Parallax Views on Human Rights: Lourdes Portillo’s Experiment Al Más Allá

BY RICARDO F. VIVANCOS PÉREZ

According to the press kit, Lourdes Portillo’s Al Más Allá (2008) is an “… experimental documentary that uses narrative elements to explore the realities of shifting global wealth and drug trafficking along the Mayan coastline of Mexico.”1 The experiment consists of a metastory about the process of making a documentary on the effects of narco-trafficking in Xcalak, a small village near the border between Mexico and Belize. A Chicana filmmaker and her crew investigate rumors about the involvement of fishermen and corrupt local police officers in helping the transit of illegal drugs across the border. Blurring the boundaries between facts and fiction—including rumors and superstition—Portillo exposes and reflects upon lawlessness and corruption at one of the borders that drug traffickers utilize as a transfer point in the global narcotics distribution network, especially from Latin America to the United States. However, by the end of the film, the crew has not even started the production of the documentary. The last scene includes their conversation about how to put together their materials. The documentary that we, as the audience, were supposed to be viewing has not even been created.

My first viewing of Al Más Allá left me disconcerted and wanting to know more. I was prompted to pen an email to Lourdes Portillo:

Yesterday I received the copy of Al Más Allá that you sent. I just watched it, and I want more!  I want to know more about what is going on at the southern border of México, about the people who live there, and about your research and how you conceived the movie. I think that one of the most powerful aspects of Al más allá is that it arouses so much curiosity about what is going on with narcotrafficking and how it affects ordinary people; and that it makes us reflect, at the same time, upon our own privileged position as “investigators.” In this sense, the movie is an implacable self-critique. That is really original and really makes the difference in comparison with other documentaries about human rights issues, borders, and the effects of globalization (Personal communication, February 15, 2012).

Most of Lourdes Portillo’s documentaries are about human rights violations—Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (1986)—violence, crime, and mystery at the U.S.-Mexico border—The Devil Never Sleeps (1994), Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena (1999), and Señorita Extraviada (2001)—and about how to approach these atrocities from the committed perspective of the artist/ filmmaker. Her work is an essential contribution to Chicana and Latina feminist art and thought since the 1980s, raising questions of positionality and ethics in a self-reflective manner. In Portillo’s films, finding truths, and getting involved have to do with our own position and perspective, as much as with the victims and the events themselves. The filmmaker is a detective, and her quest always becomes personal. Metafilmic self-reflection is necessary and urgently needed.

In Al Más Allá, the metafilmic and fictional elements are even more prominent than in her previous works. For the first time, Portillo uses an actress, Ofelia Medina, instead of herself, to perform the role of the filmmaker. Al Más Allá is a poetic piece, but much “brighter” or “cleaner” than Señorita Extraviada. It keeps us at a distance from the facts that we are supposed to be investigating and learning about, and distracts us in multiple ways—especially scenes in which the filmmaker is swimming as the diving camera and asynchronous music are used to portray her as a Hollywood star.

Who should we, as an audience, identify with? If we identify with the character of the filmmaker, we will experience the discomfort of the heat, the dehydration, how insects bite us or how the wild vegetation makes a rash on our legs and feet. But we will still want to spoil ourselves laying out in the sun in our hammock—the most pleasurable piece of furniture of Caribbean creation—or hydrating and “restoring” our damaged skin with blotting sheets. What is all this distraction from the serious case of drug trafficking and its devastating effects on the local community?

The main distraction comes from the existence of two different perspectives on the “mystery,” during the process of discovery or exposure to how narco-traffickers work, and how their business affects the local community; a process that the movie truncates, activating our desire to know more. The narrative develops by alternating two different sequences, shifting from the unedited shots of the cameraman that follows the filmmaker—which sometimes becomes a powerful parody of the Crocodile Hunter style of Discovery channel programming—and the shots of a camera that is external to the action, or outside the action. Alternating shots, and also different takes of the same shot from the two cameras accentuate the confusion and distraction. The split perspective, and the fluctuating angles from which the story is shown parallels the confusion that the filmmaker experiences in the process of filming, and simultaneously, in the process of finding out more about what happened to three local fishermen who absconded with illegal drugs that washed ashore.

The way Slavoj Žižek uses the notion of the parallax in cultural analysis is useful to untangle this collusion of perspectives. The parallax is “the apparent displacement of an object, caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight”2 The two perspectives from which the movie is presented are initially irreducible, but it is our constant shifting between them, and their conjugation, which paradoxically is providing us access to the story. So at a higher level of abstraction, the two cameras in the movie, that of Portillo and that of the crew, create a parallax gap or “the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no common ground is [initially] possible”3

At a more practical level, the two perspectives refer to three main parallax gaps in the movie. First, there is the distinction between film and documentary—there is the external camera, which accounts for a fictional cinematic view, and the cameras of the crew, which accounts for the documentary footage. Portillo’s movie seems to suggest that pursuing a movable perspective, a zigzagging between fact and fiction and between documentary and fiction cinema, may be the only way to attain the multiple truths of the “mystery.” In this regard we can apply to Portillo what Žižek says about Polish film director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff (1979), a movie about the role of the filmmaker and his transition from documentaries to films. In Al Más Allá, as in Camera Buff, “fiction emerges out of the inherent limitation of the documentary”4 Portillo seems to suggest, as does Kieślowski, that her experiments with fiction are inevitable.

Second, we have the parallax gap between the two cultures, the cultural background of the filmmaker and her crew versus the culture of the local community. This is the gap that questions the role of the Westernized documentary filmmaker and, by extension, our role as human rights activists. It is the parallax view that occurs in linguistic and cultural translation. So I ask, is “Beyond the Beyond” an accurate translation of Al Más AlláEl más allá, in Spanish, normally refers to death or the supernatural. Al Más Allá means movement towards the fields of the unknown. This concerns our desire to access the unknown, which is also the realm of that that cannot be fully represented or grasped, beyond language, the domain of the Lacanian Real. Here, we are at the core of Portillo’s mission as a filmmaker: The detective investigation process involved in documentary filmmaking, especially in dealing with global human rights issues, involves a complex and arduous cultural translation process that cannot be fully resolved or untangled, but can barely be discerned through parallax views.

Finally, there is a third parallax gap between inaction and global activism. If it is that difficult, and that impossible to find truths or to figure out solutions, why investigating, why documenting, why should we care? Following Slavoj Žižek’s theories regarding perspective and the visual arts, reality can only be grasped “in a kind of parallax view, constantly shifting perspective between two points between which no synthesis or mediation is possible.”5 Portillo is suggesting something similar by adopting parallax views to approach global human rights issues. Her project is an ambitious one that highlights the aesthetic dimension. What Portillo seems to be proposing is that the disconcerting but nonetheless desire-propelling aspect of artistic dimension is an essential component, sine qua non, of our fight for global justice.

 

Ricardo Vivancos Pérez is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latina/o Studies and Spanish Program Coordinator at George Mason University. He received his Ph.D. in Hispanic languages and literatures from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2006. Ricardo specializes in Latina/o Studies, Latin American Studies, Exile Studies, and Feminist and Queer theories. Prof. Vivancos Pérez is affiliated with the Latin American Studies Program and the Women and Gender Studies Program. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Women and Gender Studies Research and Resource Center and the Women and Gender Studies Program.

 

ENDNOTES

  1. Portillo, Lourdes. Al Más Allá: A Film by Lourdes Portillo. Press Kit. www.lourdesportillo.com/films. Accessed 17 January 2012. Web. []
  2. Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006, p.17 []
  3. Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006, p.4 []
  4. Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006, p.30 []
  5. Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006, p.4 []
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