Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Caballerango, Speaking Nearby

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Next up in our series of new criticism on the new films in our 2019 programme, Devika Girish looks at Caballerango and other films by Juan Pablo González.

“I do not wish to speak about, only to speak nearby,” Trinh T. Minh-ha famously said in her 1982 documentary Reassemblage, in which she attempts an anti-ethnographic portrait of Senegal. It might seem like an odd point of reference for Juan Pablo González’s Caballerango, which in many ways is the diametric opposite of Reassemblage. While Minh-ha wrestled with filming (without capturing or totalizing) an Other place and people, González’s films explore a setting and subjects he knows inside out: his hometown in Mexico’s Jalisco Highlands and its agrarian residents. While Minh-ha strives towards obfuscation and fragmentation, González opts for lush, wide tableaux, composed with a classical eye. And yet, something of Minh-ha’s desire to approach her subjects sideways—to gently, tentatively find an oblique entry point outside of the binaries of subject and object, speaker and listener—comes to mind when watching González’s films. 

This elliptical approach is distilled beautifully in González’s 2017 documentary short Las Nubes (2017), in which an elderly man in the filmmaker’s hometown describes the night his daughter fled to the States to escape the harassment of local narcos. It’s an experience burned into his otherwise failing memory, and as he tells it to González over the course of a car ride, the director trains his camera unmovingly (and for 20 uninterrupted minutes) on the rearview mirror, capturing just a sliver of the man’s face against the glassy blur of the horizon. It’s an image of extraordinary economy that draws on—but doesn’t cannibalize—the intimacy between the filmmaker and his subject, making poetry out of the mournful raconteuring of the man’s eyes, the rhythms of car travel, and the harrowing stakes of the story being told. 

Caballerango, González’s first feature, expands on his earlier (and debut) documentary short, The Solitude of Memory (2014). Both The Solitude and Caballerango open with the same shot; stationed, as in Las Nubes, inside a moving car, González asks the driver, a farmer named José, about the last time he saw his son. Then he holds his camera on José’s face as the farmer describes the night his son Nando—a childhood friend of the filmmaker, it turns out—committed suicide after an argument. In The Solitude, González explores the contours of José’s memory through repetitions and recountings, examining the way grief permeates his relationship with the land, labor, and time he once shared with his son. González elongates that conceit into the feature-length Caballerango with genuine exploratory intent; instead of simply elaborating José and Nando’s story or adding more detail, he expands the film in lateral scope. As he interviews Nando’s relatives and friends, other recent suicides and deaths, especially amongst the town’s youth, emerge like a chain of Chinese whispers, revealing a community in quiet, puzzled mourning. 

What’s most striking in Caballerango is González’s ability to “speak nearby”—to draw out candid admissions of guilt, sorrow, and doubt from his subjects while making his own presence remarkably unimposing. His interviewees, often framed in isolation as they tend to everyday labor, seem to be delivering soliloquies, until the occasional, tender-voiced question from behind the camera—or a knowing look towards it—reminds us that they are in fact conversing with an old friend. González’s compositions, too, belie his familiarity with the place and its people, intuiting just the right angle, just the right frame for a particular moment or subject. A race between two young men is filmed head-on, the crowd’s banter about bets building up to a dizzying finish straight into the camera, while the slaughter of a cow is rendered in three, pithy acts: first, we see the cow being dragged down from a truck; next, a shot of the cow from the waist-up as it kneels on the ground; and finally, blood pooling into a puddle. 

Amidst these distinctive vignettes appear certain refrains of motion: the cycles of a circular horse walker, or the linear march of a harvester moving across the screen. These neverending rituals of rural labor grind against the ruptures of deaths and disappearances — until the two start to intertwine in references to border-crossings and the deteriorating, exploitative agrarian market. Caballerango achieves the much-coveted imbrication of the personal and political, but it doesn’t mine the former or force the latter. Rather, González crafts a work of intuition, feeling his way through home, friendship, loss, strife, and socioeconomic change with the gentle rhythms of a heartfelt conversation. 

Devika Girish is a New York-based film critic. She is the Assistant Editor at Film Comment and has also written for the Village Voice, Reverse Shot, MUBI Notebook, Kinoscope, and other publications

Juan Pablo González’ Caballerango screens on Friday 6th September at Bertha DocHouse.