by Amarachi Ngwakwe
With glazed eyes, one-year-old Mateo stared into his mother’s face in confusion. When he crossed the border with his father she was a familiar face, but after two months of separation Olivia looked no different than any other stranger who passed by Mateo at this airport where the two were meant to be reunited.
This scene summarizes the pain and loss felt by Mateo’s mother, Olivia Caceres, throughout the short documentary La Historia de Mateo (Mateo’s Story) directed by Malona P. Badelt. The documentary follows the journey of a Salvadorian family and their pursuit to flee violence and legally seek asylum in the United States. The film opens with the family walking in a seemingly never ending exodus of people giving the viewer a sense that this family is one of hundreds that leave their life to begin this journey. Walking eventually transitions to the family lying on top of trains as they cross Mexico, and eventually ends with the family speaking to lawyers near the border as they prepare to appear before the court and request asylum. Wit, documents, and birth certificates in hand, Mateo and his father Fuentes cross the border as a pair, only for Mateo to be separated from his father. Fuentes is sent to a detention facility, and Mateo to a children’s shelter. What follows is Olivia’s struggle to be reunited with Mateo, as safety quickly escalates to trauma.
This storyline of pain and loss is not exclusive to La Historia de Mateo. Throughout the festival, numerous short documentaries offered a lens to social issues around the world. My film review focuses on films from the Austin Film Festival’s Shorts Programs, which featured nine documentary shorts, and the feature documentary Cows with No Name. Of the ten documentaries screened, eight center on topics outside of the United States. The Mortician of Manila, directed by Leah Borromeo, uses the manager of a funeral service business in Manilla, Philippines to paint a picture of the country’s drug war. Dead Woman’s Pass, directed by Lali Houghton, follows a woman’s journey up the Peruvian Andes to discuss in the #MeToo movement and femicide in Peru in relation to her experience in an abusive relationship. He’s Still Fast, directed by Andrew Quinton Holzschuh, is about an Ethiopian refugee who was once an elite runner before being imprisoned and the training he goes through to compete in a major half-marathon. These films all used ordinary people to paint pictures of larger issues. From China to Thailand to France, the festival programming took the audience around the globe under the common theme of trying to find meaning in depravity, as the stories showed the process and aftermath of people losing the things that were most important to them.
But why? While the contexts for the films take place outside of the United States, they parallel central topics that are debated within the U.S. As a result, the short documentary programming creates a reflexive framework for the audience to analyze themselves. Drug wars, refugees, the #MeToo Movement — to name just a few of the topics presented in the documentaries — are all polarizing subjects that dominate the American political landscape. It can be challenging to examine these issues, from the inside with direct connections to the topics, therefore these documentaries allow the audience to step outside of themselves and experience the topic through another person’s lens. These films are able to successfully do that because the social issues are not their focus;, instead the films are created so the viewer becomes invested in the subjects’ journey and consequently all of the outside factors that influence the subject’s life. By placing a majority of the films within international setting, the programming creates another level of distance between the audience and the topics being present allowing the audience to look at the issues more objectively.
In Cows with No Name, directed by Hubert Charuel, a filmmaker documents his parents’ retirement from their dairy farm, and his mother coming to terms with letting go of her beloved cows. Initially, I was skeptical about the significance of a film about a dairy farm in France, but a central problem presented in the film is that dairy farms are closing because young people don’t want to take over farms from their parents. That simple issue has major implications on dairy production and also speaks to the distance between generations. The son did not want to take over his parents’ dairy farm because he wanted to follow his dreams, while his parents from an older generation did not agree with nor understand his aspirations as rational, given the different circumstances they were in when they choose to start their farm. In the United States, different realities experienced and mindsets held by millennials and older generations makes it challenging for either side to understand one another. So within this documentary the audience can both identify with one side while gaining understanding about the other.
Compared to other films, from a technical production standpoint Cows with No Name is not extremely sophisticated; many of the shows were handheld, shaky, and over-exposed. Scenes were long and extended beyond the central action or point the subject served, but through that style that lingered on the moments that many directors would deem unnecessary, Charuel warps time and forces the audience to slow down to make calm and stillness of life and loss on this dairy farm.
Depending on the demographics of the festival, the programming could also be viewed as indicative of the festival’s consciousness of political issues and its position geographically within Austin, the capital of Texas. Immigration on the border, discussions about drug wars, and #MeToo marches are national topics, but Texas has a unique relationship with these subjects because of its border with Mexico. By themselves, these films broadly address different social issues, but when viewed in conjunction they humanize these topics that may be difficult to empathize with when presented through other media. On the news, immigration might be framed as a conversation about how many people it benefits, where are a documentary follows one person who represents a broader issue creating a deeper connection for the viewer. Overall, the short documentary programming took the audience around the world in an effort to show them a different perspective of their own backyard.