This new film Orillas (shores or borders) released yesterday was an eye opener for me and, I guess, for many Argentines and others too.
It connects the traditional culture of West Africa with the cults of modern Argentina. Benin, the west African country and Argentina, considered as the most European country of Latin America are worlds apart from each other. But the film brings out an incredible link between the two. There are two parallel stories of two boys, one in Benin and the other in Argentina. Babarimisa, the boy from the Yoruba community of Benin is sick and needs heart transplantation. Being unable to get proper medical treatment, the poor mother of the boy takes him to the local priest and subjects him to the traditional religious curative practices. In these scenes, there is vivid and fascinating description of the ceremonies and rituals practised in West Africa.
The Argentine boy Shantas lives in Villa Tranquila, a slum in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. He takes to crime, robbery and gangsterism. At the same time, he believes in the cult of a slum priest who practises a mixed worship of virgin and some local and African icons. It is a combination of elements from catholicism and other ideas of the delirious priest who is drunk most of the time. The priest brainwashes Shantas saying that he is a special immortal person chosen by god. After he witnesses the rape of Shanta's girlfriend the priest tells him that she has been punished by god and she has become dirty. The angry youth rejects the girlfriend when she comes crying to him. This enrages the girl who tells her uncle that it was Shantas who raped her. The uncle goes to the slum and shoots the boy. An Argentine voluntary organisation which helps with transplants in Africa gets the injured boy before his death and transports him to Africa and gets his heart transplated to the African boy. The grateful African mother wants to see the body of Argentine boy who has given his heart to her son. She screams in astonishment ¨Ssango¨seeing the tattoo on his chest. It is the figure of the god worshipped in her place. The film ends with this incredible coincidence between Africa and Argentina.
The Argentine boy's story brings out the degeneration of the slums which breed crime, drug addiction, mindless violence and gangsterism. It is similiar to the scenes I saw in the the famous Brazilian film City of God (cidade de deus). The action and style of life of the poor but violent slum kids is shocking but realistic. The scenes in the film are similiar to the real life images caught by police security cameras and shown in the TV channels.
Pablo Cesar, the Argentine Director has a message to convey through the film. He reminds the Argentines the forgotten story of the Africans who were brought to Argentina too as slaves. But the African population, small though, disappeared and their history forgotten. Of course, these were very insignificant in number compared to Brazil and the northern parts of South America.
Pablo Cesar, who worked on this film for three years with a shoestring budget has done a remarkable job in bringing out the amazing coincidence between the cults in modern Argentine slum life and the African traditional life. He has done it with extreme sensitivity respecting the feelings of Africans. For me, this was the first time I saw the West African ceremonies and practices which are so colourful and fascinating. The African characters speak in their own Yoruba language (these are subtitled in spanish)and this gives an authentic feel. It was interesting to see that the West Africans bow like the Japanese while interacting with each other. The African songs and music, especially when the mother is on a boat and in the hospital are so poignant. The African mother Morenike is an unforgettable character.
It is not only the cult which is common to the Argentine slum and the African country. The poor people in both countries share the same poverty, misery and suffering. If you are poor, it does not matter in which country you live. Pablo Cesar's theme transcends Argentina and Africa; It is universal.
Pablo has made an extraordinary film using ordinary people without any famous actors. Diana from the embassy too has appeared in the film as Teresa, the mother of the girlfriend of Shantas. I should also compliment Jeronino Toubes the script writer for some of the memorable dialogues in the film.
Argentines are certainly the leaders in Latin American cinema at this moment. I have seen a number of interesting Argentine films. It is remarkable that the Argentines are able to produce some great films despite their meagre budgets ( the government of Argentina provides subsidies to the film industry) and poor revenues. They have compensated for the lack of funds with admirable creativity. Un Cuento Chino ( a Chines tale) by the famous actor Ricardo Darin is one of my favourite Argentine films. His film ¨El secreto de sus ojos- the secret of your eyes¨won an Oscar last year. I hope Orillas will win the Oscar this year.
Orillas has been selected to be shown at the India International Film festival in Goa later this month. Pablo Cesar has been invited to present his film at this Festival. I am confident that it is going to be a hit there. I have not heard of any Indian films shot in West Africa. The Indian audience will find some of the rituals shown in the film as similiar to the ones practised in India too. As a child, I have seen and been part of such practices myself in my village in the interior of Tamilnadu.
The next project of Pablo Cesar is to make a film on Rabindranath Tagore's visit to Argentina in 1924 and his romance with Victoria Ocampo who took care of Tagore. He has already worked out a great story combining Tagore- Victoria encounter with a parallel story of the contemporary Argentina. I am confident that he will do justice to this film titled as ¨Thinking of him¨ with his exceptional talents and admiration for Indian culture.