Cinema And Politics: Living At Risk
Much is being said about the aesthetics of documentaries. Particularly when it comes to social documentaries, we can never be reminded enough that the act of mere renunciation won’t do, at least not in cinema.
Yet I’m also reminded just how rich documentaries can be in connecting us to the moment—in their political, social engagement. It seems that the 1960 and 70s particularly were a moment when filmmakers of all stripes, from practiced documentarians to predominantly fiction filmmakers, such as Jean-Luc Godard, were picking up their cameras to contribute to the political debate—from less successful efforts, such as the omnibus work that Godard took part in, Far from Vietnam (1967), to one of the most unforgettable films of all times, Joris Ivens’s The Seventeenth Parallel: Vietnam in War (1968), which I was fortunate to see a few years back at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Another film is by now a classic of passionate political cinema. In 1984, Susan Meiselas, a Magnum photographer who had covered the Nicaraguan insurrection in her pictures, returned to the country, along with Alfred Guzzetti and Richard Rogers, to shoot the documentary, Living At Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family.
In the film, the Barrios, from a privileged Nicaraguan family of cattle-ranch owners, have been supporters of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), against the Somoza regime that fell after 46 years. The fates of the three Somoza presidents—father, brother and son—convey the essence of those turbulent years: all three were assassinated. As Meirelas tells us in voiceover, their regime, with its violence and corruption, and then the civil war, left the country in ruins. Meirelas arrives at a critical time: the Sandinistas have been in power for five years, but the old regime has formed a counter-revolution, and the war is far from over.
One of the sons, Miguel Barrio, is at the center of the land reform whose final goal is to change the disparities of income and food distribution. Miguel’s co-workers have been ambushed by counter-revolutionaries, and his and his family’s lives are at constant risk. Alongside Miguel, we meet his brother, Federico, who gave up medicine to fight alongside the Sandinistas, and Martisabel, who works in agriculture. We follow the Barrios in their visits to the campesinos, constantly reminded of the contrast between their comfortable lives and youthful fervor and the desperate poverty of the countryside. This gives the film an eerie quality, especially seen today, and given Nicaragua’s recent troubles (reports of the rigged 2016 election, in favor of the former Sandinista fighter, Daniel Ortega)—a time capsule, and a testament to what once seemed possible.
A mix of an observational study and intimate interviews, Meiselas’ film is rich on dissonance—the Barrio children know their parents are troubled by the constant danger, and also disillusioned, in spite of their earlier support for the Sandinistas. The tension runs among many lines—Miguel’s wife, Mary Ann, is taken with her husband’s fervor, so is Martisabel’s husband, Eduardo, but Eduardo’s family believes that he has been brainwashed. Families torn along political lines is a theme that resonates potently today, when political positions in so many countries lean towards extremes of the spectrum, and open dialogue becomes increasingly fraught. Watching Meiselas’ film we are not only gripped by the portrait of daily lives forced to accept violence and fear as commonplace—a feeling that is also potent in Ivens’s Vietnam film—but must ask to what extent the global political climate we live in today is a result of a persistent failure to adjust urgent questions, particularly the distribution of wealth, in many parts of the world.