Home and Away, directed by Laszlo Fulop and Martine Otte, was shown at the Contemporary Arts Center’s Cinema Reset exhibit in early January.
Home and Away is composed of a series of interviews. The form is an old one, derived from the meeting of the French entreveue and older dialogic traditions. Only with the advent of modern recording can a third party be fully privy to the subtle machinations of visage and tone that color any conversation.
The project’s legerdemain is to transform a conversation, a necessarily enclosed loop of understanding, inquiry and assertion, into a spectacle, capable of affecting an audience. Home and Away bisects the spectacle, completely eliminating the voice of the interviewer and leaving only a series of answers. The effect is that the audience itself is the interlocutor. We are given in conversation to several men and women who came to America (mostly New Orleans) from somewhere else, once the dominant demographic of most coastal U.S. cities. We are presented with questions ranging from why they came to what they brought, and at last, where they would like their remains to rest.
At times the answers are stirring. A young Brazilian woman shows off the hairspray by which she remembers her deceased grandmother; a French man confronts the loss of his memoirs in Hurricane Katrina.
At other times the answers are pedestrian. Everyone weighs in on American politics, and one is left with the not-alltogether unpleasant sensation that she is simply talking to a person at a bar about the news. One wonders if one needs cinema for this.
Beyond the language of any conversation, however, is the structure of the exchange. We talk over tables, out of doorways, standing on sidewalks, moving, seated (facing each other, or a common point). It is clear that the interviewer did a very good job of putting the interviewees at ease.
The film, however, takes great pains to amplify that ease and sincerity for the audience. Each interviewee is flanked by a mirror, and they are sat athwart a blank (usually white) wall. The effect is to draw the viewer’s gaze as comprehensively as possible upon the visage of the subject. For a study of faces and emotions the effect is invaluable; the film treats lighting masterfully, and the range of shadows across the two faces (original and reflected) provides an important depth to the voices.
One can watch the interviewee’s eyes, all four of them, dart around like nervous fish, belying the conversation and accentuating the interrogation. The aesthetic effect of the bare, minimalist surfaces, both in the interview rooms and the performative dance stage, combined with the brutal candor of the mirror, is to at times suggest official power – the inevitable second thought of any project of questioning immigrants. Minimalism, with its emphasis on purity and efficiency, is perhaps not the finest choice of cinematic aesthetics for a piece concerned with immigration and foreignness. The cheeriness suppresses the effect for the most part, but the vague ghost of INS examination rooms suggests itself nevertheless.
Most curious is the genre of “art documentary,” what it suggests and what it requires. I see no reason that the film ought be held to some standard of comprehensiveness. One does not demand that it endeavor to represent American immigration policy in its totality. Nevertheless, this columnist couldn’t help be perplexed by the lack of any poor Latin immigrants. The interviewees are exclusively fluent in English, and their presence is legal. They are educated and their work is not manual.
This is not typical, and when I asked why this choice in interviewees, I received two answers. One is that illegal immigrants could not communicate with their homeland and so were exempted from the film-makers’ interest in joint cultural stocks. This strikes me as improbable: Most central American immigrants enjoy both manual or service industry labor and a regular connection, financial and emotional, with the people they’ve left behind. The second is more to the point: that the interviewees are by and large people the film-makers know.
In one sense, this reveals that the film is a significant explication of a rare and sophisticated class of people: a New Orleans intellegentsia who have come from far and wide with a bundle of personal history and philosophy behind them. The decision to focus the film on such a limited group allows it an honesty and candor that a more exhaustive documentary would have lacked. The groups with the education and access, however, are typically the ones most capable of representing themselves. The formulation of immigration presented would have been utterly alien to many New Orleanians who came for opportunity and found poorly compensated service jobs.
But then there are also the interludes of modern dance …
Perhaps the wonder of dance is that it can cut to the quick of these divergent experiences. One is left with the wonderfully clumsy image of the dancers dragging plants and luggage across the bare, back stage. It is an awkward struggle that bespeaks a tonal understanding of immigration as a phenomenon. At the end the dirt is spilled across the stage and the plant planted. On the one hand, this confounds the sterility of the bare black stage. On the other, the film once again chooses to symbolically represent success and assimilation, breaking from the common experience of struggle to its less common outcome: stability.
Erik Vande Stouwe writes about the cultural community for NolaVie.