A bit of background: I studied in Cochabamba, Bolivia for a semester two years ago, which included studying colonial history, and talking to people who participated in/coordinated resistance during the Water War, which is what they call the 2000 protests.
Even the Rain is a pretty good movie, and to some extent, it’s right in the Academy’s wheelhouse: anti-colonial, it features a good-looking artist type with serious liberal guilt (Garcia Bernal), and a pure capitalist who has a bit of a heart of gold (Luis Tosar). It didn’t make the final list for the Foreign-Language Oscar, but with no love story and a low-profile historical event as background, we can’t really be too surprised. For those of you that haven’t seen it, here’s the trailer, and a summary.
The movie does a few things that I really like (publicizing the water privatization protests, featuring the Quechua language in a major film) and a few things that I recognized as true to the Bolivia that I know/knew (Daniel takes the money and keeps protesting anyway, Costa’s promise to help, but not to return). However, I couldn’t help but think that for a film that’s drawing parallels between colonization/exploitation by Christopher Columbus/Multinational Corporations/Movie productions filming in third-world countries and the resistance of the Tainos/people of Cochabamba/locals all over the world, there’s not all that much Bolivia in the movie.
Most of the movie looks at the parallels between the moviemakers (who pay the extras/crew $2/day to do really dangerous labor) and Columbus and company, but the water privatization is what is supposed to tie everything together—both in terms of plot and in terms of resonance outside the theatre. That’s the “real” part, because for people who don’t work on films the moviemaker part isn’t that real. However, Even the Rain has about as little information about why and how of the Water War as they could possibly have. They use some of the real footage from the protests, which is to their credit (but not really, as the footage available is amazing, easy to acquire if you’re in-country, and I’m sure dead cheap), but the actual facts of the story are astonishing. So why aren’t they in the movie? At all? The characters barely mention why everyone is so mad, other than “they’re taking the water”.
Surprisingly, this lack of context extends to Bolivia and its indigenous people (it’s important to note that about 70-80% of Bolivians claim indigenous heritage, a number with a pretty good chance of being accurate). While the filmmakers use Bolivians to stand in for indigenous folks everywhere, and they hammer that home in almost every scene, they don’t actually teach you much about Bolivia, its culture, or history. For people making an anti-colonial film, that’s insane. Bolivia’s colonial history is more interesting, more extreme, and generally nuttier than that of almost any country in the world. There are lots of characters that speak Quechua, which is awesome, but both the real-life filmmakers and the Bernal-Tosar filmmakers needed an indigenous language in there for credibility reasons. It almost feels like the director wanted to be undoubtedly authentic (real event, real footage, real language, noble savages) while doing as little work as possible. It’s not that the film feels totally false, because it doesn’t; there’s clearly some understanding behind it. But, there are a hell of a lot of missed opportunities to take it from a good movie to a much better one.
That’s part of the problem, though: they don’t even have to tell you what happened anymore; you see indigenous people and assume they’ve been fucked over (you’re right), but you don’t have to know how, so you don’t even have to pretend to be invested. It’s water, it’s from the land, they’re indians, fuck the police, pass the popcorn.
How did this happen? Even the Rain has a lot going on, but it’s still a 100 minute film—there’s more room for context. Ahh: “The film grew out of [screenwriter Paul]Laverty’s attempt, with the help of leftist historian Howard Zinn, to film the life of Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar who turned on the church and his native Spain to become an anti-slavery activist, which the actor playing him claims marked the dawn of international law.” (the quote’s from the AV Club). Las Casas, who lived and worked in Mexico and Central America, never made it further south than Venezuela.
So, this isn’t a movie about Bolivia, it’s about las Casas and taking a Zinn-style anti-colonial stand. It’s just using Bolivia as a backdrop for another story, even when Bolivia’s story might make the case better. Christ, do you think that the (Spanish) director has any sense of irony about this? One of the running lines in the film is that Bernal and Tosar pay the extras $2/day… I have to wonder if these guys are just happy with themselves because they upped that to $5 or $7.