Hacking at the cycles of labor

  • Datum 20-01-2012
  • Auteur
  • Gerelateerde Films Corta
  • Regie
    Felipe Guerrero
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Aily Nash checked in from Berlin to see the Colombian world premiere Corta.

Desiccated, browned canes are interspersed with verdant new growth-the dogged proliferation of tropical vegetation fills the frame. A man appears. This nameless man, a worker, wears galoshes, a wide-brimmed hat, and carries some work equipment and his lunch. He sets down his things, prepares himself, and then begins to cut the cane with his machete. The scene ends when the roll of film runs out. Black leader is bookended by flash frames, and the next shot begins. Again, tall canes fill the frame, yet this time, a man is already in the shot with his back to us. He stands motionless for a moment (what feels almost like a performative pause), and then begins to ready himself for work. This formula repeats, with variations in each scene, and a gradual progression reveals the entire process of sugar cane harvesting-from hand-cutting, to the appearance of industrial farm machinery that rolls toward the camera in tank-like fashion, grabbing and dumping the cane into bins, which are then loaded into shipping containers and driven away by semis. The field is then burned, raked, and the whole process begins again.

If this were a film simply about duration and endurance, it would have been shot on video and the entire film would have been one long take of men cutting cane. If this were a film just about labour, we would have seen them constantly cutting cane and being ‘productive’. Rather than beginning shots with the workers mid-work, in Corta we are often made to witness the preparations, and the rituals of work instead of the work itself-clearly displayed accoutrement, the putting on and taking off of bandanas and hats, suiting-up and getting into character. Almost equal time is spent showing them sharpening their machetes, eating lunch under a makeshift tent, and changing out of work clothes into street clothes on a mound of cut cane. We are made to witness the human rhythms of work and non-work within a structure of production.

We hardly see faces. Specificity of person or place is not being explored; it is anonymous and abstracted into labor and laborer. This is neither an anthropological, nor voyeuristic gaze; rather, we are witnessing an invisible system, the system of industry that has been remotely imposed, outsourced to far-off lands, on to nameless, faceless people. And as arcane as this globalized system of production is, just as abstrusely, these images have travelled across the world onto our screens, and similarly, the product of their labor, sugar, appears discreetly on our tables.

Duration in Corta has as much to do with the audience, as it does these laborers. It translates their rhythm of work and repetition into cinematic terms, into short vignettes, with lengths determined by the film stock. We are made to witness the worker’s Debordian confinement within pseudocyclical industrial time, while simultaneously subject to a cyclical cinematic structure that both mimics, and is experientially distinct from theirs. The worker’s immobility within this system of commodified time is linked to that of the viewer within the imposed linear cinematic structure which ends just as it began.

The use of music in Corta points to necessary loopholes, and ambiguous spaces outside of this system. The same percussive, metallic drumming that the film commences with, returns throughout the film over the leader between scenes. This music contrasts the diegetic confinement within the images and liberates the viewer into a purely cinematic space, while only ambient noise, and sometimes the radio, is heard within the scenes. The intentionality, with which one of the labourers turns on his radio, pointedly signifies a distinctly proletariat sound, in contrast to the abstract percussive tracks, audible only to us. An exception to this delineation is the wistful song of one of the workers, which floats in and out of one scene. It is unclear who is singing, but we know why the caged bird sings.

Aily Nash