On Alfredo Blanco

He doesn’t sleep at night.

Mostly he silently navigates through the three-story house, washing dishes, picking up cups. Often he lines them up according to color: blue, purple, red, orange, green. There is always something for him to tinker with: a broken stove-top, a loose door hinge. Or a mess for him to clean: shattered glass to sweep, a spill to mop. Methodically, he moves through the house, pausing to relax for only moments a night. He sits, still, alone, outside on the dark patio, waiting for the doorbell to ring, for foreign students to come home. He seems to belongs to the architecture of the house; at once inside and outside. Not quite a member of the household, but a fixture of it. Lighting up a cigarette, he sips his intensely caffeinated coffee. Alfredo works as a nightguard from 21h30 to 7h00 at a residence for European and American study abroad students from Kultur Studier and NYU Buenos Aires, respectively.

The few times he circulates through the residence in the daytime, it is an anachronism. From afar, he looks like a time-warp from the 1970s. He uniformly wears T-shirts with acid-washed jeans. “My pant size has not changed since my eighteenth birthday,” he claims, not without some pride. His wardrobe, while limited, is always neat and clean. Physically fit, of medium height, he carries himself well. However, when interacting with others he hunches over, his head down in a sort of Asian submission. This seems to put the other person at ease. He always wears glasses to see. Dark curly hair (no grey) rings around the bottom of his neck and his face barely betrays any wrinkles. His voice, however, sounds older than his 53 years. It almost whistles like an old man’s. Several of his back teeth have fallen out, although no one would ever realize it because he fervently hides the fact. He first introduced himself as unable to speak any English. Though eventually it comes out that he understands more than he initially lets on and has an extensive vocabulary bank at his disposal.
A man of few words, Alfredo always has an ear to lend. Students stumble upon him in the middle of the night to practice their Spanish. Patiently, he listens and softly corrects their mistakes without making them feel inadequate. “He’s dependable and caring,” says one female student. “Alfredo is one of the most humble, sincere, kind, amiable and hard-working people I know,” his employer Eduardo observes. At over 6 feet tall with dreadlocks down his back, Eduardo stands out. He, along with his brother Christian purchased Pichincha 1033 five years ago and renovated it from the ground up, providing housing for the mostly Scandinavian study abroad students. Alfredo has been employed by Casa Pichincha for two years.

Alfredo’s schedule operates as follows, seven days a week: he returns home to Constitución from work every morning at 7h30 and wakes up his family, all of whom live under his roof. Together, his wife, his two daughters, his son and grandson eat breakfast together. His wife Dina and their twenty-six year old daughter go off to work, his twenty-year old son heads to the gym and his daughter and grandson walk to school. His son, who resembles his mother in looks, aspires to be a “personal trainer”. Funnily, this is the only term Alfredo speaks in English. When revealing his son’s dreams, Alfredo’s tone alters slightly as if he sounds regretful. Perhaps he wonders where his son’s afternoons spent in the gym will take him. Alfredo himself remains very preoccupied with his health and productivity. Sometimes, the thought of aging persecutes him. He is not afraid of dying, rather he is concerned that injuries or old age will prevent him from supporting his family. After breakfast, alone, Alfredo retires to his bed, sleeping until 14h00. By then, his wife has returned from work to prepare a lunch for the two of them. The romance has worn off, he remarks, now their partnership has evolved into one of a “brother and sister”. Afterwards, she returns to work and he relaxes during the afternoon. He will half-heartedly watch television but he prefers logging onto the internet café to communicate with the world outside Argentina. Over the many sleepless nights in Casa Pichincha, he has struck up enduring friendships with international students. When he started working at the residence, he had never turned on a computer. Now he is fluent in Facebook and even lists his favorite sports-player on the site as Mohammed Ali. He thoroughly enjoys assisting former students practice their Spanish and more over, connecting to a world outside of his own, outside of Constitución, outside of Argentina, outside of South America. He has never left the continent, only once left the country to go to a beach in Buzios, Brazil.

Alfredo Blanco was born in 1957 in the Buenos Aires barrio of Constitución. Two years earlier, the military staged a coup d’état which saw the charismatic populist president Juan Peron exiled to Venezuela. Pedro Eugenio Aramburu was leading the country. Alfredo’s parents were impoverished but hard-working with immigrant origins, like many other Argentines. Alfredo’s facial features give away his European roots. His paternal grandparents emigrated from Spain, while his mother’s family hailed from Italy. “It was difficult,” says Alfredo of his childhood in Constitución, “a place where people come and go. Nothing is the same”. Today is it a barrio infested with crime, drugs, prostitution and poverty. His father labored in a Palmolive factory for 35 years. His mother, whom he still cares for at the age of 81, stayed home to raise Alfredo and his brother. She adored tango music, her son recalls, and all day sorrowful male voices wafted through the house. Alfredo does not like tango at all and never learned the legendary Argentine dance. He does not have much to say about his early years, other than the fact that they were hard. He was raised Catholic but quickly adds that he rarely attends church services and is not a fanatic. He attended school. From his mother, he had inherited a love of music. He taught himself how to play the drums, he loved the Rolling Stones and Racing Club.

By his early teens, however, he longed for freedom and independence, out from under his parent’s roof. In his early teens, he quit classes. Today he admits the fact with a bit of shame. “I worked various jobs,” he remembers, anything he could find, anything he could do to make money. So began one of Alfredo’s lifelong struggles: to be a productive earner. Unemployment has plagued Alfredo at different times. When he finds a job, he works hard. Eduardo, his current employer, explains, “People like Alfredo have nothing grand to offer society, so he feels good when he is useful”. Eduardo first hired Alfredo two years ago as a minor repair man. Within several weeks, he had combed over the entire building, becoming totally acquainted with the water and electricity systems. Eduardo says, “He takes every opportunity he can to learn, and he does it with a smile”. Even today, when a plumber or an electrician or any other sort of speciality repair man visits Pichincha, Alfredo follows him closely, picking up the tricks of the trade. He strives to make himself invaluable to employers in order to avoid the hardships of unemployment.

In 1969, he met Dina, his dark-haired vivacious next-door neighbor, the girl who would eventually become his wife and life-long partner. They have been married for 29 years, and they have known each other for 42 years. She is her husband’s opposite. According to a family friend, Dina is “loud, brave, happy and always laughing” but most of all, “madly in love with Alfredo”. They married in 1982, the same year as the fall of the military dictatorship.

During the years of the military dictatorship in Argentina, Alfredo kept his head down and worked diligently. He claims that he was not immediately affected: none of his family members nor any of his friends were “disappeared” or tortured. “Maybe a friend of a friend of a friend…” he trails off. Yet 30,000 people vanished. He explains (as many others do) that only after the fall of the Junta did the extent of the horror become clear. Some people refuse to accept this as an excuse, but it is the answer he gives. In fact, Alfredo reticently reveals all political or negative opinions, perhaps a scar from the oppression his country has suffered. “What I don’t understand,” he says quietly, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, “is how this country has all the conditions to be a better place but still it doesn’t improve.” In the recent presidential elections, Alfredo voted for Alberto Rodríguez Saá, a diplomat distinguished by his commitment to limiting personal political power, environmental protection and social economics. He finished fourth with little more than 7% of the votes. “I did not vote for Cristina Kirchner,” Alfredo shares, “The amount of power she has is alarming. No one person should have so much power.”

In the 1970s and 80s, Alfredo cultivated his love for rock music, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and the like. He doesn’t read and would always rather listen to music than watch films. He has been numerous Rolling Stones concert and two Eric Clapton concerts. In March, he plans to attend a Roger Waters concert.
In 1985, his eldest daughter Melina was born. “The happiest moments of my life have been the births of my children” he beams, “And when Racing Club won 10 years ago,” he adds. His son was born in 1991 and his youngest daughter was born in 1995. His first grandchild, a boy, was born to Melina in 2005. His greatest wish, he says, is to be happy with his family and to be able to give them a better life.

In 1987 he began driving a taxi at night. For twelve years, he drove all over the corners of the city. Nights have always suited Alfredo; driving the taxi was no different. The work complimented him and when the national economic crisis hit in the early 2000s, he was lost the car.

With luck, Alfredo found a kiosco in the sophisticated neighborhood of Palermo which he began renting. The business was a family affair. His wife prepared various snacks to sell and everyone took turns manning the cashier. The nocturnal creature that he is, Alfredo elected to work the midnight shift. One very early morning, before dawn, a tall drunken dreadlocked Argentine stumbled into the kiosco. A car down the street had just been broken into and this man was looking for shelter. This man’s name was Eduardo. In stark comparison to most kioscos open at night, Eduardo recalls, Alfredo’s put up no bars. “This is symbolic,” emphasizes Eduardo. It was open to anyone. The two began discussing the security situation over some beers. Conversation turned to music and they ended up talking until after sunrise. From then on, Eduardo made sure to stop by the kiosco before and after wild nights out. Then, one day, he noticed the kiosco had closed.

Money had run out and the Blancos were forced to close shop. Desperate, Alfredo had found work at a garage across the street. But the business was paying him pennies and abusing him. It was a low point in his life during which Alfredo was tormented with feelings of inadequacy. He felt old, useless and he fell into a depression. Finally, he sought Eduardo’s help who gave him the job of handy man at Pichincha. Now he has been employed by Casa Pichincha for two years.

“I really admire his work ethic,” enthuses Eduardo, “he takes pride in his job and he becomes at expert at everything he does. He knows every facet of this house. And he always does more than he is asked”. Indeed, Alfredo enjoys working. He has no down time, no weekends, in order to provide for his family. For Eduardo, enriching the lives of local Argentines forms a major component of their work ethos. He assures that Alfredo will always find work with him. “I love him,” Eduardo pronounces, “He is what he is”.

That is not to say Alfredo is perfect. Bad blood festers between and the other pillar of Pichincha, the cook and housemother, Banessa Esteche. His quiet presence unsettles her. An extreme stubbornness also marks his character. Laura, Banessa’s mischievous thirteen-year old daughter, defends her mother, insisting that Banessa attempted to reconcile their friendship, but Alfredo obstinately rejected the opportunity. Eduardo and Alfredo have clashed, as well. Curiously, Alfredo has consistently refused the free English lessons Eduardo has offered. In addition, he is a vicious smoker. At one point, Eduardo issued him an ultimatum: quit smoking or quit his job. Since then, Alfredo has reduced himself to a pack a day but has no intentions of giving up the habit completely. Aside from the stubbornness, Alfredo’s worry over aging occasionally borders on self-consciousness. Initially, he told students he was born in 1977 when in reality, he was born twenty years prior. Most believed him, regardless.

On 2 December, Alfredo turned 54. Although he kept the fact to himself, most students were notified via Facebook. To celebrate, the residents bought him red wine and a birthday alfajor. They played his favorite Rolling Stones songs on the loudspeaker system.

“Did you have a good birthday?”

“Yes,” he answers, “my daughter baked me a delicious cake. There was only one candle, because there wasn’t enough room for 54,” he chuckles. “I made three wishes.”

“I hope they come true,”

He smiles, “Me too.”

On Paco

It is a subverted image of happiness. Two women laughing, their bodies reclining in the sunlight. A closer look betrays profound decay: the broad smiles revealing black holes of missing teeth, the dirty broken fingernails barely visible in the shadows. In the background, a barbed wire fence snakes across the horizon. This is a photograph from Myriam Meloni’s series “Frágil”. 

These women are Paco addicts.

Paco, the street name for “pasta base de cocaína”, is a virulent blend of cocaine residue, kerosene, rat poison and glass, reports the International Herald Tribune. The drug appeared on the Argentine streets in the wake of the 2001 national economic crisis. Pouring out of the depths of Buenos Aires’s shantytowns or villas, Paco is marketed towards Argentina’s poorest citizens. At only $1.30 a hit, Paco is cheap and toxic. It ravages bodies, systematically destroying the nervous and respiratory systems and quickly wasting away users like the women described above into the “living dead”. According to the Guardian, an addiction of spanning more than three years is almost unheard of. While Paco has devastated the poor and raised crime rates, the state has failed to implement prevention and treatment programs. It has yet to confront the magnitude of the epidemic.

Paco affects all of Argentine society and women have emerged to fulfill a variety of roles. Their relationships to Paco are diverse: some are addicts, others struggle to recover and still others mobilize to combat the issue.

Paco claims lives regardless of gender. In the words of Hugo Ropero, former user, “Drugs are for addicts” and addicts are women, too. Ropero, a middle-class middle-aged photographer, recovered after a year of Paco consumption. Dressed in black, shiny hair slicked back, a permanent side-effect of his drug-abuse seems to be his scatter-brained nature. Demographics don’t matter, he insists, addiction preys on human vulnerability. In 2004, recently fired and divorced, the self-proclaimed experimental rebel wiled away his days consuming drugs with girls half his age. He found himself falling in love with a girl in her twenties. In the midst of seduction, she introduced him to Paco.

The feature film Paco illustrates a similar scenario of men initiated to Paco by women. Directed in 2009 by Diego Rafecas with the collaboration of former addicts and endorsed by the activist organization of mothers against Paco, Madres en Lucha, the film depicts one man’s downward spiral into drug addiction. In the film, the well-off son of a senator is introduced into the world of Paco by his lower-class girlfriend Flor. In the midst of an impoverished villa, she lights up the pipe. The male protagonist, tempted, tries. So begins the addiction.

As with many drugs, women notoriously exploit their bodies to get a dose. As portrayed in Paco, Flor eventually succumbs to prostitution to feed her addiction. Meloni reports that the two women she photographed, like many other female addicts, also sell their bodies.

While some women scour to smoke more Paco, others seek to quit their addiction. Hogar de Cristo, located on the border of Buenos Aires slum Villa 21, provides support in various forms for those who need it. Established in 2008, this community center measures success by progress, not numbers of clean and sober. Most slum-dwellers lack basic education. Some, like 17-year old Marcelo, are sleeping on the streets. Unlike Ropero or the moneyed protagonist of the film Paco, “These are people who have to fight for everything,” Sofía, the center’s psychologist emphasizes. Inspired and humbled by their struggles, Sofía dedicates her days to helping nurture their human dignity.

Today the center’s indoor sports-field is full of rambunctious recovering male addicts. One man, aggressively approaching the goal, kicks the ball into a little boy defender’s stomach. Immediately, the child bursts into tears. One of the two women watching from the sidelines gathers him into her arms, scolding the men for playing so rough. This woman has regularly attended sessions at Hogar de Cristo since its opening four years ago. Although she has not abused Paco for years, she continues to come to the center to mentor and support her friend Cristina, who still struggles to kick the addiction.

Mothers are also rising to the challenge. When crises attack Argentine society, they are often the first to take a stand. During the horrific military dictatorship of the late 1970s, mothers marched to demand the return of their 30,000 disappeared sons and daughters. “These are not desaparecidos (disappeareds),” insists Marta Gomez, one of the founders of Madres en Lucha, the organization of mothers who rally against Paco. They are the living dead, she says, you watch them die before your eyes.

An animated middle-aged mother with a mass of curly black hair, Marta began fighting against the scourge of Paco when her son Juan started abusing the drug. Violent and addicted, Paco had altered his behavior drastically. He was fighting with his family and pawning their possessions to get hits. He breached the limit and she kicked him out of the house. After several nights on the streets, Juan approached his mother for help. Since then, Marta has guided her son in his journey to get and stay clean. “I had no choice,” she explains, “I am his mother”. To combat the new unknown drug, she along with two other mothers (one who used drugs herself) began researching Paco’s effects, symptoms and other details. As the drug spread, the organization also grew. Today they work prevention and treatment programs across the nation. Juan was their first success story.

Now Juan is clean, though four years of Paco abuse has left all kinds of scars on his body, like jumbled speech and jittery legs. Nevertheless, Marta takes pride in her son and his struggle to quit Paco.

Women can drag people into the dark world of Paco, but they also have the power to guide addicts out. They can play a number of roles. For Juan, it is his baby daughter Tiziana who inspires him everyday towards a healthy and productive future.

On the 2011 Argentine Presidential Elections

It is 6 PM in Buenos Aires and the polls are closing as the sun sets.

At the dusk of the Argentine elections, energy circulates through the air. Drum beats punctuate the atmosphere, emanating from a small, celebratory contingent of supporters for the incumbent candidate and winner of the election, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Political pamphlets emblazoned with her name lay scattered on the asphalt.

On the main avenues, drivers pump their horns. Flags flutter in the wind outside their windows. Passengers shout. Meanwhile citizens stride down the streets in the direction of Plaza de Mayo, headquarters for Cristina support and her center-left Victory Front Party. Above the sidewalk, she appears on a billboard, embracing her deceased husband Néstor Kirchner, who served as president before her. It reads “La Fuerza del Amor” (The Power of Love).

As night falls in Plaza de Mayo, the crowd pulsates with vitality. However, not everyone waves a flag for Cristina.

Indigenous peoples of Argentina have assembled in numbers. After a momentous march earlier this month mourning Colombus Day, the indigenous activists make their presence known again. They proudly display a portrait of Túpac Amaru, the last indigenous leader of Incan Peru.

Bordering the indigenous group gathers a bigger crowd of citizens cheering for Eva Perón. Eva (or Evita as she is affectionately remembered) looms large in Argentine history. As the wife of Perón, the charismatic populist president during the 1950s, Eva advocated for the poor. She earned the adoration of many and the hatred of others before her untimely death. According to the London Telegraph, Cristina has nurtured an image of herself as the reincarnated beloved Argentine heroine. With the people and in the press, the self-proclaimed Peronist has acquired the label of “new Eva” writes the Telegraph. Eva’s photograph smiles benevolently upon the crowd. “Movimiento Eva” the posters read.

Meanwhile, in the depths of the crowd, celebrators burst into song. “Néstor no se murió” (Nestor is not dead) they chant. Scrawled on their posters are the words “Néstor Vive” (Nestor Lives). Last October, Néstor Kirchner abruptly died of a heart attack. As the BBC reports, he was expected to run in these presidential elections. Gone but certainly not forgotten: his presence was potent in Plaza de Mayo. In a symbolic act, the widow cast her ballot in Néstor’s hometown, Rio Gallegos. “In this world where they have criticized us so forcefully, all this makes me feel very proud, that we’re on the right track,” she assures that Kirchner “would be very content” quotes Inquirer News.

Cristina embraces these affiliations to powerful national heroes. In her second term, will she act as the embodiment of Eva? Will she fulfill the initiatives of her late husband? Or will she trail her own path, perhaps a combination of both?

Back at Plaza de Mayo, vendors weave through the mass with cold Quilmes beer and Coca-Cola crates balanced their heads. A little girl, wrapped in the Argentine flag sits atop her father’s shoulders, observing the people below her. Perhaps in several decades she shall run as the “new Cristina”.

On Bolivian Communities in Buenos Aires

Every Día de los Muertos, her family decorates a table in her memory. According to Bolivian tradition, Marcelina Meneses’s family drapes colored ribbons: purple to signify her journey after death, black to symbolize their grief. Among the fresh apples and baked goods (her favorite foods) lies a black and white photograph of the late Meneses with her baby Joshua. “This is how we remember them,” explains Reina Torres, Menses’s sister-in-law, cradling her own infant son Santiago against her chest, “With care and affection over the years”.

In January 2001, the bodies of Menses and her 9-month old Joshua were discovered along the route of a commuter train, not far from the Avellaneda station in Buenos Aires. Ten years later, the Meneses family still does not know whether their deaths were intentional or accidental. To most it seems that Menses and her son were shoved out of the moving train merely for being Bolivian. Even an eyewitness attributes the crime to xenophobia in the newspaper Clarín. However for lack of evidence the trials have been closed, says Torres. Nevertheless, the family perseveres. “I want justice for my nephew who still doesn’t know what happened to his mother,” Torres insists. While truth and justice remain out of reach, their deaths and their family’s struggle has mobilized the Bolivian immigrant community in Buenos Aires. According to Torres, since then things have changed for the better.

Her colleague and fellow activist Lilia Camacho echoes these sentiments. Camacho doesn’t speak with an Argentine accent. More than twenty years ago, she emigrated from La Paz. Now in Buenos Aires, she works as a freelance journalist for a Bolivian newspaper, La Prensa and runs a weekly broadcast for Radio Constelación, a community-run radio station based in Argentina’s capital.

Before, Camacho describes, Bolivians suffered silently in Buenos Aires. These immigrants, like the protagonist in the film Bolivia, journey to the Capital Federal from Latin America’s poorest country despite warnings of danger and discrimination. They come to earn money to send home in order to support their families, often acquiring work in illegal textile factories, writes Reuters. Upon arrival in the Capital Federal, they encounter rampant discrimination and xenophobia. Due to their ethnic, social and economic differences, details Camacho, Argentines distinguish Bolivians as vulnerable targets. According to polls conducted by the NACLA Report on the Americas, 91% of Argentines claim that foreigners are detrimental to their labor conditions and 63% consider racism a characteristic of Argentine society. Police and politicians also openly discriminate against Bolivian immigrants. By the 1990s the general population became convinced that “crime had been foreignized” and immigrants were targeted and detained without justification in huge numbers, reports NACLA. As many immigrants lack legal status and since Bolivians are naturally shy, Camacho explains, they do not assert themselves, insist on their rights or protest when they are maltreated.

However, the tragic deaths of Meneses and her baby have ignited the Bolivian immigrant movement against xenophobia, discrimination and human rights’ abuses. The community stood up for themselves because no one else did. In the wake of his wife and son’s deaths, Froilán and other supporters began marching in Constitución every tenth of the month, touting posters that read “Justice for Marcelina and her son”.

Elsewhere, Bolivians have banded together to build a community in the hostile city. As foreigners, Camacho says, Bolivian find solidarity through their common motherland. In 2005, Camacho joined with other colleagues to create Radio Constelación. They envisioned an international rock station, transcending borders with the universally appreciated music of Queen, the Rolling Stones and such.

“Our listeners changed this,” tells Camacho, and evolved the station into a communal axis for Bolivians. It was the death of another Bolivian immigrant marked the radio’s turning point. A twenty year old boy, without friends or family in Buenos Aires, was killed in a traffic accident. Callers rallied and raised money, peso by peso, to send his body back home. With additional funds, the station purchased a plot of land for his family in Bolivia. Radio Constelación now oversees many such campaigns and continues to offer airtime to worthy causes. Recently, one Bolivian had lost all hope for finding a blood transfusion donor. After broadcasting his story on-air, Camacho says, nearly seventy of his compatriots appeared at the station to volunteer. They overwhelmed the hospital staff.

“We are united, we are family,” Camacho passionately emphasizes. Bolivians who may feel alone and unfamiliar in a foreign city now have the chance to belong to a community. “Although we are strangers,” she states, “we feel for one another.”

The station has advanced the plight of immigrant Bolivians. It indulges nostalgia and melancholy for the mother-country by broadcasting traditional folkloric songs and advertising Bolivian events in Buenos Aires.

Furthermore, the station is committed to informing immigrants about issues. Daily, Radio Constelación airs shows to guide immigrants through the legal status application system, to educate them about their rights, and to keep listeners supplied with all kinds of pertinent and useful information, adds Camacho.

Today the walls of the humble studio are plastered with postings for work, rent, sales and miscellaneous other offers. Brightly colored letters announce in Spanish: “It is time to decide, chose and change”. Over the past decade, Bolivians in Buenos Aires have taken their struggles into their own hands. They are responding to the challenges and are changing their reality for the better in Buenos Aires.

Impressions from Les Silences du Palais

While Les Silences du Palais situates itself in Tunisia, the film attracts broad and international audience appeal through its various levels of analysis: gender, social class, etc… This, I believe lends it an accessibility regardless of ethnicity, class or sex. Interfamily relations, for example, figures as a theme nearly anyone can relate to. The director explores the protagonist’s relationship with her parents through several symbolic motifs, such as music and mirrors.

The multifaceted manner in which the director manipulates the motif of music and its opposite, silence, fascinates me. Through these ambiguous motifs, I think the filmmaker invites varied interpretations of both music and silence. From my reading of the film, musicality links Alia to her father, Sid Ali. It is a trait she seems to inherit from her father, whose identity is (somewhat) unknown to her. Musically talented and a lover of the art form, Sid Ali establishes himself as the more melodic parent, passing his traits down to his daughter, though not his last name. Despite its often association with the aristocratic, music also forms a part of life for the servant women. Indeed, Alia’s first flashback begins with a memory of her younger self singing happily in a circle with the other servant women of the household. Singing is a communal activity all these women participate in; meanwhile, the upper class tends to silently observe musical performances. Thus, music figures as a more divisive activity for the upper class. Men and women remain separated during these occasions, for example, and, characters reiterate numerous times that Alia is forbidden to touch (her cousin) Sarra’s lute.

Nevertheless, the lute becomes a powerful instrument for Alia, as metaphorical double-edged sword that brings her closer to her father. At an early point in the film, Alia wrests the lute from Sarra’s arms and runs away. Selim stops her and lasciviously caresses her shoulder. During this short sequence, the lute literally functions as a barrier separating Alia from her predator. Later on, after witnessing the violent rape of her mother, Alia, shocked, falls into a nearly catatonic state. Interestingly, all the servant women’s attempts to revive her fail. Even their gathering to sing cannot rouse Alia. Ultimately, it is the gift of the lute which brings her back. In one aspect, the lute raises Alia to a privileged level, almost equal to her cousin, who also has a lute. Alia develops her talents and this garners her father’s attention and praise, who requests her musical entertainment at Sarra’s engagement party. With the lecherous men in attendance, her mother perceives this as a potentially dangerous situation for her daughter. Unlike her mother, though, Alia luckily offers delights that are not her physical body. After the engagement party and tragic death of her mother, Alia exploits her musical talent as a route of escape. The adult Alia narrating mentions a career as a failed singer in nightclubs, thus, we as an audience infer that while her voice empowers her to break free from the palace, it neglects to give her a sense of fulfillment or happiness. Her songs, she mourns, are stillborn. Her father, like music, ultimately disappoints too. He dies without ever seeing or speaking to her again. A comment made by Lofti, her eventual lover, speaks to the relationship between Alia’s musical gifts and her father. “Your voice is so beautiful,” he remarks, “it is a shame it is caged up”. The beauty of her voice, like the traces of her father, seem destined to remain within her and never realized during their lifetimes.

The director also illustrates a complex relationship between Alia and her mother Khedija, which could be deciphered in different ways. Sid Ali’s death coincides with Alia’s decision to have the baby, a baby she intends to name after her mother. Until the very end of the film, Alia focuses on men (either her father or love interest Lofti) and enhancing her musical ambitions. Only at the conclusion, I believe, Alia reorients herself towards her mother, as she prepares to embrace the role herself. Throughout the rest of the film, however, the director highlights Alia’s frustration with Khedija. The daughter’s most apparent inheritance from her mother is her beauty. Various characters refer to Alia and Khedija’s resemblance and good looks. Like music, attractiveness can be a double-edged sword. Khedija’s life testifies to the dangers of beauty: her looks have (unintentionally) seduced unwanted attention. By the end of her life, Khedija rages, “I hate myself! I hate this body!” Lovely yet hazardous looks is a legacy Khedija leaves to Alia. The director exemplifies Alia’s struggle through the motif of the mirror. For example, in the midst of a fight with her mother, Alia turns to the glass and murmurs, “I always see you in my reflection,” before smashing it to pieces. Her looks thus highlight her frustration. On a journey to discover her father and earn his love, at every turn she encounters her mother. While Alia without doubt loves and cares for her mother, she yearns to leave the palace and live a life that completely contrasts to Khedija’s. Yet by the end of the film, Alia leaves her father to rest in peace and reconciles with her mother and her unborn baby.

In retrospect, I appreciate the director’s use of dense symbols, like mirrors or music, to subtly enrichen the relationships between Alia and her parents. Because so much of their relationships are silent and unspoken, these visual and audial devices convey the depth of their complex emotions. In addition, I think these symbols intensify the film’s ambiguity and potential for interpretation and broaden audience readings of the story, which is ultimately pivotal for varied viewers. Perhaps the film could have profited more by incorporating more of Tunisia’s revolutionary trajectory. Regardless, the director manages to poetically manifest the excitement of impending revolution and the subsequent disillusionment through Alia’s life story, despite the fact that she does not directly treat it. Personally, I enjoyed the film. The detailed set designs and costumes, etc… truly transport viewers to another time and place while also inviting active reflection and contemplation.

Impressions from La Graine et le mulet

Abdellatif’s Kechiche’s La Graine et le mulet brings life and depth to the an almost ordinary story. The director draws viewers directly into the universe of this particular Maghreb community in the south of France with cinéma verité camera-work. Once Kechiche situates the audience in this intimate world, he capitalizes on the many motifs revolving around the symbolic meaning(s) of couscous.

The filming style of La Graine et le Mulet throws audiences into the lively Maghreb community. The film begins with medium and close-up shots of Sète’s harbor. Apt images to commence with: the harbor carries symbolic meaning in the context of immigration. Many Maghreb emigrants landed on these shores, including my grandparents. Furthermore, the Mediterranean links the beaches of France to the motherland. Thus, the harbor stands crucial location for Maghreb immigrants. In addition, the perceptible absence of a wide traditional establishing shot prohibits viewers from orienting themselves within the landscape. This, I believe, embeds a sense of turbulence in viewers. The hand-held camera shots also express an instability. Indeed, throughout the film, the camera fragments bodies and rooms, only gracing audiences with a full wide shot at the scene’s end. In my opinion, this imbues the film’s vision with an unexpected, lifelike quality. Yet Kechiche balances this frenzy with slower and steadier scenes featuring Slimane. Wider, smoother tracking shots accompany Slimane on his journey and reflect his character; he is quiet, calm and steady. This character also provides narrative structure and coherence to the film as we follow his motor bike visits from house to house. His visits also operate as a device introducing audiences to film’s many characters. Initially, I assumed Majid would act as the film’s protagonist (on account of his first appearance). His job as a tour guide of the harbor might suggest a corresponding role as a guide for audiences. However, from the very first scene to the last, Majid shirks his duties.

In his depiction of Slimane, the director at once associates the character with fish. Slimane works by the sea, he gifts fish to all his loved ones and he extols its nutritive virtues. In a comical scene, he even barters his alimony payments with yellow mullet, to the chagrin of his ex-wife, Souad. His job in the shipyard does not pay enough to sustain his debts, furthermore, his boss deems him too old to continue working. From the start, Kechiche establishes advancing as an unavoidable challenge and obstacle to Slimane.

If Kechiche connects Slimane with le mulet, then la graine represents the women in Slimane’s world. More than the mere noun genders justify these associations. Fish is another species entirely, an integral part of the couscous, yet still discrete. Likewise, Slimane remains a member of the family but at the same time, detached. The Sunday lunch scene exemplifies this. Family and friends gather at the table to gossip and enjoy Souad’s famous couscous. Everyone is present except Slimane and they remark upon his absence, teasing Souad to confess her everlasting love for her ex-husband.

As an aside, this long, dialogue-saturated meal and the contrasting scene that follows, exhibiting Slimane quietly eating the leftovers on his own, resonates with authenticity for me. My father’s family is Moroccan and my grandparents have been separated since my father was ten years old. For many years my grandfather stubbornly insisted on his bachelorhood and though there were several prominent women in his life, he never remarried. Now in his seventies, he lives alone in a small, rented room, much like Slimane’s, with a Siamese cat for company (in exchange for Slimane’s orange parakeet). My grandmother, on the other hand, lived in a full house with my aunts and her many grandchildren, up until her death last year. Although for decades my father and his siblings resented their father for abandoning the family, as my grandfather has aged, this anger has mellowed into pity. Every so often, a tagine is brought to my grandfather’s room and he eats it quietly without the lively company of my grandmother’s home in a scene paralleling La Graine et le mulet.

Couscous is composed of countless grains, with millions of tiny parts converging to form a whole. Likewise, the many women in Slimane’s life unite in supporting him. Like a bed of grains for fish, the women figuratively form a foundation for Slimane. Kechiche connects la graine to Slimane’s ex-wife Souad initially. During the Sunday meal, she serves her renowned dish and everyone compliments her cooking. While later on in the film, the regulars of Latifa’s hotel disparage her couscous. Each woman helps Slimane in her own unique way. As mentioned earlier, Souad the master chef cooks the food for his restaurant. Latifa, his lover, however salvages Slimane’s soirée with her couscous. His daughter along with the other female relatives assist by serving the food. By far his greatest support comes from Rym, his “daughter”, who propels the project forward professionally and distracts the impatient and ravenous crowd with her belly-dancing.

Rounding out this meal-metaphor is La Source, the restaurant or the symbolic bowl of the film. La Source ultimately unites not only the two ends of Slimane’s family but also joins the Maghreb citizens with the native French. The vessel’s color scheme (blue, red and white) corresponds to the French flag, while the restaurant offers food from the Maghreb. The North African and French merge together. Furthermore, this restaurant is an actual “source”: if successful, it will feed not Slimane but also his children and loved ones. More than that, the restaurant endows Slimane’s community with a physical place and presence within Sète, or more accurately, floating somewhere between Sète and the Maghreb.

In my opinion, the film’s end forces Slimane to rely on the help of his loved ones. His aging body fails him but his friends and family step in to save his project. I am not entirely convinced that the ending is a sad one. While some viewers may find it unsatisfactory, I think it truly reflects the nature of life. A happy conclusion might be too satisfying and it could shatter the authenticity, the reality-like quality of the film which is what I most appreciate. Through this abrupt end, Kechiche manages to feed hope for a happy one but without delivering it.