2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 56, winter 2014-2015
Cinema and neoliberalism: network form and the politics of connection in Icíar Bollaín’s Even the Rain
by Shakti Jaising
“The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? ... Like other states of the modern world, Spain sought gold, which was becoming the new mark of wealth, more useful than land because it could buy anything” (2).
—Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present
“[I]n September 1999 [Bechtel] signed a 214-page agreement with Bolivian officials….The contract gave Bechtel and its co-investors control of the city’s water company for forty years and guaranteed them an average profit of 16 percent for each one of those years, to be financed by the families of Cochabamba” (16).
—Jim Shultz, “The Cochabamba Water Revolt and its Aftermath”
Even the Rain (También la lluvia, 2010) tells the story of a Spanish film crew shooting a period piece about Columbus in the midst of an uprising against water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Directed by Icíar Bollaín, the film re-creates the 2000 Cochabamba protests that challenged the take over of local water supply by U.S. multinational Bechtel, one of the world’s largest corporations. As the film reveals, the so-called “Water War” was triggered by Bechtel’s raising of water prices beyond what Bolivia’s low-income and indigenous populations could afford. [open endnotes in new window] By paralleling the story of a contemporary uprising with that of indigenous resistance against the conquistadors during the early days of Spanish colonialism, Bollain’s film invites us to see multinational corporations and the governments that enable them as perpetrating a form of neo-colonialist violence that disproportionately affects economically deprived and historically marginalized populations.
This paper will analyze how Even the Rain juxtaposes past and present by drawing on but ultimately subverting the conventions of the “network narrative,” a form that since the 1990s has risen in prominence in conjunction with network science and theory. Alexandro Gonzales Iñárritu's 2006 film, Babel, exemplifies the contemporary network narrative and its basis in what David Bordwell calls “attenuated links” between multiple protagonists and plotlines (Hollywood 99). Interweaving episodes taking place in Morocco, the United States, Mexico, and Japan, Babel reveals how the circulation of a random object across these diverse locations connects characters that are otherwise strangers to one another. Whereas the network form has been used largely— as in the case of Babel—to suggest accidental connections between people and places, Even the Rain emphasizes instead the histories and longstanding political structures that shape human relations within the contemporary world system. In the process, Bollaín’s film counters what Patrick Jagoda calls the “the spatial bias of network science”—by prompting viewers to think “temporally and historically” about global interconnection rather than primarily in terms of space and geography (74).
David Harvey’s account of a late twentieth-century culture of postmodernity is helpful for understanding the “spatial bias” of network science as well as the contemporary network narrative. According to Harvey,
“[T]he history of capitalism has been characterized by ‘speed-up’ in the pace of life, while so overcoming spatial barriers that the world sometimes seems to collapse inwards upon us…. [A]s the time horizons shorten to the point where the present is all there is… we have to learn how to cope with an overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds.” (Condition 240)
Harvey uses the term “time-space compression” to refer to the effects of speed-up and expansion of capitalist processes. Postmodern art, he argues, gives expression to a heightened experience of time-space compression in the late twentieth century. By depicting flat or “depthless” surfaces that are placed in relation to one another via strategies of collage, postmodern art conveys a perceived “loss of temporality” (Harvey, Condition 58) and a sense that “the present is all there is” (Condition 240).
Contemporary network narratives’ reliance on juxtaposition resonates with a postmodern aesthetics of collage. Although network narratives link their various parts whereas postmodernism “swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change” (Harvey, Condition 44), linkages in both cases are depicted as superficial and contingent rather than based in historical causality. For the most part, like postmodern art, network narratives avoid historical explanations of cause and effect in preference for random and accidental connections in the present, thereby mirroring rather than questioning capitalism’s shaping of our temporal and spatial imaginations.
By alternating between past and present—and connecting characters across space as well as time—Even the Rain resembles the contemporary network narrative but transforms it in a radical way. Although market pressures limit to some extent its political critique, Bollaín’s film nevertheless counters a simplistic logic of interconnectedness that tends to be used within contemporary globalization discourse to celebrate the “flexibility” and mobility of private capital across space while obscuring its egregious histories and ongoing practices of exploitation.
Harvey has argued that with the global turn to neoliberalism, or an extremist ideology of free market capitalism,
“Deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision have been all too common” (Neoliberalism 3)
Over the last four decades corporate power, its think tanks, as well as transnational institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have pressured governments of poor countries like Bolivia to privatize even basic resources such as water supply. Within a climate in which privatization is promoted globally as an indomitable logic, Even the Rain’s alternative network narrative highlights the longstanding injustices of private and multinational capital and provides us with an example of successful popular resistance against the political regimes that prop it up.
Network narratives in contemporary cinema and the case of Babel
The form of the network narrative is by no means new. Wesley Beal and Stacy Lavin point out that “the network narrative genre and the widespread ideology of networks that we recognize today are not the exclusive domain of a digitized society, but they are also part of a trajectory that reaches back into the earliest decades of the twentieth century.” Caroline Levine goes back further in time and argues that Charles Dickens’
“Bleak House relies heavily on the form of the network in a way that paves the way for recent narratives about political, technological, economic, and social networks, including such films as Traffic, Syriana, and Babel.”
In fact, “the expansive length of Bleak House,” according to Levine, “makes the nineteenth-century novel more successful than any recent film at capturing the complexity and power of networked social experience” (517). In her view, Dickens’ novel “structures the unfolding of its plot around multiple conflicting and competing webs of interconnection.” Moreover,
“Characters are not centered subjects but points of social intersection. By hanging his novel not on individuals but on networks, Dickens is able to undermine the usual novelistic reliance on individual agency” (519).
Levine thus sees in Dickens’ novel potential for the network form to be “ideologically unsettling” (520) because it shows how individuals play “crucial roles in social, economic, and institutional networks” (519).
Like Bleak House, contemporary “hyperlink” cinema—as described by Patrick Jagoda—is based on “cutting across numerous locations, institutions, and characters in order to explore a complex social field.” Jagoda argues, “This form is especially effective at rendering networks that interlink cultural, economic, and political nodes” (75). Describing the origins of the cinematic network narrative, David Bordwell goes back to the 1932 Hollywood film, Grand Hotel, directed by Edmund Goulding, that “laid down some basic conventions: in one locale, a star-packed cast portrays characters linked by contingency” (Hollywood 94). He observes, however, “Between Grand Hotel and the early 1990s, there don’t seem to be a lot of network films,” and that “the current vogue can be dated to a batch of films from 1993-1994” including Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) (Poetics 194).
Bordwell proposes that while it has a long history in the novel, the form’s recent popularity is attributable to market forces as well as the proliferation of network theory. As “Big stars didn’t have to commit many days to an ensemble vehicle, and they didn’t demand their usual high salaries” (Bordwell 197), directors realized the practical appeal of working on network films. Simultaneously, the rise of network science in the final decades of the twentieth century brought the language and logic of networks into popular consciousness:
“Scientists began to explore the nature of small worlds and the connectedness of apparently random phenomena, from cricket-chirping rhythms to the organization of the Internet. As chaos theory came to be called the ‘butterfly effect,’ popular culture conceived network theory as ‘six degrees of separation.’” (Hollywood 100)
“After 1990 the phrase [six degrees of separation] passed into common use, thanks largely to John Guare’s play and the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, and it seems to have inspired art works both high and low” (Hollywood 99).
Indeed, the network form featured in not only independent or art house films but also advertisements, music videos, and other sites of popular culture. For example, a 1992 music video for the R.E.M. song “Everybody Hurts” deploys strategies reminiscent of the opening sequence of Wim Wenders’ critically acclaimed film, Wings of Desire (1987). If in Wenders’ film a roving camera and internal diegetic sound link the experiences of a diverse group of anonymous urban characters, then in the R.E. M. music video the camera pans in slow motion across cars stuck in a traffic jam as the subtitles transcribe—mostly in English and occasionally in Spanish—the thoughts of drivers and passengers. In the end, the diverse characters leave their stagnant cars and start walking away, a move initiated by the lead singer who ascends on car roofs—like the omniscient invisible angel of Wings of Desire—and sings of shared hurt and pain. The 1999 film Magnolia further exemplifies the use of network form across music videos and art house films—as well as the embedding of music video aesthetics in film. In one memorable scene, camera movements are timed to music as the film cuts between its various characters singing an Aimee Mann song playing in the soundtrack. Like “Everybody Hurts,” the Aimee Mann song, “Wise Up,” is about shared pain. Thus like most network films Magnolia explores the coincidences that link multiple protagonists whose “projects are largely decoupled from one another, or only contingently linked” (Bordwell, Poetics 192).
In recent years, the network narrative has expanded to connecting protagonists and projects across national boundaries. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) exemplifies the global terrain of the contemporary network film as well as its potential for bringing together an ensemble cast of internationally renowned stars.
The film opens with a Moroccan man selling a rifle to a poor rural family. In subsequent scenes, the youngest member of this family unwittingly shoots at a female U.S. tourist (Cate Blanchett). From Morocco, the woman’s husband (Brad Pitt) calls their Mexican nanny in California and asks her to stay with their children while he procures medical help for his wife. The nanny agrees but ends up taking the children to her son’s wedding in Mexico. Meanwhile, we are introduced to an adolescent deaf and mute girl in Tokyo who is exploring her sexuality for the first time. Unlike the other characters, we have greater subjective insight into her experience although we remain uncertain about her connection to the Morocco- and Mexico-based plots. Eventually, the children and Mexican nanny end up alone in the desert when the nanny’s nephew (Gael García Bernal) abandons them, fearing trouble from U.S. authorities. Although they make it back to the United States, the nanny is deported because she is an undocumented worker. In Morocco, the village boy confesses to his accidental shooting of the tourist—though the police kill his brother in the process—while the U.S. couple is flown to an urban hospital. At the end we learn that we have been watching these seemingly parallel stories out of order; and that a Japanese tourist in Morocco had tipped his guide with a rifle that was later sold to the young shooter’s family, triggering a chain reaction. It is this Japanese tourist’s daughter who figures in the Tokyo episodes. Unknown to her, the girl’s story is connected tangentially to lives in Morocco, Mexico, and the United States. As Bordwell puts it, “[N]etwork movies trade on …remote and fragile connections” (Poetics 198), so that even “stray objects [can] hook people up” (Poetics 204).
Critics have drawn attention to the continuities between Babel and Iñárritu’s earlier films, Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003) that were similarly premised on revealing hidden links between diverse characters and plots. In “Fictions of the Global” Rita Barnard points out that “Iñárritu's interest in this kind of plot arises, to judge from his interviews, from a sense that Hollywood's canned narrative forms have desensitized the filmgoing audience and made it impossible for people really to see the contemporary world.” In response, Barnard proposes,
“While [Iñárritu] describes his films as experiments in breaking away from plot-driven cinema, we may view them not as attempts to abandon plot as such but as attempts to devise new and more cosmopolitan narrative forms: forms that might reshape our received notions of human interconnection, causality, temporality, social space, and so forth.” (208)
Barnard sees Babel as well as David Mitchell’s novel Ghostwritten (1999) as characterized by
“a new kind of plot, with new coordinates of time and space, that may serve as a corollary to the brave neo world of millennial capitalism and perhaps even provide the conceptual preconditions for a cosmopolitan society” (208).
The temporal non-simultaneity of the individual narratives in Babel is, for Barnard, evidence of how the film departs from Benedict Anderson’s conception of the national novel and signals instead a new, more cosmopolitan, form:
“While one might assume that the three stories are connected by their temporal simultaneity, the ending reveals (such is the film's equivalent to a plot twist) that this interpretive assumption is false…. This twist seems to me extremely important: it retroactively disables or falsifies the "meanwhile" principle, which, in Anderson's view, holds together the national novel and provides its readers with a shared sense of space and time.” (209)
Barnard argues that instead of the “meanwhile principle,”
“What enables us to connect the three stories and three social locales is ultimately an intense, overarching affect: a kind of globalization of compassion that arises from a profound sense of human isolation and physical vulnerability” (209).
David Bordwell is more measured in his appreciation of Babel. In his blog post on the film Bordwell writes,
“It would be worthwhile building a symptomatic interpretation of Babel. My hunch is that despite Iñárritu’s claim that the film is about family and personal communication, something else is going on. After all, the drama is fundamentally about how prosperous white people have to suffer because Asian, Mexican, and North African men have guns.”
Developing Bordwell’s brief symptomatic reading of Babel I would add that although the spaces in the film are linked, there is a distinct difference in how we are prompted to respond to the advanced capitalist contexts—United States and Japan—on the one hand, and the “developing” or “peripheral” nations—Morocco and Mexico—on the other.
Barnard correctly points out,
“A sense of a vast and disjunct world is conveyed by the film's very different mise-en-scènes, a difference underscored by the fact that three very different cinematic techniques are deployed (different lenses, different formats of film, etc)” (209).
I would add, however, that the different mise-en-scenes reinforce Hollywoodesque depictions of Morocco and Mexico as sites of danger and heighten a sense of white Americans’ vulnerability in this “vast and disjunct world.”
In an interview, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto speaks of how Iñárritu wanted the film to seem unified and yet convey “different feels” for the diverse national contexts. The filmmakers wanted Morocco in particular “to feel different, almost dirty, because of what transpires there.”The Morocco episodes are therefore shot mostly with Super 16 mm film and appear grainier and bleached out compared to the rest of the movie. Even within these episodes, moreover, Prieto alternated between four different 16 mm film stocks to differentiate the Americans’ story from that of the rural Moroccan family. On the whole, the Morocco episodes emphasize the vast desert landscape and the Americans’ isolation within it. The tension created by handheld camerawork further accentuates the sense that something is about to go wrong for the Americans.
Prieto also speaks of how the filmmakers chose red as the “one color to carry through all three stories.” However, owing in part to the different film stocks used, “it appears as umber in Morocco and as primary red in Mexico.” The emphasis on deep, primary reds in the staging of the Mexican wedding scenes highlights local color but also the frenetic quality of the celebrations, thereby building suspense about the U.S. children’s fates. Crosscutting, moreover, reinforces a sense of doom awaiting the U.S. children. In one instance, the film cuts from an intense scene of the Moroccan brothers fighting one another to the sound of a car horn noisily punctuating the chaotic celebration in Mexico. Moments later, the nanny’s nephew fires gunshots in the air to mark the occasion—much to the horror of the U.S. boy to whose perspective we cut.
Cinematographer Prieto claims that they “looked for more of a pink/magenta shade” for the Japan-based episodes.In stark contrast to the mise-en-scene of the Mexican wedding, the muted colors of the Japan-based scenes prepare the viewer to expect subjective interiority. The viewer learns to see even chaotic Tokyo through a private lens—in part because of the film’s strategy to muffle or override diegetic sound at key moments to reflect the deaf girl’s experience of her world. Meanwhile, the brief scenes set in United States take place mostly indoors, within the white family’s home, with the mise-en-scene calling little attention to the special qualities of the world being depicted.
On the whole, the Mexican and Moroccan contexts appear both exotic and dangerous, while the Japanese and U.S. episodes appear relatively private and domestic. The children as well as adults from a single white U.S. family find themselves in positions of vulnerability in Morocco and Mexico, and their points of view set the tone for much of the storytelling.
Speaking of late twentieth-century cultural expression David Harvey points out,
“A strong sense of ‘the Other’ is replaced…by a weak sense of ‘the others.’ The loose hanging together of divergent street cultures in the fragmented spaces of the contemporary city re-emphasizes the contingent and accidental aspects of this ‘otherness’ in daily life” (Condition 301).
In other words, a political and structural analysis of the subjugated “Other” is replaced by a notion of accidental otherness. Harvey suggests that within the context of postmodern culture, a historical view of power relations resulting from class struggle and imperialism is harder to articulate in the presence of a generalized, dehistoricized sense of the coexistence of human diversity. This “weak sense” of otherness also informs Babel’s representation of a visibly “disjunct” world and makes the film liable—even if unwittingly—to reinforcing cultural stereotypes.
It is true that the viewer is made aware of the insularity of the adult Americans and their incapacity—precisely because of their privilege—to adapt to places like Morocco. The viewer is also exposed to the injustices of globalization as we watch the Mexican nanny suffer in a world in which borders between neighboring nations are policed to the detriment of poor migrants. And we notice how the unwitting act of a young boy in Morocco is immediately and without evidence deemed “terrorism” by the U.S. press and government, leading to the tragic death of the boy’s brother.
Nevertheless, despite its critique of the myopic attitudes of U.S. citizens and their government, the film reinforces Hollywood conventions of representing white Americans in danger whenever they are outside the United States, especially when they are in poor nations. After being confronted with the precariousness of the white Americans’ lives in Mexico and Morocco, the viewer returns to the relative calm of the prosperous, domestic spaces of California and Japan with almost a sense of relief.
However self-conscious it may be in showing that danger is produced in part by Americans’ own perceptions and misunderstandings, Babel nevertheless reinforces popular depictions of spaces like Morocco and Mexico as being not just economically impoverished but also zones of anarchy. In this sense, the film contributes towards a mythification of zones of economic advancement and of “underdevelopment”—by maintaining through its visual style their stark separation. As in the case of colonialist and development discourse, however, the viewer fails to understand how it is that some places are economically less developed, or why it is that we live in a bifurcated world, or what histories might connect various parts of the world beyond mere accidental linkages.
Bordwell speaks of how network narratives “evoke poetic linkages. A film’s mottos tend to be both ‘me and you and everyone we know’ and ‘mind the gap’—gaps being the slender, precarious affinities that can suggest subterranean forces bringing fates together” (Poetics 198). Like Syriana—whose tagline is “Everything is connected”—Babel suggests that all its characters’ stories are connected because of the gun that created a ripple effect in their lives. However, as with postmodern art, “highly simplified rhetorical propositions” (Harvey, Condition 351) take the place of engaging with character depth, especially in the case of the Moroccan and Mexican characters.
In what follows I will show how Even the Rain draws on but also departs from the contemporary network narrative’s investment in exposing fragile connections between people and places. My analysis will focus on the manner in which Bollaín’s film counters contemporary network narratives’ “spatial bias” and generalized view of otherness, even as it also reflects constraints imposed by dominant conventions of storytelling.
Even the Rain and historical connection
According to John E Davidson,
“The celebration of the quincentennial of Columbus’s ‘discoveries’—and with it five hundred years of the ‘New World Order—heightened many ongoing debates about the roles of media and representation in the construction of colonial history” (101).
Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty began writing Even the Rain at the end of the 1990s—shortly after the quincentennial and amidst the debates of which Davidson speaks.
Having previously written scripts for Ken Loach’s films,  Laverty found inspiration for Even the Rain in radical historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He set out to compose a period piece based on Zinn’s account of the resistance to Spanish colonialism launched by the Indians as well as humanitarian priests, Bartolomé de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos. Laverty in fact began developing this script with Alejandro González Iñárritu; however, Iñárritu had to leave the project when he started work on another film (Dawson 44). Meanwhile, Laverty found himself dissatisfied with the initial script and decided to change it. As he put it, “‘The historical story felt very distant— I wanted to make it more immediate’” (Dawson 44). When years later he traveled to Bolivia with Icíar Bollaín, Laverty met those who had resisted water privatization and who showed him the seven kilometers of trenches they had dug to procure water for themselves, in defiance of multinational corporate control. Laverty says,
“[He] couldn't help but notice the parallels between the multinational corporations and Columbus. Once again the indigenous population are resisting with sticks and stones, and are being chased by dogs. This time rather than gold and slavery, it's about water” (Dawson 44).
The eventual script of Even the Rain signals continuities between the actions of the conquistadors and multinational corporations, thereby exposing brutalities of the colonial past as well as the neoliberal present.
Spanish director Icíar Bollaín’s previous films dealt with cultural identity and gender relations in contemporary Spain. Film scholar Susan Martin-Márquez points out that in Bollain’s first two feature-length films, Hola! ¿Estás sola? (Hi, Are You Alone?) (1995) and Flores de otro mundo (Flowers from Another World) (1999), the “treatment of notions of home, of displacement, and of cultural difference emerges from the contemporary contexts of globalization rather than from the traumas of the post-Civil War period” (257).
Although Even the Rain is set outside Spain, the film interrogates contemporary Spanish identity in ways that resonate with Bollaín’s previous work. We watch uncomfortably as the idealistic Spanish director, Sebastian (Gael García Bernal), and his pragmatic film producer, Costa (Luis Tosar), are forced during their time in Cochabamba to confront the persistent legacies of their nation’s imperialist past. Whereas major stars of transnational Spanish cinema play the roles of Sebastian and Costa, Bollain’s film also depends on non-actors, including some of the actual protestors that Laverty interviewed as well as the Bolivian Juan Carlos Aduviri who plays the crucial part of Daniel/Hatuey.
At the start of Even the Rain, we learn that Costa cares primarily about how cheap it is to shoot in Bolivia. It does not matter to him that the film he is producing shows Columbus arriving in the Andes rather than in the Caribbean, or that indigenous Bolivians play the part of Tainos, or that Bolivian Quechua stands in for the Taino language. Although Sebastian is critical of Costa’s thinking and better informed about Spain’s colonial history, he nevertheless goes along with Costa’s production plan. Moreover, like Costa, Sebastian fails to understand Daniel, an indigenous Bolivian who organizes protests against water privatization while simultaneously acting in the Spaniards’ film as Hatuey, leader of Indian resistance against the conquistadors. Although Sebastian initially appears more humane, at the end of Even the Rain, it is Costa rather than Sebastian who is morally transformed by his encounters with Daniel.
Bordwell elaborates as one of the defining features of the cinematic network narrative:
“The film can reveal and anticipate connections by employing unrestricted narration, skipping back and forth among people and places” (Poetics 207).
Even the Rain deploys unrestricted narration to move back and forth between characters not only across scenes but also within a single scene, thereby generating ambiguity about the narrative point of view.
For instance, the film begins by oscillating between the perspectives of a few characters, chiefly Sebastian and Daniel. The opening tracking shot is from Sebastian’s point of view, as he looks out from the safety of his moving vehicle at a dusty side street in Cochabamba. Midway through the scene we cut to a more neutral perspective when we watch Sebastian and Costa worm their way through a crowd of Bolivians gathered to audition for their film. Tension mounts when Costa decides to audition only a chosen few, and Daniel emerges as a rebel by inciting the others to not move until the filmmakers had given every one a chance. When Sebastian agrees to Daniel’s demand, he appears momentarily to be the humane one in the crew. The very next instant, however, he appears crudely opportunistic, asking his assistant to film “that bastard [Daniel]…He’s good.” The following shot tracks closer toward Daniel and his daughter, as the crowd cheers on in the background. While Sebastian looks up at a helicopter carrying a massive cross that we gather is a prop for the film shoot, Even the Rain cuts to a close up of Daniel.The scene’s final shot is from Daniel’s perspective as he looks on at the filmmakers driving away from the dusty scene. Thus, whereas we followed Sebastian’s gaze at the scene’s beginning, by its end we watch him and his crew from the perspective of Daniel. The entry of non-diegetic music at the scene’s end further invites us to contemplate the departing foreigners from a critical distance.
The productive ambiguity generated by this opening scene drives much of the film, prompting the viewer to recognize the power differential that structures relations between the Spaniards and the Bolivians. As the film proceeds, ambiguity is used also to blur the line between past and present.
For instance, in a script-reading scene, the camera pans across a table full of Spanish actors as we hear one of them read stage directions describing Taino children’s faces on witnessing Columbus’s arrival in the New World. We hear that the children are hit by a strange smell as the bearded Spaniards disembark. Momentarily the viewer of Even the Rain begins to see the modern bearded Spaniards past whom the camera pans as the conquistadors of Sebastian’s film script. When the drunken Anton (Karra Elejalde), playing Christopher Columbus, bursts into his role, the camera follows his movements and lowers itself as he kneels. When the other actors join Anton/Columbus by kneeling with him for prayer the film cuts to two servers standing in attention beside the abundant food table.
As the scene continues, a handheld camera captures a close shot of Anton/Columbus deliberating with another actor. This shot, that seems to listen in on a private conversation between Columbus and the ship captain, momentarily gives us the illusion that we have entered the world of Sebastian and Costa’s film. Tension mounts as the actors approach the female server and Anton/Columbus grabs at her earring and asks her where he can find gold. Her refusal to answer makes him raise his voice. Past and present seem to converge as the conquistadors, now Spanish actors, confront a native woman who becomes increasingly stoic in her response.After a tense moment of uncomfortable silence, Anton snaps out of his role—much to the relief and amusement of his crew—and apologizes to the server for the actors’ “selfishness.” The scene ends with a shot of the woman looking at the actors.
This final shot is a brief one. Nevertheless, like the earlier shots of the servers, it invites the viewer to “build inferences out of teases, hints, and gaps”—a trait that Bordwell sees as characteristic of network narratives, as well as mystery films (Poetics, 200). Throughout Even the Rain, gaps and ambiguity prompt the viewer to reflect on thehistorical basis of the relationship between the Spaniards and the Bolivians. Thus, like most network narratives, Even the Rain brings strangers together; but their connection is attributed not to accident but rather to colonial power and its legacies.
“In watching a network narrative … we’re often coaxed to notice how characters are sharply similar or different from one another” (Poetics 211).
Even the Rain exemplifies this feature of the network narrative, for having established the film crew and its interactions with the locals, subsequent scenes are layered through a logic of parallelism and contrast.
As in most network narratives, the device of crosscutting enables exposition of these parallels and oppositions—but in the case of Even the Rain crosscutting moves the viewer not only across space but also time. As we increasingly alternate between the story of Columbus and the conquistadors—told through Sebastian’s film—and the story of the Cochabamba uprising, we are invited to reflect on a host of parallels: between Columbus and the multinational corporations of today, between gold and water, and between the dispossessed indigenous populations of the past and present. The alternation between scenes with Daniel leading protests in the Water War and then playing the role of indigenous leader, Hatuey, in Sebastian’s film reinforces historical linkages. But in addition to such linkages, the film emphasizes the contrast between the Bolivians’ perspective on history and that of the Spanish film crew.
For instance, in one scene, a group of indigenous women challenges officials from the private water company who are breaking the lock to their collectively-owned well. When the women manage to prevail, Even the Rain cuts to Sebastian’s crew rehearsing a scene that takes place in March 1511. As the actor who plays Montesinos gives a church sermon challenging the exploitation of Indians, Even the Rain cuts between his performance and shots of Bolivian construction workers looking on at the rehearsal. As we cut back and forth in this scene, the viewer is invited to wonder about the links between indigenous populations of the past and present—and about how the workers (and, perhaps, the women from the previous scene) might regard Sebastian’s film that tells the story of colonial exploitation from the point of view of exceptional, humanitarian Spaniards.
As the scene ends, Sebastian tells his actors that Montesinos was “the first voice of conscience against an empire.” In the scene’s final shot, Sebastian sits contemplatively in the film set. Momentarily, though, a sound bridge brings in Daniel’s voice from the following scene proclaiming, “They sell our wells, our lakes… and even the rain that falls on our heads. By law.” Daniel’s voice briefly takes over as Sebastian rests.The sound bridge interrupts the story of the exceptional Spaniards that is the focus of Sebastian’s film and returns our attention to the indigenous perspective. When we cut to the next scene, a fiery Daniel, microphone in hand, addresses a small crowd outside the private water company: “And who takes even the rain? A company whose owners are in London and California.” Although Daniel speaks in Spanish, a protest sign around him reads “Yaku vende,” where “yaku,” the Quechua word for water, is paired with the Spanish, “vende.” The protest sign calls attention to the longstanding struggle of indigenous Bolivians against imperialist forces— both within as well as beyond their nation.
In this manner, crosscutting in Even the Rain links the fates of indigenous populations in the past and present and also invites us to notice the contrast between the Spanish priests speaking on behalf of Tainos within the context of Sebastian’s historical narrative and the Bolivian Indians representing their own interests in the present. Even the Rain thereby engages the viewer in a form of political analysis and reflection on how and from whose perspective history is told.
Although Sebastian and the Spanish film crew appreciate the oppressiveness of the colonial past, we realize increasingly that they resist recognizing its ongoing legacies and new modes of expression. However, past and present converge most painfully when the Spanish team films the conquistadors’ crucifixion of Hatuey and other Indians.
The scene opens within the world of Sebastian’s film—as we witness a heated argument between a Spanish commander and Bartolomé de Las Casas. The commander wants to make an example of the death of thirteen Indians, which Las Casas opposes. In several shots, Las Casas appears small compared to the commanders mounted on their horses, suggestive of his relative powerlessness. Once the Spaniards start burning the crosses, the camera closes in on the Indians, especially Hatuey who begins to shout in Quechua (that is made to stand in for Taino within the world of Sebastian’s film): “I despise you. I despise your God. I despise your greed.” When the other men at the stakes join in this chant, we move between Hatuey’s impassioned face, wide shots of the ritual killing, cutaways to the Indians who have been made to watch, and shots of the Commanders and Las Casas who fail to comprehend the chan.As tension builds, all the Indians start shouting Hatuey’s name in defiance of Spanish orders. The Commander is unable to subdue the crowd, and a weary Las Casas cries above the chanting, “Thanks to you, [Hatuey’s name] will never be forgotten.”
The next cut returns the viewer to the present—with Sebastian, on a raised platform, thanking the actors and announcing the end of the shoot. When we first survey the scene of the action from the filmmakers’ raised perspective, smoke rises from where the crosses had been planted; but the area now appears less lush, more prosaic. We see patches of barren ground where in the diegesis of Sebastian’s film we saw only dense foliage. The human figures appear smaller in the frame—and the viewer is reminded of the difference between cinematic construction and reality. But just when we begin to think that the horror of Sebastian’s film is safely contained in the past, we see policemen arrest Daniel for his role in leading protests against water privatization. Non-diegetic music enters at this point, drowning out sounds from the scene as Daniel—in slow motion—is dragged away by the police.
The momentary slowing down of film speed allows the viewer to ponder the parallels between past and present, especially as Daniel remains dressed as Hatuey. When Daniel/Hatuey is brought to the police car, the film returns to normal speed, allowing us to notice the aggressiveness with which the police push him into the car despite opposition from a crowd that remains dressed in the indigenous costume worn for the film shoot. The crowd eventually topples the police car and manages to release Daniel. When the policemen threaten to shoot, Sebastian and Costa finally intervene. But the Spaniards are relatively ineffective as the crowd pushes the policemen to the ground and frees Daniel. The scene ends with Sebastian declaring to Costa, “It is like a dream. I can’t believe it.” The viewer, however, has been prompted all along to think of it as more than a dream—but rather as an uncanny repetition of the past, albeit with key differences. Unlike in the past, the Indians are not victims; on the contrary, they successfully manage to prevent Daniel from being arrested. Since Sebastian and Costa had previously made a deal with the police chief to return Daniel to custody following the film shoot, the viewer learns to question the Spaniards’ ethics. The end of this scene shows Sebastian and Costa in a state of crisis and prompts the viewer to wonder about the extent to which they recognize their complicity in the historical violence directed against Daniel and his people.
Moral transformation and the limits of network form
Just at the point that the filmmakers appear irredeemably compromised, Costa is asked by Daniel’s wife to help find their daughter, Belen, who goes missing during the government-imposed curfew. Costa’s willingness to do this marks the culmination of his slow transformation and results in his saving Belen’s life. The centralization of the metropolitan character’s development, especially in the film’s final act, signals a crucial contradiction within Even the Rain’s attempt at historicizing the indigenous perspective.
In an interview, screenwriter Paul Laverty testifies to market pressure when he speaks of how the film might not have received funding if the indigenous character were at its center: “ ‘Obviously I would have loved to tell the story from the perspective of the Indian leader Daniel,’” states Laverty. “‘It's just we would never have been given the money by the financiers’” (Dawson 44). If Even the Rain reveals how Costa’s choices for Sebastian’s film are in response to foreign investors’ demands, then Laverty’s comment suggests that money and finance influence his own creative decisions as well. In response to market pressures, Laverty makes Costa’s transformation from a morally compromised to an ethical individual a structuring device within Even the Rain. In the process, however, Even the Rain’s historical network narrative is funneled during its final act into a linear format leading to relative closure.
Whereas the film cues us initially to believe that the socially and historically aware Sebastian would be its moral center, it gradually begins to invest in Costa. An early moment that cues us to notice Costa’s internal process is when Daniel overhears a phone conversation in which Costa boasts to an U.S. producer about how cheap it is to hire extras in Bolivia: “two fucking dollars a day” can make them “feel like kings,” announces Costa. Daniel later confronts Costa with “I know this story,” implying his awareness of the continuities between Costa’s behavior and the long history of exploitation of Indians like himself. This scene is crucial in triggering change in Costa as well as in establishing a vexed but ultimately reciprocal relationship between Costa and Daniel.
As the protests intensify, the contrast between the positions of the protesting Bolivians and elite film crew becomes increasingly stark—as does the gap between Daniel’s and Costa’s positions. One scene that highlights this gap is when the Spaniards meet with a local politician who has been supporting their film production, while around them the protests get louder and the police more violent. The politician complains to the filmmakers that, “Given their long history of exploitation, Indians’ distrust is embedded in their genes. It is very difficult to reason with them, especially when they are illiterate.” The politician’s inability to see indigenous Bolivians as fully human is brought into relief when Sebastian tries to reason with him, asking him how someone who earns two dollars a day could pay a 300% increase in the price of water. The Bolivian official replies, “How curious. That’s what I’m told you pay the extras.” As Costa guiltily listens in on this conversation, Even the Rain suggests that the Spanish filmmakers’ treatment of their extras is enabled by a history of state-sanctioned violence against poor and indigenous Bolivians. It is the longstanding exploitation of Bolivians that makes it possible for the Spanish filmmaking crew to get away with paying their extras so little.
The scenes showing Daniel’s resistance to Costa’s attempts at appeasing him are crucial for shifting Costa’s attitude towards Indians. In the scene when Costa tries to make a monetary deal with Daniel to prevent him from protesting until the shoot’s completion, Daniel is at first silent. A frustrated Costa wonders out loud if Daniel is merely performing the role of “the silent, dignified Indian.” Eventually, however, Daniel accepts Costa’s money, anticipating that his family would need it in their struggles. In moments such as this one, Even the Rain portrays Daniel as neither the timeless, dignified Indian that Costa invokes, nor the genetically programmed malcontent that the Bolivian politician imagines in his conversation with the Spanish filmmakers. Because the viewer is trained through the course of the film to oscillate between prior and existing regimes of power, a historically specific interaction between colonizer and colonized replaces a generalized conception of “otherness.” Costa learns to see Daniel’s reality in a historical context, and his shift in consciousness becomes a model for the viewer to follow.
Yet, despite its attentiveness to the historical dynamics of colonial relations, Even the Rain draws on conventions of the sentimental colonial narrative, especially in its attempt at bringing closure to its complex plot. In the film’s penultimate scene, Daniel comes to the film set to give Costa a parting gift and to thank him for saving his daughter’s life. This penultimate scene between Daniel and Costa is perhaps the most strained, as it reflects Even the Rain’s debt to Euro-American storytelling conventions that require the enacting of reconciliation between colonizer and colonized in order to confirm the European’s ability to eventually be human. As is often the case within this narrative structure, the colonizer figure’s humanity is salvaged through an act of bravery or kindness that elicits gratitude.
The inter-personal and private register of this reconciliation brings a superficial sense of closure to the historical contradictions that the film so painstakingly exposes in its first two acts. In other words, the abrupt transition from network mode to linear development indexes fundamental tensions underlying the film’s form—between telling a “history from below” and marketing the story to ensure global distribution, and between revealing historical colonial conflict and enacting private resolution to this conflict.
Even the Rain ends with a view of the busy streets of Cochabamba taken from a moving car— only the passenger inside is Costa and not Sebastian (as in the film’s opening shot). In another strained moment, Costa holds up the gift that Daniel gives him before they part: it is a small bottle of water to which Costa responds by saying out loud, “yaku,” the Quechua word for water that the protestors had been using in their struggle. Costa’s ability to recall this word is a sign that he has come to see matters from the perspective of the indigenous Bolivians. The film suggests possibility in Costa’s act of compassion and newfound ability to appreciate the realities of those he once dehumanized. Interestingly, though, the next shot is of the driver’s eyes watching Costa through the rearview mirror. As in the rest of the film, this silent gaze serves to clinch the scene and to remind us of a perspective that remains marginalized or totally forgotten.
Even the Rain’s final scenes depart strikingly from its established method of paralleling and contrasting past and present modes of imperial domination. The strained moments and streamlining of plot within its final section index the pressure exerted on the film’s style by market forces. Yet, although it cannot sustain the network form or challenge conventions that centralize the metropolitan character’s moral transformation, the film is nevertheless “ideologically unsettling” (Levine 520) of facile notions of global interconnectedness that mask histories and ongoing realities of capitalist exploitation.
Through its historical perspective Bollaín and Laverty’s film shows us how contemporary neoliberal capitalism and its supporting free market ideology reinforce longstanding social exploitation. Neoliberalism, writes Harvey,
“holds that the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market” (Neoliberalism 3).
Although neoliberal doctrine claims to be in service of social good, the basis for its broadening of market logic is the increased dispossession of those who have been historically impoverished and marginalized. By focusing on the Cochabamba water crisis and its links with a colonial past, Even the Rain exposes how neoliberal privatization has a vastly disproportionate impact on those who have been locked into a cycle of poverty.
We learn from the final conversation between Costa and Daniel that the multinational water company pulls out of Bolivia, thanks to the efforts of Daniel and others who protested for days.This in fact is what took place in Bolivia during the early 2000s. As Jim Shultz explains,
“For almost two decades Bolivian economics had been dominated by the Washington consensus, market-driven policies pushed by the World Bank and the IMF and carried out by national leadership that was fiercely obedient to those policies. The water revolt shook those arrangements to their core” (28).
Not only did the revolt manage to force out the multinational but also the increased power of social movements following the Water War paved the way for the election in 2005 of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president. As Shultz observes,
“Facing down the government of a former dictator, overcoming the power of one of the world’s largest corporations, and reversing a fundamental policy of one of the world’s most powerful financial institutions, the humble people of a city virtually unknown outside the country had won a victory that would soon echo its way to Washington and to the world.” (26)
Shultz argues that in fact, “Officials at institutions such as the World Bank found themselves having to defend their policies in the aftermath of Cochabamba” (28).
I should emphasize that my point in comparing the aesthetic strategies of Babel and Even the Rain is neither to reject the former film as politically suspect nor to glorify the latter as politically pure. Rather, my aim in juxtaposing the two films is to comment on the implications of emphasizing spatial and accidental over temporal and structural linkages within contemporary network narratives. By inviting viewers to ponder how historically created, unequal power dynamics structure interactions between much of the world’s population, Even the Rain complicates commonplace assertions about global connection. Put differently, Bollaín and Laverty’s alterative network narrative invites reflection on how linkages between geographically distant individuals and communities have been produced within the modern world system. In the end, the film challenges heroic depictions of Columbus and the Conquistadors on the one hand and myths of neoliberal reason on the other. At a time when our corporations and politicians celebrate capital’s global mobility and propagate the idea that there is “no alternative” to economic privatization, Even the Rain reminds viewers that capitalism has been and can still be challenged through solidarity and popular resistance.
Many thanks to John McClure for thought-provoking conversation on Even the Rain, to the Jump Cut editors for excellent feedback, and to Kate Eggleston for valuable help with the visuals.
“has been responsible for some of the biggest infrastructure projects of the last hundred years, including the Hoover Dam, Northern California’s BART transit system, and the troubled Boston “Big Dig” project…. In 2004, Bechtel’s political clout was made even clearer when it was one of two U.S. companies selected by the Bush administration, with no competitive bidding, to receive contracts for rebuilding in Iraq, a deal worth nearly $1 billion” (15). [return to text]
2. Jagoda’s historically-informed analysis of network form draws on the work of sociologists, military strategists, as well as post-9/11 cultural texts like the film Syriana.
3. In The Condition of Postmodernity Harvey describes late twentieth-century capitalism as marked by a shift from fixed, Fordist methods of production to more flexible modes of capital accumulation, involving financial speculation and increased mobility of capital across geographical boundaries.
4. Harvey defines neoliberalism as
“a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices….But beyond these tasks the state should not venture” (Neoliberalism 2).
Harvey adds that while neoliberal theory began to gain traction in the 1970s,
“The capitalist world stumbled towards neoliberalization as the answer through a series of gyrations and chaotic experiments that really only converged as a new orthodoxy with the articulation of what became known as the ‘Washington Consensus’ in the 1990s” (Neoliberalism 13).
5. Jim Shultz describes how,
“In February 1996, Cochabamba’s mayor announced to the press that the World Bank was making privatization… a condition of an urgent $14 million loan to expand water service…. Left with little choice, in 1999 the government of Bolivia put Cochabamba’s public water system up for private bid” (15).
Bechtel’s eventual ownership of Cochabamba’s water system had disastrous consequences for residents’ water bills. Shultz adds that, “rate increases…averaged more than 50 percent, and in some cases much higher” (18).
6. Networks, as a form of social organization, are also not new. A key theorist of networks within the contemporary capitalist world system is sociologist Manuel Castells, who introduced the term “network society.” In The Rise of the Network Society, Castells defines a network as “a set of interconnected nodes” (501) and argues,
“While the networking form of social organization has existed in other times and spaces, the new information technology paradigm provides the material basis for its pervasive expansion throughout the entire social structure” (500).
7. In another essay, “From Genre to Form,” Levine argues that the networked form of Bleak House resembles that of the long-form television series, The Wire:
“In both narratives, almost every character acts as a node in at least one network, whether that is the city, the family, economics, philanthropy, or the law; and the vast majority of characters in these texts act as nodes in two or more different networks…. [B]oth texts go to some trouble to stress that characters are less important because they are exemplary or synecdochal than because they play crucial roles in institutional networks.”
8. Jagoda attributes the term “hyperlink cinema” to Roger Ebert; however, in an online review of the film, Syriana, Ebert suggests that he borrowed the term from a “recent blog item.”
9. Immanuel Wallerstein differentiates between “core” and “peripheral” zones of the modern world-system, with “core” referring to the advanced capitalist economies and “peripheral” referring to the less developed economies that core nations exploit or plunder for the furthering of capitalist accumulation.
10. See Rachael K Bosley’s article, “Forging Connections,” for American Cinematographer magazine.
11. Paul Laverty has written the scripts for several Ken Loach films including Carla’s Song (1996), Bread and Roses (2000), Sweet Sixteen (2002), The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), Route Irish (2010), and The Angels’ Share (2012).
12. Icíar Bollaín mentions in an interview with DP/30 that Iñárritu left because he began production on another film, Biutiful.
13. Here Laverty draws on Zinn’s description of the Conquistadors chasing down Native Americans with dogs. In A People’s History of the United States Zinn writes,
“The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs and were killed” (4).
Laverty also draws on Zinn’s account when constructing a disturbing scene within Sebastian’s film where the Spaniards use dogs to chase down Hatuey and his people.
14. Even the Rain pays homage here to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), a film that opens with shots of a helicopter carrying a Christ statue over the city of Rome.
15. Laverty’s imagination of Sebastian’s film relies on minor details from Zinn’s historical account. For instance, Zinn describes the Arawak Indians as wearing “tiny gold ornaments in their ears” (3). Here Anton improvises on stage directions for Sebastian’s film when he decides to pull at the waitress’s gold earring and inquire about where the gold is.
16. Even the Rain’s representation of the protests and curfew draws on events that took place in Cochabamba between January and April of 2000. Jim Shultz describes how up to 10,000 people gathered in the city square: “Many of the people were from the city, but thousands of others had marched long distances from the countryside and had been there for days” (23). In response, “The government declared an emergency and brought in military forces to quell the protests: “Constitutional rights were suspended; a curfew and a ban on meetings were imposed; and soldiers shut off radio broadcasts in midsentence” (25).
17. See Thomas Dawson’s interview with Paul Laverty in “On the Side of the Angels.”
18. This is also one of the most self-referential moments in the film, raising questions about the ethics of Even the Rain’s production team. In an interview with DP/30, Bollaín mentions that her crew was self-conscious when making the film about whether they were exploiting the Bolivians. She adds that, “At least it was in our aim to listen to the people we were going to work with.” To this end, her team asked the local communities what they wanted by way of compensation. On a couple of occasions, the communities urged the filmmakers to not only pay the extras but also contribute toward the community as a whole. Bollaín claims that this experience taught her to depart from a narrowly individualistic mode of thinking.
19. “[O]n the afternoon of Monday, April 10, the government made an announcement. Officials of Bechtel’s company, who sat out days of violence watching it on television in a five-star hotel and insisting they wouldn’t leave, had fled to the airport and left the country. The Bolivian government declared the contract canceled, saying in a letter to Bechtel’s people, “Given that the directors of your enterprise have left the city of Cochabamba and were not to be found . . . said contract is rescinded” (Shultz 26).
20. David Harvey points out,
“Consent for neoliberalization was achieved through force as well as by producing “a fatalistic, even abject acceptance of the idea that there was and is, as Margaret Thatcher kept insisting, ‘no alternative’” (Neoliberalism 40).
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