At the end of an earlier Festival of Song contest, inmate and reigning singing champion, Norma García, a Mexican national serving a ten year sentence for unwittingly carrying contraband for a friend during a holiday trip to Spain, returns to her narrow cell after briefly basking in the limelight before a captive audience and bids farewell to the film crew with an affectionate request not to forget all the people they had been filming when they leave the prison and return to their daily routine. In hindsight, Norma’s parting comment captures the sincere and impassioned social observation that lies at the core of Carles Bosch’s incisive chronicle of the annual Festival of Song competition at the Soto del Real prison on the outskirts of Madrid. Similar to Maria Ramos’s unmoderated documentaries on the Brazilian justice system (Justice and Behave), Septiembres frames the plight of the inmates as a procedural, chronicling moments in their everyday life as they prepare from one contest to the next.
Having won the cash prize of 290 euros for the past two contests (which promptly went to pay for tuition at a correspondence school and subsequently, dental treatment), Norma reveals that she is planning to buy her young daughter a Christmas present if she wins this year’s contest, having continued to maintain the ruse (albeit tenuously) for the past three years that she has gone far away to work. The ruse of a pesky, overseas job also proves convenient for Argentinean national, Adalberto “Beto” Usoli, explaining to his beloved elderly grandmother that his extended absence and infrequent (and spotty reception) calls home are the result of working aboard a cruise ship. Accused of embezzling 3,000 euros from his employer, Beto moved to Spain in order to be closer to his Barcelonian lover, and is petitioning to resolve his case in the Spanish court system, fearing a lengthy separation from his partner if he is extradited back to Argentina. Following one’s heart proves to be Lithuanian immigrant and counterfeiter, Rudolf Schlessinger’s Achilles heel as well, having violated the terms of his weekend furlough in order to spend more time with an attractive young woman he had just met, and has been handed down an additional sentence for the impulsive act, delaying his upcoming parole. Beto’s limbo within the Spanish court system is also echoed in the indefinite imprisonment of a young woman, Patricia Ávarez, the eldest of twelve children who is serving an open ended sentence for drug possession, and in the plight of Arturo Jiménez, a Madrileño of gypsy descent and devoted family man who has been detained for over two years at the Valdemoro Men’s Prison awaiting a court date on drug trafficking charges.
The wide reach of the drug trade also casts its shadow on recovering addict and self-admitted black sheep of the family, Estefanía Maestre (who, like the young, unemployed couple in José Luis Guerín’s En Construcción, hails from the working class port town of El Chino) who has found a measure of stability in her life with her fiancé Cristian (and who, in turn, is serving ten years for wounding his former girlfriend’s lover in a jealous rage) and is eager to move on, but must wait until they both serve out their sentences. Another is José Antonio Gardoqui, the gravel-voiced, former drummer of a popular 80s band called “Burning” who once robbed banks to feed his habit, and his girlfriend and fellow inmate, Fortu, who tried to save her addicted children from the streets (ultimately, in vain) by buying drugs for them. In each story, Bosch illustrates an underlying pattern of marginalization and underprivilege – poverty, under-education, racism, alienation, and despair – that binds each contestant’s search for happiness and normalcy. As in Ramos’s films, the absence of an overarching commentary creates a sense of intimacy between subject and viewer. However, while Ramos reinforces the image of entrenched hierarchical structures in interactions with authorities, Bosch collapses these structures by filming solely from the perspective of the inmates, enabling their figurative self-expression through heartfelt song renditions and articulated personal aspirations that capture the humanity beneath their marginalized lives, and the quotidian moments of grace that reaffirm their dignity.
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