At the 2003 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, I had the privilege of seeing an unassuming, underseen film shot in cinéma vérité style by Ditsi Carolino entitled Life on the Tracks (a film that quickly made my short list of favorite films for the year) on a family from the province who had come to the metropolitan city of Manila in order to seek a better life, only to end up living as squatters on derelict shantytowns built alongside the railroad tracks. In watching Mikael Wiström’s equally penetrating, indelible, and deeply affecting portrait of inseparable familial (and fraternal) bonds against a demoralizing existence of crushing poverty, the moment of epiphany – the thematic parallel between the lives of the Renomeron family in the Philippine slum and the Barrientos family in a Peruvian slum – occurs in a scene when the Barrientos patriarch, Daniel, now working as a motorcycle cab driver, expresses his sadness and frustration to his western-born, filmmaking compadre over his continued (perceived) menial social status since their initial encounter decades earlier: a self-effacing moment that serves to underscore the delusive, illusory nature of Eddie’s dream to own a tricycle pedicab as the ephemeral panacea to achieving financial solvency in the Carolino film.
Thirty years earlier, in 1974, Swedish photojournalist Wiström traveled to Peru to chronicle the lives of the poor and disenfranchised who eked out a meager living by scavenging through garbage dumps and, during the course of filming, befriended a genial, ruggedly handsome, polio-stricken indigenous young man named Daniel Barrientos who had approached him with a ghastly, almost surreal tale of his daughter’s near death when she was attacked by hungry wild boars. Although economic conditions have since modestly improved for the Barrientos family through the now middle-aged Daniel’s self-employment and his devoted wife Nati’s work as a maid and nanny – a resourcefulness that has been able to provide food, clothing, shelter, and a modest education for their children – the idea of a “normal life” still largely remains an illusion. His younger daughter, Judith’s conflicted sentiment over a failing romantic relationship with a gainfully employed disc jockey provides an illuminating, emotional truth that lies at the core of this illusive search: allowing him to devotedly provide for her even as she remains unwilling to make a commitment, she dreams of leading a financially independent life away from him, but considers herself above accepting certain occupations, remarking that she finds the idea of wearing a nanny’s uniform in public, as her mother does, mortifying. Her married sister (and Wiström’s goddaughter), Sandra, works in the family’s pottery business and is less self-conscious (and selective) in her quest for financial relief, but feels – along with her husband – that the gateway to true economic opportunity and a better life lies elsewhere, beyond the bounds (and deeply entrenched class structures) of their homeland and into the neighboring country of Brazil, where they can, perhaps eventually, make their way towards Argentina. With Daniel and his children figuratively standing at their own personal crossroads, he decides to take them on a soul-searching journey to return to his ancestral roots by visiting his indigenous village in the remote Andes mountains – a region that he had once vowed in his childhood to never return – and where his relatives continue their struggle to survive, abandoned by the rest of the Spanish-speaking country, living in inhumane conditions and abject poverty. Filmed with unflinching intimacy, Compadre is a profoundly humbling (and innately sobering) ethnographic portrait of the widespread poverty, displacement, and marginalization faced by indigenous people in contemporary society as they struggle to assimilate – often as second-class citizens – into the adopted culture and society of their native country. Capturing a fusion of reverent, wide-eyed observation of the human condition with the filmmaker’s own emotionally conflicted sentiment of overwhelming social futility, the film metaphorically (and exquisitely) converges with its own introductory images of the cloud-capped Andes mountains – figuratively bringing the Barrientos family full circle to the meaning and legacy of their cultural heritage – and in the process, traces their collective transcendence through a renewed sense of identity, moral center, and paradise lost.
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