Caballerango (2018) played as part of this year’s Camden International Film Festival, which took place from September 12-15, 2019. It will play as part of the Boston Latino International Film Festival tonight, September 27, at the Emerson Paramount Center.
At the 2018 iteration of the Camden International Film Festival I saw one film of extraordinary clarity, Las Nubes (2017), a 21-minute short by director Juan Pablo González comprised of a single long shot taken from the backseat of a moving car. The shot looks through the windshield, leaving the driver, who speaks for the majority of the movie, mostly visible only through the interior rearview mirror—so really the frame is just the vehicle’s interior, the view out the front windshield, and his eyes in the mirror. Although their respective subjects, on some level, are entirely different, Las Nubes (“clouds”) shares much with González’s latest and longest film, Caballerango (“horse wrangler”): Both are nonfiction works that place a heavy emphasis on landscape, both were made in collaboration with cinematographer Jim Hickcox, both document the story of a particular family based in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and both give a central focus to the patriarch of those families, who is in both cases depicted regarding the loss of a child.
The first shot of Caballerango—which is said to feature just 37 shots in total, I haven’t counted—shows a white horse, offset by green nature and a blue sky, as it sits calmly nestled in the center of a wide view that overwhelms it. The second shot is of a man in a car, framed close enough for an interview—and in that it can’t help but recall Las Nubes, despite the composition itself being quite different: The man drives while the camera observes him from the passenger’s seat, and from offscreen a voice that presumably belongs to the filmmaker asks, “José, could you talk about the last time you saw your son?”
The driver, José Bolaños Becerra per the credits, is being prompted to speak about his youngest son, most often referred to as Nando, who has died by suicide. The formal contrast illustrated between these very first two images—a distanced view of landscape and community on the one side, more intimately-composed interview-based scenes regarding Nando on the other—is what shapes and defines González’s feature.
According to its end credits, Caballerango was “filmed in the town of Milpillas in the municipality of Atotonilco el Alto, Jalisco between 2013 and 2017”, with “additional material recorded in the municipality of Ayotlan, Jalisco”. From shots of him at work, we quickly ascertain that José is a horse wrangler on a ranch in the area, and via interview-based scenes we learn that Nando was as well. Those interviews, or conversations—which are mostly conducted with other members of Nando’s family or his former colleagues—quickly begin to allude to additional suicides, or tragic deaths, usually involving other young persons in the Milpillas area. And they also begin to allude to other absences—most prominently farming jobs disappearing as a result of exploitative market rates, and people leaving the village (which is rather small) to go live in America1.
When pushed to speak concretely on the causes or reasons for these absences, the persons being interviewed go silent almost without exception, preferring to speak either abstractly or not at all. Like much of the context surrounding this film (including the information detailed in the footnote marked above), their deepest beliefs, for the most part, seem to go unsaid; documented only by images but not by outright statements. And whether these silences regard, say, labor conditions specific to agrarian work culture (depicted here in a number of scenes, as are some tasks which José undertakes as a horse wrangler), larger socioeconomic concerns (implied by statements usually heard not during interviews but in the background of more traditionally “observed” scenes), or something else entirely is left unclarified by most if not all of the people who speak directly to the camera—people who are often last seen running out of words, and staring off beyond the frame.
González and his crew also compose the film’s images so that during the interview scenes we often see people at work on some other activity while they’re speaking—in one case laboring in a store, in another cooking a meal—reframing the emphasis of those scenes to be as behavioral as they are testimonial, if not moreso. That balance is accomplished with great skill: Even when confronting the spiritual, or the undefinable, Caballerango is exemplary as a document of human physicality, constantly finding something of its character’s respective essences through individual positions and gestures, like the way José occasionally turns his shoulder away from the frame to obscure himself. González captures both micro and macro with his patient camera-eye, letting scenes play out for minutes at a time, always to fruitful ends in terms of both action (which often develops in surprising directions, sometimes even literally, as in one particular “camera movement”) and spectatorship (the form allowing us time to find those details in the frame that reveal a truth which the figures within them dare not speak). One could say that the film exists at the midpoint between “slow cinema” and “experimental nonfiction”, but such a theoretical approach really only reduces what it manages to accomplish. Recording its space with a long and close view alike, framed towards both the cultural and the individual, the visual and the verbal, Caballerango achieves humane portraiture on a vast scale.
1. One such young person transplanted to America may indeed be the filmmaker himself. González is from the Atotonilco del Alto area, and now teaches in the film directing program at the California Institute of the Arts, though he of course returns home regularly—per an interview published by Sightline Magazine—in part to continue ongoing film projects. In that same interview, the filmmaker clarified his connection to the place where Caballerango was produced: “I started going [to Milipillas] as a kid because someone gave a horse to our parents and they did not have a place to keep it nor did they know how to take care of it,” he said via email. “Milpillas was famous for its horse wranglers so my parents rented a stable there from Jesús Bolaños, José’s brother… [later,] José and Nando worked on my father’s ranch for many years.”
CABALLERANGO PLAYS AS PART OF THE BOSTON LATINO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL ON 9.27 AT THE EMERSON PARAMOUNT CENTER, 6PM. FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE SCREENING OR THE FESTIVAL, SEE BLIFF.ORG. THE FILM IS ALSO CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FOR ACADEMIC PURPOSES VIA GRASSHOPPER EDUCATIONAL. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE CAMDEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, SEE POINTSNORTHINSTITUTE.ORG.