A double-bill from the Human Rights Film Festival: The Blood of Kuan Kuan and The Tumultuous Life of a Dismissed Worker
Sunday 18 July 2010, by
This is a special review of two of my coups de coeur from the recent International Human Rights Festival in Paris. This post is a little outdated as the festival took place in March, but many of the films have yet to be distributed on a larger scale and hopefully, some will be showing at cinemas or TV screens near you soon enough. The films are basically documentaries, but they are selected and awarded prizes in large part for their cinematic qualities; the manner with which they cover their subjects; the originality of their approach; the persuasiveness of the argument and the aesthetics. The coverage they received at the Festival will hopefully allow them a wider distribution.
The first one coincides nicely with the BP fiasco. The Blood of Kuan Kuan , directed by Yorgos Avgeropoulos, targets Texaco’s exploitation of a section of the Amazonian forest. The oil company is accused of unloading 70 billion litres of toxic waste in the Amazonian, which they buried deep in the soil, before claiming they cleaned up and leaving it to fester and infest the area, rendering acres of land infertile. This is a heart-wrenching look at the injustice caused to the locals who have had to suffer the consequences and at the damage caused to the ecosystem. What makes it stand out is the cinematography. It may be short but it certainly packs a colourful, techno-fuelled punch. It’s a mish mash of striking, powerful images of oil drills, flames, trapped animals, oil spills and fumes, embedding themselves onto your retinas, in quick succession, not unlike subliminal advertising at times, to the rhythm of techno beats, reminiscent of some post-apocalyptic thriller or a Chemical Brothers video. And in the blink of an eye, it cuts to slow, sober, Unreported World type footage of local residents and tribesmen lamenting the economic and ecological impact and all-round disastrous consequences of Texaco’s drilling on their community.
Although Texaco claims to have cleaned up the site, oil has clearly been dumped and then covered underneath layers of earth and there is so much of it that the camera shows us villagers plunging their arms in the earth or in the shallow rivers at random and pulling it out, up to their elbows in gooey petroleum. This has predictably led to severe illnesses. To add insult to injury, the corporation hadn’t bothered issuing any information regarding the toxicity of the product so that children are seen covering their bodies in it and chewing it like gum. Ultimately, anger led to protests, quickly quelled by the authorities. The film is interspersed with footage of a Texaco rep insisting the site was clean when they left and any subsequent pollution is down to whichever contractor took over from them. He claims the locals are money-hungry attention seekers trying to wheedle out extortionate amounts in compensation from the corporation. This is followed by footage from yet another resident scooping armfuls of petroleum from the soil.
Although, there is little to no intervention from the filmmaker or voice over, the film certainly catapults its point across. It isn’t subtle, but there is no reason it should be. It is a captivating, brutal, beautiful and compassionate account of injustice going unpunished.
La Vie tumultueuse d’un déflaté (The tumultuous life of a dismissed worker ), directed by Camille Plagnet, wasn’t in competition and was broadcast on the last night of the festival. The term déflaté is ambiguous and doesn’t have an official definition. According to the director, it refers to victims of economic deflation. The official translation in the English title is “dismissed” so we’ll stick with that.
The film is a portrait of Grand Z, who worked as a rail-worker on the “Abidjan-Ouagadougou” line for most of his life and was laid off in 1995 by the National Railways of Burkina Faso, following a privatisation process imposed by the World Bank. That’s about all the geo-political background you’ll get from the film, which centres more or less entirely on Grand Z’s musings, routine and daily mishaps, again with no intervention from filmmaker Camille Plagnet. Aside from staring at passing cars, combing his non-existent hair and having a laugh with his friends, he writes plays. Uncannily, though he speaks more or less rudimentary French, his written command of the language is nothing short of impressive. His writing is unexpectedly eloquent and rich in rhetoric and we are treated to excerpts from one of his plays.
The film could easily have turned into a patronising and intrusive fly on the wall look at some poor sod’s life. Instead, it is a genuinely funny, respectful and touching portrait of a man who is refreshingly upbeat yet lucid. He denounces the actions of the World Bank and laments his plight. But Grand Z is clearly a hedonist with a strong sense of humour and resilient in the face of it. Which in fact makes us the viewers particularly frustrated and angry at the injustice of the situation. Kudos to Camille Plagnet for his clever and particularly well-timed camera work, which highlights the humour and talent of his subject.