I assume many readers of this site take an active interest in the filmmakers and films comprising what critic Robert Koehler has called “the cinema of in-betweeness.” Each year now seems to bring a couple more of these mysterious objects, and while some are undoubtedly richer than others, it’s fascinating to see how their reversible reality effects work across a global range of social situations (see Dennis Lim’s New York Times article for an overview). The mere blurring of documentary and fiction doesn’t really account for the films under consideration, and the wavering truth of observational footage is not news (John Grierson’s oft-quoted description of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality” is just inexact enough to hold up). The films that Koehler and Lim write about devise quixotic methods to register the resistance of their making. These formal strategies are inextricably linked to the representation of poverty, labor and cultural difference—subjects which, after all, are the bedrock of documentary photography.
Oliver Laxe’s debut film, You Are All Captains (Todos vós sodes capitáns), charts its own beguiling course through this terrain. Unlike many of the other films mentioned in Lim’s article, it has a sense of humor—in large part thanks to Laxe’s onscreen performance as a “neocolonialist” filmmaker (his term). It is true that Laxe moved from Spain to Tangiers several years ago and began to lead film workshops there for underserved kids. You Are All Captains reflects this experience, though not literally as a diary or reenactment. The quixotic nature of the film is revealed early on, when a stern teacher stands in front of the classroom to ask the students if they want to help Oliver make his movie. The film will be about gestures, she explains, so that “foreigners” can understand Moroccans (gestures, we might note, cannot be reenacted but only imitated). A few cuts later, Laxe himself is at the chalkboard, explaining in French how a camera lens works. Another adult translates, but the children are visibly bored and perplexed.
The brief sequence tells us that the world is necessarily transfigured when made into an image—and that the filmmaker may be at a loss as to communicate this fact. Before this, there is unframed beauty: the grainy black of the opening credits and the simple sound of a birdsong. We see children framed as if heroes, looking at something we do not at first see. Laxe explains that he shot in black-and-white to avoid Morocco’s easily exoticized color palette, though You Are All Captains’ modest views are certainly beautiful. The lyrical figures of children at play, at times reminiscent of Zéro de conduite, buoy the film’s epistemological uncertainties.
And yet, with the second sequence introducing “the movie” and Laxe’s performance, we are warned not to understand the film’s images too quickly. In a Q&A following a screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Laxe spoke of being “obliged” to put himself in the film as a kind of cipher (or unreliable narrator—shades of Buñuel’s Las Hurdes) in order to deflect a somber view of the children that would turn them into objects of humanitarianism, miserablism, or any other –ism that presumes to transcend the shaky ground of actual human relations. You Are All Captains inverts the standard narrative codes of observational documentary by dramatizing the filmmaker’s intervention in his subjects’ lives and minimizing our desire to read their existence as a contained story.
There are several instances in which ethnocentric tropes are turned on their head, most comically when several of Laxe’s students train their cameras on a parade of German tourists, one of whom mutters, “They should ask permission before they film us." At other junctures, a pair of Moroccans follow Laxe through a hectic street, pestering him for jobs on the film; a boy-actor complains that Laxe can return to Spain whenever he feels like it while they’re stuck in his movie; and, in an especially precipitous moment, another boy faces the camera and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, no one cares about you.” During a meta-critique staged by skeptical teachers, the children grouse that Laxe ignores their ideas and that, anyway, his film isn’t any good—just a “salad” of disparate scenes (this one is an interesting refraction of the “talkback” in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un éte). Soon after this, the onscreen Laxe is banished from the film. Before he leaves, he persuades a nimble local named Shakib to take his place. The second half of You Are All Captains drops the relatively frenetic, destabilized documentary-style for long takes unfolding in a pastoral elsewhere.
One of the conundrums of filming a fiction just next door to reality is that even when artifice is deliberately acknowledged, we still feel the pinch of truth. Perhaps it’s a bit like when a judge rules a lawyer’s question inadmissible—the jury doesn’t so easily “disbelieve” what it has heard. Thus, an audience member at one of the Vancouver screenings earnestly invoked a woman who tells Laxe’s character that he should be ashamed for staging a scene in which the children pretend to steal a chicken—it was clear the audience member took this exchange as "actuality" even though the same woman has just before told the shopkeeper (apparently between takes) that she’s a hired actress. In any case, Laxe puzzles our comprehension in the spirit of a surrealist game rather than a didactic lecture. I suppose one could offer a psychoanalytic reading of his decision to embody the neocolonialist filmmaker, only to extricate this version of himself from the film, but I find myself more interested in the insolubility of the images which remain after his disappearance. Having shown filmmaking to be a contested process, Laxe arrives at clarified visions of tenderness in the film’s extended epilogue. We begin to see things that children said they would like to film during the talkback session—animals, olive trees, ruins. The question of whose imagination is operating is thoroughly tangled in ontological doubt at this point, but the effect on the audience is rather simple: we see what we would not have otherwise seen. There are several shots that tease us into thinking we’re at the end, but the diminuendo presses on, interminable even if just for a little while. In one of these shots, Laxe holds the foreground in focus for a long time after Shakib’s battalion travels into the recess of the frame. The film must end, but You Are All Captains’ borrowed lives are not bound by this fact.