quarry
Critical or box-office success, one suspects, is not infrequently a matter of blind luck, as borne out by the abysmal failure to recapture original magic in a flood of Roman-numeraled sequels. Moreover, what makes a film "work" in the first place may be hard to point a finger at, as in the case of Peruvian director/co-scriptwriter Javier Corcuera's documentary and feature début, The Back of the World (La Espalda del Mundo).
Growing from a project inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, Corcuera's film is tripartite -- "The Child," "The Word," "Life" -- its unifying thread lying, says the director, in a portrayal of "those who live at the back of the world," that is, economically, politically, sexually or racially marginalized. At first one might wonder exactly how the triptych is glued together aside from an aura of sympathy for the outcast and unnerving similarity among the sterile, desert settings. But, even though Texas drawls in "Life" are an incongruous jolt after English-subtitled Spanish and Turkish/Kurdish of the first hour, the three sections nicely dovetail in intuitive, non-definable ways.
Corcuera's previous documentary work has covered political refugees, Peruvian prisoners and Chiapas' Zapatista rebels, as well as ecological issues; however, with two co-scriptwriters, he began The Back of the Worldwith a basic script and "fiction tools" (las herramientas de la ficción) but along the way decided to allow the character-"actors" themselves to work out and lead their own stories, or "fight from the camera" (luchar desde la cámera). The skill of Director of Photography Jordi Abusada plays a large part in elevating the result beyond the endless, static interviews of today's usual manipulative documentaries.
One is left wondering, perhaps, how much is scripted, how much spontaneous truth -- for example, the eleven-year-old Guinder, who pretty much slaves in the semi-quarries above Lima, seems an awfully articulate spokesboy for the eight to fourteen million who desperately throng that now crime-ridden, dangerous capital -- but in the end this does not matter, for all flows together as fiction and reality often do. Old footage of elected M.P. Leyla Zana, presently imprisoned for fifteen years for wearing Kurdish colors to plead in Turkey's Parliament for ethnic brother- and sisterhood, merges with informal shots of her exiled, former mayor husband expecting a visit from the couple's Parisian student sons, and with newsfilm ("real," or Costa-Gavras "real"?) of 1980's coup-inspired massacres in Kurdistan, or of Istanbul's "Saturday Mothers" seeking their disappeared sons.
A dispassionate tour of the Huntsville, Texas, death house -- "This will be my ninety-first execution" -- leads into talks with caged death-row inmate Thomas Miller-El and meetings held by other condemned men's grieving families, set against the non-segregated Captain Joe Bird Memorial Cemetery for prisoners, named for an executioner. The dangerous hard labor of extracting and breaking stones for "houses and hotels" in the capital is interspersed with market scenes alternating with effectively brief words from street urchins who survive legally and illegally, and relieved by children's joy at a barefoot Sunday soccer match played on a bare pitch outlined with stone fragments.
The film is in ways minimalist, as it had to be: "countless hours have been filmed [and] what has been left out of the film is another one." Yet the effect is emotionally draining. At a New York showing attended by the director, audience response was resoundingly enthusiastic; while, admittedly, those in attendance then were disposed a priori to be politically and socially supportive of such themes, reviewers (including this one) who preview the film months later, are equally impressed.
Without preaching, pretension or ingenuousness, Back of the World depicts the very real darkness of lives beyond nightly TV news or self-congratulatory Special Reports. That these three particular lives -- a child's, a woman and mother's, a man's -- are chosen from among millions, does not minimize them. Quite the opposite, for by distilling the essence of hope for a bright future, for freedom and family, for life, Corcuera displays the inequality and injustice of three continents, and of the world, and indicates the long winding road, the only one, to true peace and fraternity.
(Released by United International Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)