A Non-standard Couple of Outsiders from a Cuban village

3. 5. 2016

Author: Filip Šebek

On Monday, May 9th there will be a screening of an awarded Polish documentary Casa Blanca that is set in a sleepy Cuban fishermen's village. The screening with English subtitles is held at 8:45 pm in Světozor cinema. The sensitively shot film directed by Aleksandra Maciuszek shows a life of mentally retarded Vladimir, who tries to fit in the community of fishermen, and of his old mother. The director proceeds with an uncommon authenticity and in a strictly observatory mood. The film supported by Institute of Documentary Film tells about a loving relationship of two outsiders, being at the same time far from the cheap sentiment and average clichés. It got awarded at festivals in Cracow, Minsk and Jihlava where it received the Silver Eye Award.

After culturally oriented studies at Jagiellonian University, Aleksandra Maciuszek decided to continue in the direction of documentaries, and it must be said that she chose quite an uncommon destination – Cuba. During studies in 2012 she shot there a short documentary Previous Scenes (Escenas previas) that was a year later awarded with Silver Eye Award. While she was finishing studies at Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión de San Antonio de los Baños, she searched for a topic for her final work and for a few times visited also a small fishermen's village in Habana bay, Casa Blanca. “I liked the atmosphere there. One day I noticed a strange couple of mother and son holding their hands – it was absolutely not clear who was leading whom. They looked like from a different world, and just the glimpse of them seemed very powerful to me, literally ‘cinematic’. I asked my friends to be introduced to them and managed to receive their trust quite soon. We started to shoot with them with a vision of a short graduate film in mind,” the director said to a Polish web http://polishshorts.pl/. Nevertheless, the topic seemed too complicated to her for a short film so she turned back to her characters after the graduation. In the company of a cameraperson and a sound engineer she slowly started to document the life of the central couple and to grasp the specific atmosphere of the drowsy fishermen's village.

The power of simplicity
From the very first shots it is clear that the author chose a method of pure observation without any explanatory comments, impressive close-ups of flaked Cuban poetics or talking heads of their relatives and neighbours. Totally “invisible” camera of Javier Labrador Deulofeu serves the spectator sensitively composed scenes from the life of 76-year-old Nelsea and her son Vladimir who suffers from Down syndrome. Although Vladimir is scared to death of the sea, and nobody's might could get him in the water, he feels great within the local community of fishermen. Its members let him spend time with them, half out of sympathy, half for fun; sometimes they pour him a drop of rum to which Vladimir reacts with dancing creation in the rhythm of samba. Besides this hanging around he attempts to take care of his mother using all his limited powers; he regularly brings her lunches and in their one-room flat helps her with hygiene and basic household chores. If he does not forget to leave the fishermen – then, slightly tragicomic moments occur when a slowly trudging old lady tries to find her “naughty” son who is however slowly approaching the 40th birthday. Even in this spectator-friendly moments the filmmakers do not slide to a slightly black but still shallow humour. Likewise they resist the temptation to press out emotions from the spectator during the more intimate scenes of Vladimir's loving care of his mother by use of touching music.

So close, so far
“We wanted to allow the spectator to get as close as possible with the main characters so that they understand their emotions,” the Polish director says to the frequent use of longer close-ups of Nelsea or Vladimir and adds: “We did not want the film to resemble cold, pseudo-objective observation of ‘old age’ and ‘abnormality’. This is why we chose close-ups.” These were nicely interspersed with “airy” contrapunct: long-distance pictures of Havana bay full of ship lights and of fishermen's village inhabited by a local community. In spite of them seemingly being isolated for the physical (Nelsea) and mental (Vladimir) reason, both characters are its natural part, and thus these shots are justifiable here. The creators managed to view closely the world of two handicapped outsiders without shooting a film from a pigeonhole “movies about disabled people.” On the contrary, there is a number of moments when a spectator obtains a feeling that Nelsea's and Vladimir's life is in certain aspects richer, simpler and more sincere than the one of healthy people. And this is not a little. Similar was the comment of the jury of 55th Film Festival Kraków that stated in the justification of an award for the best medium-length documentary for Casa Blanca: “The scenes between the mother and the son will remain in the spectator's memory as outstandingly intimate and strong moments.” And it is possible also without emotionally blackmailing scenes full of poignant music. You can prove that yourself within the traditional Documentary Mondays in Světozor. Therefore, do not schedule anything for the evening on May 9th and let us transfer you to a Cuban village where the life flows in its own, slightly slower pace. If you tune yourself right, you will bring from the Czech premiere of a remarkable Polish documentary more than you would expect. 

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