Ivo De Kock checked in from Brussels to the see the world premiere of the Argentinian Coming-of-age drama A La Cantábrica.
If the maxim ‘An unhappy childhood is a writer’s goldmine’ holds true, only suffering can lead to anything. But as Claude Debussy knew, ‘art is the prettiest of lies.’ And there is more. Like educators, many film journalists see themselves as adults, reducing threatening, disturbing cinematic experiences to reassuring judgments. On the other hand, writers, filmmakers and cinephile critics knowingly play with childishness, with immaturity.
Childhood is viewed as a potential threat by adults: it represents the temptation of irresponsibility, the elusiveness of melancholia and the boundlessness of joy. Dealing with cinema and literature requires the spectator or reader to temporarily leave the adult world. During this absence, risks are taken, certainties are questioned, and the shock of the new is inspiring. ‘This feeling of remaining a sincere and stubborn child with all his caprices in the face of the condescending and bloated good sense of the adult world is certainly something that I’m still a little proud of’, Serge Daney wrote in Postcards from the Cinema.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a tormented artistic soul, did not believe people when they flaunted their so-called happy childhoods. To him, to be young was to suffer, but there was beauty in this adolescent pain: ‘It isn’t easy to accept that suffering can also be beautiful… it’s difficult, it’s something you can only understand if you dig deeply into yourself.’
We could ruminate without end about what makes a childhood happy or unhappy, but what is interesting is how that childhood lives on in the adult. Not in the sense of a continuing fascination for miniature trains, but in a refusal to let go of the child’s uninhibited wonderment. Facebook cultivates a discourse of spiky one-liners and straightforward explanations, and delivers ready-made bundles of culture. But actual art requires us to find our own way. Indeed, the meetings that take place this way remain the finest moments of the erstwhile unhappy child.
The English writer and poet Lord Byron claimed that he was only happy for a few minutes of his life, but that those few minutes made all the rest worthwhile. The great misconception educators (and many film journalists) hold, is that there is a market where knowledge, well-being and happiness can be purchased, provided one knows the language in which to ask for it. And they, from their ivory towers, will teach us that language. Creative filmmakers manage to re-immerse us in our childhoods while at the same time pointing to the crisis that accompanies the passage into adulthood. This is how they excite cinephiles as they travel to what Daney calls a ‘country called cinema’, magical and mysterious thanks to our childlike wonderment.
The Facebook page for the Argentinian movie A la Cantábrica lists Gus Van Sant as a favourite. That’s no coincidence. Like Van Sant, director/writer Ezequiel Erriquez attempts to bring together experimental and classical cinema. And just as in Van Sant’s films, his debut feature shows a fascination with young people on the margins of society. His coming-of-age drama deals with the transition from childhood to adolescence, situating his story in a time when the passage into adulthood was considered to take place in early adolescence, at the moment when children become sexually mature.
It’s 1997 and in the suburbs of Buenos Aires three 12-year-old friends struggle with the difficult transition into adolescence. In absence of an official rite of passage, they break into the deserted industrial park La Cantábrica ("It seems as if nobody’s there, let’s go in.") and tag the walls with their names: Choco, Lola, Lija. Zota stands guard at the gates and becomes infatuated with a blind, aging actress. He escorts her to a playground and attempts to invite her to his birthday party. Lola is fed up with the discipline and routine of her extremely classical ballet school. Choco is burdened with more responsibilities as his grandmother weakens both physically and mentally. Lija is uncomfortable with his developing sexuality. Their slumbering malaise turns into outright crisis when they are confronted with something mysterious and disconcerting on the apocalyptic factory grounds. The group is thrown off kilter and the young adolescents realise that their lives are about to change radically.
Erriquez gravitated towards 12-your-old protagonists since "a crisis is natural at that age." the film concerns the crisis of sexual awaking, triggered by biology lessons, sex scenes in movies and Lola’s confession of her first period. It also concerns the crisis of emotion, the conflict between the desire to hold on to a mollycoddled childhood and the nurturing reflex that forces these children towards ‘adult’ responsibility. Finally, it also concerns the crisis of the mind, in which child-like carelessness makes way for fears and anxieties. Time and again, pain invades happiness. Chico’s suffering grandmother ("I’m suffocating," she says and that should be taken literally) tells him he has to go and live with his father’s family. Zota discovers that his amorous feelings are not reciprocated and Lola is told she needs to focus during a ballet class. The crisis reaches its zenith when Zota disappears.
The filmmaker ties this personal crisis of children-in-transition to a changing society. The key to this link is a throwaway line, uttered in an abandoned factory: "My father used to work here." Erriquez points out the contradiction of a society in which a slumbering socio-economic crisis is imminent, but hidden. A society in which public spaces used to dominate social life, but where private space is becoming more important. Where the collective is starting to be dominated by the individual.
"I am interested in approaching this film from a dark point of view without falling into melancholy," the filmmaker says. That gloominess, shot through with a sense of tristesse, is linked to characters with different social backgrounds and themes like education, acting, sickness, loneliness, communication disorders and blindness. A dash of Van Sant, a hint of Fassbinder. After all, these childhoods seem far from happy and joyful. When a child is left ‘home alone’ he does not have cheerful adventures focused on success, but instead eats microwaved meals en stares vacantly at the television. There is no pleasure in recording audiobooks for the blind (at an uncle’s sound studio) or giving direction ("You have to enter the scene now"). And for these kids, the dreams adults have ("I was just remembering," grandma tells her grandson) have more to do with death than life. It’s no coincidence that the kids find a severed head among the garbage at La Cantábrica.
Despite its dark tone, this coming-of-age tale is also an ode to childhood, its energy and its capacity to couple a desire for maturity with an attempt to hold on to immaturity. To couple performance and play (both on stage and on location) with joy, mystery and fear at a primal level. As primal as the filmmaker’s metaphors. And a little like the cinephiles who, like Daney, realise that there is a whole world — simultaneously nearby and far away — to be discovered by watching films. Films that, in the words of Daney, ‘forever cure teenagers of their innocence’.
The kids in A La Cantábrica break into a railway yard, scramble onto a departing train, but in the end travel only in their minds, their imaginations, while staring into a crackling campfire after demolishing a car wreck. It is the viewer who takes a trip. Erriquez references watching (the boys discover what it means not to see by blindfolding themselves) and cinema (the scenes in the movie theatre) but more than anything, he invites his audience to take their own journey of discovery. A cinematic exploration that transports us to another time, another culture and another world. An unknown world, that looks familiar because ‘unhappy childhoods’ are universal. But more than anything, it is a world that excites us by carrying us back to childhood, to an innocent state of mind. Just for a moment. In the darkness. As long as the projection lasts.
Ivo De Kock
A La Cantábrica (Ezequiel Erriquez, Argentina 2012, 80′)