Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sociedad del Semaforo

This weekend my wife and I saw "La Sociedad del Semaforo" at our local theater. It's rare that independent cinema comes to our neck of the woods, so we were really excited about it.

The film is made by a director from our state, and follows the adventures of a homeless man in Bogota. The main character, Raul, knows a bit about electronics, and has the idea that if he could only hack into a streetlight and keep it in red for 30 seconds more each turn, then beggars, vendors, and street performers could make more money from the stopped drivers. Raul proposes the idea to an eclectic group of street dwellers that work a certain stoplight in Bogota's central historic district, and in the process is slowly accepted by the group. The plan ends up not working out so well, and the group is assailed by a number of tragedies.

"La Sociedad del Semaforo" has won a number of international prizes. My wife and I didn't think it was an amazing film, but we liked it a lot. It had a decent storyline and explored a number of interesting human relationships, and its setting among the street people of Bogota shed light onto a world and a culture we know little about.

Unfortunately, it seems Colombian critics were not as enamored of the film as the international audience. Many panned the movie. They said it was plotless, rambling, sordid, even immoral. The last bit comes from critics who claimed that the director should have taken care of the street people in the cast after the film was completed (as is, the film's star is still on the street somewhere in Tunja, the capital of our state). A prominent radio station even had an interview with the film's young director, which devolved into a group of radio personalities lambasting and abusing him verbally on air, demanding their money back!

I don't understand the reason behind such reactions to the film. As I said, the movie wasn't the most incredible thing we've seen this year, but it was very good and well-done. Furthermore, I think it's important to support young, first-time directors of independent local cinema.

It seems that many of the criticisms of the film aren't really responding to the film itself but to other things, other trends surrounding it, namely the shameful economic inequality in Colombia. The critiques claiming that the film was totally incoherent and plotless don't at all ring true for me. The vehement, rambling attacks on the movie often call it sanctimonious, or say that its message is unclear, or that it doesn't promote solidarity with the indigent, or things like that. If my understanding is correct--that the film is just telling a short story that happens to be set in a sometimes-ugly economic stratum--then these critiques are off base. I don't know that there was a grand message of the movie. It wasn't pure amoral anarchy either, just a story. Of course by exposing the viewer to the ins and outs of life on the street, the film has some disturbing scenes, but I don't feel that there was any gratuitous "poverty porn", as some have alleged.

I think then that many of the critiques are not for what the film is, but what it is not. One reviewer said, "A good theme [poverty] was wasted". Well what if the director didn't want to convey a big message about a theme, but rather depict a story and some human interaction?

Other critiques seem to derive from the reviewers' discomfort with seeing the life of homeless people. Of course the film depicts drug use, prostitution, robbery, suicide, in short the desperation of marginalized people. But I never felt that the film was excessive or voyeuristic. There is little blood, murder, sex, or anything like that. The corpses of two characters that die are shown only briefly, and are treated with realistic sadness and solemnity by their friends.

In short, I don't see why anyone would feel the film was inappropriate. Living on the street surely has many ugly sides to it, and the film depicts some of them, but Colombia is a country where a lot of people live in the streets. Making a movie that happens to be about those people seems to me neither inappropriate nor polemical.

Furthermore, the majority of Colombian cinema and television follows only the most sordid, gauche, violent, lustful caricatures of the drug culture. These films do offend me, because they half-invent and glamorize a lifestyle that doesn't correspond to most people. It's pure sensationalism. On the other hand, a film following the friendships and travails of a guy that happens to be involved in the drug trade wouldn't seem inappropriate to me. It would just be a slice of life set in a certain part of Colombian society.

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