In the face of the oppressed I recognize my own face;
in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands.
The Academy Award nominated Spanish film “Even the Rain” was released on DVD just before Columbus Day this year, and the film should be on anyone’s list who is interested in reflecting upon the explorer, his legacy, and the Native peoples he encountered.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays a young auteur director seeking to make a film about Columbus. His intent is to make a politically charged film in which Columbus is the villain and the hero is Hatuey, a Taino warrior who leads a rebellion against Columbus’ colony and ends up a martyr. Luis Tosar plays Bernal’s producer, the guy trying to keep costs down and everything running smoothly. He insists that they film in Cochabamba, Bolivia, thousands of miles from Hispaniola, the setting of the film. He films there because the labor costs there are cheap. The labor costs there are cheap because they are exploiting Native workers. It all comes full circle.
Against Tosar’s better judgment, Bernal hires an intelligent, passionate amateur (Juan Calros Aduviri) to play Hatuey, the Taino warrior. Aduviri is a natural leader and no babe in the woods; he knows a thing or two about activism and exploitation, and proves to be a bit unpredictable on the movie set.
In the middle of their filming schedule, Bolivia sells the country’s water rights, to a multinational corporation and Aduviri’s hometown well is sealed up. (The film title is a reference to the fact that it’s illegal to catch even the rainwater and keep it; it belongs to someone else, living in another country far away.) The country descends into riot; and Aduviri is right at the forefront, bullhorn in hand, organizing protests, proclaiming ultimatums, and protecting his people’s way of life and right to live.
Of course this is unacceptable to the Beral and Tosar; they can’t risk their star landing himself in jail over water issues, or disappearing for good. Tosar offers him money, and then more money, and when the two bail him out of jail, they promise the police that they can have him back as soon as they’re done filming. Thus the Spanish moviemakers find themselves caught in the middle, sympathizing with the activists but making deals with the government. They are becoming the villains in the story they’re living, which parallels the story they’re telling.
The setup for “Even the Rain” is pretty brilliant, mirroring modern exploitation in the storytelling on colonial exploitation, but give credit to director Iciar Bollain for not overplaying his hand. The film never comes across as overly political or heavy-handed; it never feels like a “message” movie. Instead of demonizing Tosar (to parallel the way they demonize Columbus), the film explores the situation; we understand the pressure he’s under to deliver a product by a certain time and on a certain budget, and thus see the reasons why he cut corners against their own better judgment, and take sides on issues that go against their own personal feelings or political positions. And it manages to do all this without ever excusing their behavior. It is one thing to understand the reasons why a man sins; it’s a completely different to excuse (or forgive) the sin.
When the entire country has descended into chaos and the film project is scuttled, the focus shifts to Tosar. While Aduviri is away leading protests at the capitol, his daughter is gravely injured during the riots, and Tosar, instead of seeking safety, goes back to find her and bring her to a hospital. He risks his own life to save hers and Aduviri, when it’s all over, recognizes this. At odds up til that point, the two part ways with a renewed, if somewhat tense and tenuous, respect for each other. They are both men, both with people relying on them, both faced with difficult decisions.
So while “Even the Rain” is a powerful exploration of the ways that things haven’t changed since Columbus’ time, and the people who demonize him engage in practices that might make him blush, it also manages to putting a humanizing face on the exploiters as well. I come away from the film recognizing that few people, now or ever, European, Indigenous, or otherwise, are truly black-hearted and evil. Did Columbus intend to exploit the Native peoples when he set sail? Probably not. But that’s what he did. People are often under terrible pressure to deliver results, and sometimes do horrible, immoral and evil things to each other in order to save their own skin. To do the right thing, sometimes, means to sacrifice; you must die in order to live. Many, regardless of their politics or ideals, will find themselves unwilling to do so when the time comes. This was as true 500 years ago as it’s true now.