Unlikely Commodities
{ Mirella Bontempo is Serai’s one and only you-drop-dead-first-then-listen-up-reviewer of all indie flic happennings, whether they be hardcore, karaoke-kind, sex-pistols-pretenders or hollybolly trashing, yoga-nights type.}
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From my past Serai film reviews, one would sense I have a penchant for Sentimental films (i.e. Marginalia: children, the dispossessed, the displaced and preferably all three) and the Didactic thematic critique rather than a mere review since I tend to reveal spoilers. Anyway, these films run their course in the theatres and are out on DVD by the time a new Serai issue is issued. In keeping with tradition, the following shall mediate on familiar themes or aesthetically superior, albeit our type of preachy films we at Serai continue to cherish and expose society’s failings. But the following cleaned up at the 2003 London Festival for best British indie film, actor and screenplay.

Stephen Frears treads on the familiar with Dirty Pretty Things but unlike previous work penned by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Launderette, Sammy and Rosie get Laid), this film has less to do with politically charged verbiage and repartee. In fact, the film’s characters, who are “illegal workers”, speak unblemished English, like real immigrants, just to get needs communicated and met. We are far from the Britannia of yore or even cool Blairtannia. This is the London we never see. Affix words like “underbelly”, the gutter and underground channels.

The film takes on theatrical form without grating theatrics. The eloquent proverbial Chinese porter, who works at the morgue after 12 years of sojourn in UK, takes on some Shakespearean quality functioning like a soothsaying cynic. He chides Okwe for starting to dress like a genteel Englishman after he dons a country quilted Burberry-like jacket he picked up after dodging officials on the chase. Archetypes include the British-born whore-with-a-heart-of-gold of West Indies origin, one of two scant bonafide Britons in the film and the Russian buffoon doorman. In sum, those who dirty and tidy up the hotel rooms.

As my short-lived stint with anti-defamation leagues attests, it is often immigrant-stock that reject and resent the nouveau émigré intent on the denial of collective responsibility. “We had to apply to get here. We never got a safety net, free language courses.” Lest they forget their ancestors were once without official papers (a.k.a. WOPs). In Dirty Pretty Things, neo-Britons of immigrant stock (South Asian Immigration agents and sweatshop operators, Southern European employers) are seen exploiting other immigrants. Immigration presupposes a sense of bureaucracy – papers in orders. So these sans papiers are neither immigrants nor guest workers - the German euphemism. They are clichés - work in black, ‘illegals’ and Clandestins. They belong to a sub-proletariat in the Post-Colonial context.

The film is far from sentimentalism so the stillborn love story between ‘illegals’ will never come to fruition. Yet, the dream is one of fantasy – better life at all costs including self-subordination, servicing bosses and bartering organs for false documents. All lapses in dignity are for safeguarding a legal situation amidst a political system that deports very clogs that make the economic system work. Who will pick your strawberries if not for greasebacks, clean your windows and wipe the ass of your ailing mommy which cost saves as well as eases your guilt, pick tomatoes or work in your tanneries because the local population find the stench beneath them? Just recently, the Bossi-Fini Bill in Italy franchising regularized ‘irregulars’ at the municipal level. Even the xenophobes and ex-neo-fascists are susceptible to bowing to the “no one is illegal” dictum but Bossi of Northern League changed his mind.

Fantasies of the civilized world haven’t concretized for them while navigating for quotidian financial and physical survival. False documents are essential to get to that mythical Third Safe Country to use refugee lingo. Turkish Senay (Audrey Tautou) dreams of moving to New York City where police officers ride on white horses on the postcards that her cousin sends periodically.

Okwe (Nigerian- Briton actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) works in daylight as cabdriver and his nights as a hotel concierge. He uses his American-education he got as one of those brain-draining ‘Third World’ scholarships as a doctor treating cabdrivers from STDs, haggling, negotiating and stealing medication. He pops on caffeine pills and chews eucalyptus-like leaves Turks chew for mood alteration. His story could come from anyone of those Monthly Amnesty appeals concerning political prisoners waiting to be exiled, living under an assumed name and leaving behind a past of government atrocities against his family including falsified arrests and murder.

While Okwe hails from Lagos, Nigeria, the hotel director Juan has an Albufiera soccer team pennant, from the Lagos region of Portugal, on the wall confirms their common ground of foreign-ness. If you want to be analytical, it can suggest the Colonial Portugal-Africa slave trade. Juan operates an organ smuggling ring from his hotel, blackmailing and enlisting the doctor’s skills for the impromptu Operation Room after discovering his true identity. Okwe resists and cannot dissuade immigrants to keep their kidneys if Juan offer 1000£ and forged passports. His Hippocratic oath also gnaws at him, if he won’t embark, these desperate elderly and children shall undergo these ‘donated’ transplants without proper sanitized precautions regardless.

The cosmically just finale has our hero hand over the Organ Smuggler’s kidney, destined for a Saudi billionaire daughter, to the only white character who comments that he has never seen them before in his dealings. Okwe’s monologue is representative of the film: “We clean your houses, we chauffeur your cars and we suck your cocks.”

Colonialism once refined raw materials and dehumanized beings; organ trade is the latest transaction in global supply and demand. Some give you their sweat from their brow, make your shirts and others give the kidney off their backs to the highest bidder. Human anatomy and life itself has become the latter-day commodity since slavery and sweatshops in the North-South relationship. John Sayles’ Casa de Los Babys makes it glaring obvious. It takes place in a non-descript nation of South America (a hybrid of most where they resent Yanqui trade and the tourism they are dependent on). Sometimes, it felt like Mexico since subconsciously I knew it was filmed in Acapulco, sometimes Peru, Chile and Cuba’s political past with their indigenous and educated classes.

Sayles also uses archetypes: the disillusioned and useless revolutionary who questions and hates his mamí (Rita Moreno) who runs the for-profit-orphanage hotel but works there as a handyman. The adoption intentions of the American women are also schematized. The in-fighting and maternal rivalry has women pitted against the other women – badmouthing the emotionally focused and uber-athletic Skipper (Daryl Hannah), the born-again Christian (Mary Steenburgen), a frugal Irish woman on a budget sole breadwinner in the family (Susan Lynch), kleptomaniac and racist Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), single woman tired waiting for a man arousing suspicions that she’s a lesbian (Lili Taylor) and the newlywed and Old-Moneyed wide-eyed girl (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who wants to use the adoption to ‘save’ her marriage. The male gender presence in the process is glaringly invisible.

Nan plays the “ugly American” who despises the local food, abuses the maids, makes derogatory remarks about babies’ defective, lazy genes, resents the hotel-orphanage keeping their accommodating expenses high for an indeterminate time and bribes the local lawyer who keeps appearance by refusing. All the same, she finds the babies scrumptiously delicious.

Who gets the babies is a matter of bobocracia and not who is most emotionally equipped to raise a child. Skipper is the one who suffered most miscarriages.

More insulting than that Visa commercial where the credit card company equates baby adoption in China to a shopping spree, is how adopting a child from the Second and Third Worlds is more than a consumerist act. Such trends come in waves: Romania where the HIV-positive children were less desirable. Then came Russian cute blondes and blue-eyes combos. Asia is the new boutique. With local adoptions being so long and cumbersome, a quick trip and 13,000$ secure newborns with custom-made attributes. Of course, rare are the parents that adopt ‘defective’ sickly kids and the older children skipped-over. Abandoned by birthparents, these babies are institutionalized for the rest of their adolescent lives.

Another subplot in the film deals with Celia who got pregnant by a street hood and where her mother plans to send her off to Miami for the abortion. The native poor usually give up babies for moral and financial means, raise their siblings, take up servile jobs at the orphanage which enables them to keep an eye on their children while dispose the ‘evidence’ of sex is afforded to better off classes.

My insights on orphanages stem from my one-day visit sometime in late June of 2000 to one in Bethlehem. The Hospital of the Holy Family, the term ‘orphanage’ is not P.C., is run by a French-speaking Maronite (Catholic Lebanese) Nun from the Daughters of Charity Order. The Maltese flag is at the mast, typical emblem of Christianity in the ‘holy land’, probably rooted from the Crusades. Since the majority of these kids are Palestinian Muslims, the order cannot convert, proselytize or allow for adoptions outside Palestine. The Palestinian Authority wants to ensure these children remain in Palestinian territory as population fillers. I saw tourists pick up the newborns, spending a minute with each to go off to the next crib and incubator. I felt nauseated being part of the gawks and human museum. The newborns were suddenly animated and laughing but once abandoned, the one with a happy disposition started to howl. I decided to stay put between he and his nursery mate nearby since it was all existentially useless. No one ever plays with the 7 year olds who are past the “adorable” and adoptable prime.

Socio-religious pressures for pregnant teens exist there as it still exists here: forcing them to leave babies in garbage dumps or the institution’s footsteps. The incognito pregnant girls stay safe from an ostracizing society. As my bus pull out of the gate, I saw a family having picnic with their pregnant daughter and sister on the Hospital’s lawn. They invited me to eat with them after I gesticulated with my Italianate sign for eating. I laughed and motioned “it’ll make me fat” without care it might be misinterpret as pregnant. A few months later Sharon would visit the Dome of the Arch and during re-occupation, the Hospital would be without electricity and no access to funds were allowed by either Israeli or Palestinian authorities. The founding nun navigates between the fronts even during curfews to secure diapers and foodstuff.

The sharp contrasts of newborns and abandoned street-kids in Casa de Los Babys where also in need for shelter and love are the city’s street-kids that steal, hoard and sniff their existence. The boy fails pick pocketing a mother-in-awaiting. She, in turn, buys him a book on goats. The peddler tries to steal back her merchandise because “after all, what good is that book to you if you can’t read it?”

The critical New Yorker ridicules the televised lottery show as gaudy Entertainment but the show highlights reveries of security in a form of a lotto ticket. That night the astrologer predicts Capricorns will have their worlds drastically changed. The next shot reveals the boy with book on goat is besotted being under the star sky under the beach’s wooden structures.

The superstitious lore of escape from the economic humdrum even affects the unemployed engineer who can’t even get a job at the Casa hotel-cum-orphanage. The directress says, “If I hire you, I have to lower the wages of my maids.” He offers free tours of the city to the ladies because cultural heritage cannot be bought. The Socialite ponders if giving him a generous tip would offend him.

John Sayle’s dialogue is sometimes stiff, hence realistic. Perhaps this is due to his activist within. Having the subtitles lack in synchronization furthermore frustrates those of us who understand the language. Sayles, who wrote, directed and edited the film, has already explored US-Mexican border politics in Lonestar (1996). The oft-overlooked indie filmmaker’s bulk of work often is imbued with geographic colour (be it Alaska, West Virginia or Mexico). The montage of pans of babies induces contemplation and drools strung with Spanish lullabies sung from the nuns. Sayles shows off his world beat knowledge for the soundtrack consists of eclectic mish-mash of South American music including Mexican-born and sometime Montreal resident Lhasa.

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Recently, films about ‘clandestins’ have invaded the Mainstream. Michael Winterbottom’s In this World (2002) concerns with refugees from Peshawar. The short Waiting for Light (Federico Bruno, 13 min) has Mandarin-speaking people, with aestheticized dirt marks on their cheeks echoing Japanese Noh theatre make-up, marooned in the dark just as we spectators are without any context except the unfolding drama into titles such as Day 1, Day 2 and onward. They huddle to listen to radio, daydream but diagetic sound reveals their darkness isn’t a matter of choice. They are human cargo being rocked by wave movements, pawns to the director’s choreographing the huddled masses under the droplets of water. Thirteen days later, doors open and the Carabinieri hold their breaths and noses to the indignity of corpses.

A forerunner of this theme was Denis Chouinard and Nicolas Wadihoff’s Les Clandestins (1997).

Refugee films:
Experimental filmmaker and archivist Jonas Mekas often meditates on his refugee predicament. The Boat is Full (Das Boot ist Voll, Markus Imhof, 1982), The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984), El Norte (Gregory Nava, 1983), D’Est (Chantal Akerman, 1992), The Tree of Our Forefathers (Licinto Azevedo), The Suspended Step of the Stork (Theo Angelopoulos, 1992), Journey of Hope (Xavier Koller, 1990), Splugen Pass (1988), Let There be Light (Reis Celik, 1997) and L’America (Gianni Amelio, 1996).

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