Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Movie: A Better Life
So in the last year or two it's come to my attention that many of the spaces I wanted to spend my time volunteering (or for that matter, places I was hoping might be willing to pay me enough money so I could afford rent) all seem to want one thing: people who habla español. So this summer my wife Rachel and I recently enrolled ourselves in a Spanish class. Being a wonderful student I've spent much of my time watching Spanish language film and TV shows (read: I like well made film and TV shows and I like self-deluding myself into believing that I'm learning).
Now just out on video, A Better Life (What does it say about our society that a bilingual film has an English only trailer?), is a troubling film that is perhaps even more troubling when we watch it through the question of what it means to love their neighbor. Our film is about Carlos, an undocumented single parent living in LA. This story feels much like a modern adaptation of an Euripidian tragedy; our protagonist isn't a bad guy, but right from the outset you know, he's screwed.
Carlos wants to keep his head down and his nose out of trouble. He works long and hard days as a day laborer doing yard work and landscaping. He has scored a regular everyday gig but now his boss has given him a kind of ultimatum: buy my truck (not just a vehicle but a whole business complete with customers) or if you don't when I sell it to someone else you'll be back on the corner fighting for one of the spots on someone else's truck. Carlos bets the farm, calls in a family favor and loses it all to an act of betrayal and then spends the rest of the film working to recover what he's lost.
This film covers a couple of themes really well that I think deserve more attention than our culture is willing to offer:
1. Victimizers are often, if not almost always, victims themselves. Elaine Enns in the 2010 Augsburger lecture series she co-delivered with her husband Ched Myers, told the story of her family in the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919 (starts specifically around 17:45 though I recommend listening to the whole of the lecture). Enns comes from a family of Ukrainian Mennonites and she describes her family history through the Bolshevik revolution. The Mennonites and the greater Anabaptist tradition has called its practitioners to see themselves as being distinct from the world around them, in the words of 1 Peter 2:9 often identifying as “a peculiar people”. As a result, when the anarchist general Nestor Makhno's and his Black Army rolled through their community they found a group of people who had cloistered themselves off from the community around them and taken care of themselves to the neglect of the greater society. What the Anarchists, mostly peasants, saw was groups of people who had accumulated more than their share of the wealth and justifiably were angry at the ways that the Mennonites had contributed to the exploitation of the working class. These Mennonites were in this way the symbol at hand of all that the Makhnovians were fighting against. The anarchists resentment of wealth inequality as represented by the Mennonites is understandable but their brutal treatment of the Enns' family transformed into bitterness and a justifiable anger that has been passed down the generations leading us to ask who here is a victim and who is the victimizer. The answers is of course “both/and”. Enns' point, that we are perhaps most likely to abuse and exploit others when we ourselves are being taken advantage of, is a reoccurring theme in this film as we see interactions between boss and employee, parent and child, those who are stealing and those who have been stolen from.
2. The other big theme that jumps out at me from this film is the nature of lives for the “undocumentable”. I'm stealing this phrase from the Iconocast interview with Anton Flores, an organizer and member of an intentional Christian community in Georgia that focuses their work with immigrants and their families. Flores talks about the systemic ways that our society has made it impossible to become an immigrant for many families. The final word in that last sentence is an important one, because this film is not so much about one man making decisions for himself, instead it focuses on a single parent who is desperately attempting to keep their head and their child's above water. Carlos recognizes that any risks he takes, even ones for the betterment of his family in the end puts them all at risk.
3. If you can't be a family the gangs can, and will, do it for you. This is a theme that I think this film dabbles in but just isn't ready to take all the way; if you are in the mood for a film that is willing to take this gritty and brutal reality to it's logical conclusion the 2009 film Sin Nombre which follows a group of Honduran immigrants and gang members is worth the watch (as a warning though, this is one of the darkest and most depressing films I have ever seen and manages to suck the last, lingering little bits of hope from the room). For many people who find family is either unwilling or unavailable to provide for very real material or emotional needs, the gang often times the only ones ready and willing to step into this void. Novelist, poet and former LA gang member, Luis J. Rodriguez fleshes out some of these ideas out in his memoir Always Running and, I think, even more powerfully in a kind of autobiographical, historical/political-economic study of gangs called Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times. Rodriguez's is not a full-scale indictment of these gangs, but an understanding of when we fail to meet the needs of who Jesus called “the least of these” some of them will meet their own needs in ways that turn to coercion and violence (Nichola Torbett recently posted a piece here on Jesus Radicals that I think nuances this further for those of us who are trying to follow Jesus in a way of non-violence and take a realistic account of our own privilege that allows us to reap the benefits of state-based violence). Why should we expect something different from those who receive the business end of systematic oppressions when we live in world that teaches this in a million different object lessons everyday and by and large the church stands aside and offers precious little in the way of alternatives?
This film does a great job of welcoming it's audience into the situations the characters are caught up in. The pace of the film is slow enough that the audience has a chance to ask what a better choice might have been at nearly every turn and in the end we get the feeling that Carlos is maybe back where he started off, maybe a little worse off.