Patria O Muerte (Vitaly Mansky, 2011)

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NB. The Open City Documentary Festival is having a special focus on the documentary maker Vitaly Mansky. It fell to The Scientific Anglian to write programme notes for two of the screenings. Patria O Muerte screens at the Regent Street Cinema in London on Sunday, 10th September at 2:00 pm. For tickets go here.

As the critic Guiliano Vivaldi has claimed of Vitaly Mansky’s work: “Form is less important than content for Mansky as he attempts to capture the spirit of a time and place.” Perhaps the opening of Patria O Muerte – a montage of young women shimmying enthusiastically – is therefore an attempt to capture the youthful spirit of modern Cuba. Or perhaps the intention is to establish Cuba as a place of contrasts – the sheer vivacity of the dancers contrasts with the next sequence: unsettling yet quotidian scenes of graves being exhumed due to lack of space. Finally, the opening scenes work to posit a clash of generations. Preparing for the film, Mansky noted that the generation that came to fruition with the Cuban revolution was now beginning to die off, and another inchoate generation was preparing to take its place.

Perhaps partly to create the film’s elegiac mood, and partly to focus our attention away from stereotypical notions of Cuba, the film uses a muted colour palette to blunt the bright colours of Havana and to direct our attention towards the people on camera and the emotions they express. The subdued colours serve to make Havana seem more mysterious, giving the city a coiled, fractious ambience that is entirely in keeping with Mansky’s theme.

Mansky seems to love all the communities he films, and the Havana of Patria O Muerte is no exception. He wants to pack as many heady, tactile images as possible into the film. In order to do this, he allows the film to drift away from his interview subjects (often artfully arranged, families and groups of friends framed in small groups) as they tell their stories; out into the street where dogs chase each other, and where sheets hung out to dry flap eerily in the wind, against a backdrop of faded Spanish colonial architecture. As per Vivaldi’s observation, Mansky is documenting the community, describing the place.

Other vignettes make up the film, too many to list: two boys having a rap battle, a political meeting in a factory drowned out by the noise of a mechanical sewing machine, a dancer with one foot, and an ever-present swarm of flies buzzing around the freshly-baked goods in a bakery.

One sequence demonstrates how the attempt at creating a socialist utopia hasn’t eradicated old superstitions: a man explains how performing at Yoruba religious ceremonies is the only way that musicians can make money in Cuba (perhaps a sly retort to the often simplistic exoticism of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon). An exorcism follows, with a woman screaming hysterically as bright sunlight streams in through the window. “Every home has a corner where spirits reside,” remarks a witness to this unsettling spectacle.

As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, Mansky was drawn to Cuba, which was presented to Soviet audiences through films like I Am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964), and where socialism still lingers. Consequently, Patria O Muerte looks to the future as well as the past, although the film’s comments about Cuba’s future are necessarily more ambiguous.

The post-credits sequence is of particular note in this respect: a laterally tracking Steadicam shot of a man jogging by the seafront. The camera follows him as waves crash against the barrier, sending water cascading everywhere. The film seems to be warning us of a coming storm, perhaps in a political and economic sense. At the same time this brief epilogue de-centers the human story, placing it in an indifferent elemental landscape.

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