Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Tale of Two Apartheids: "Zona Sur" ("Southern District", 2009)

Sundance award-winning Zona Sur is director Juan Carlos Valdivia’s fourth film, a production that he's proud to say has given him a lot of satisfaction. Which just so happens to be a feeling that eludes practically every character in the story  like in all good dramas. So far, muy bien

The movie is shot almost entirely in the wealthy residence of an upper crust Bolivian family, within one of capital city La Paz’s most affluent neighborhoods (Zona Sur / Southern District). It is a story of a decadent but not entirely self-destructive family, headed by a strong matriarch-divorcée (“Carola”). Set in modern-day Bolivia, Valdivia’s slow and continuous camera-panning technique is symbolic of the slow-cooking, social and political changes that Bolivia itself has been undergoing in recent years. While the vast majority of the country is of native Andean heritage, Zona Sur zooms-in on the remnants of a white minority, an unblended European aristocracy that has been gradually losing political, economic, and social relevance – intensified by the rise to power in 2006 of the country’s first native Aymara president (Evo Morales).

Carola lives with her three children, older teens Patricio and Bernarda, and young grade-schooler Andres. Live-in house servants Marcelina and Wilson are natives, often heard speaking to each other in the native Aymara language. Carola, on the other hand, can sometimes be heard calling out Wilson’s name in true Tom Hanks form, recalling that famous scene in Castaway (“Wilsoooon!”)

Patricio and Bernarda are oozing sexuality through their pores, Patricio on a decadently straight path, and Bernarda on a genuinely lesbian one – yet another interesting contrast in this story of contrasts. Meanwhile, young and curious Andres offers a neutralizing element of innocence to the story. With his rooftop and treehouse escapades, along with his imaginary friend SpielbergAndresito ironically provides some grounding to an otherwise flighty family. For her part, Carola always seems to be a heartbeat away from a breakdown, as much as she manages to maintain a front of strength in a vacuum of values. Her relationship with Wilson the butler-cook-chofer-nanny is borderline surreal: she scolds him liberally, has not paid him in six months, asks him to raid her son’s piggy bank to go buy bread, all the while ignorant of the fact that Wilson bathes in her bathroom, uses her towels, and treats himself to Carola’s expensive facial skin creams.

Zona Sur stands on its own merit, you do not need to be a connoisseur of all things Bolivian to experience its human side. Having said that, a little historical background adds a layer of intensity to the experience. So with that in mind, indulge me for a moment as I slowly pan my review into a related commentary... 

The film's trailer mentions an interesting word at one point: "apartheid". While the word is not actually used in the movie, there is a clear and underlying theme of classism and racism. Bernarda utters those same two words in one scene, as she accuses her mother Carola of being both a classist and a racist. But there is a danger of extrapolation here, for audiences that are not intimately familiar with Bolivia's history and social reality. The house in the story, as a "bubble", can give the illusion that the Bolivian native population is suffering from white European oppression in the same way historically found in South Africa, the U.S., or even other Latin American countries like Mexico and Colombia. To be sure there will always be some parallels there, of course. But there is a unique circumstance in Bolivia that makes this story wonderfully different: if you don't pay close attention, you will miss the point that the apartheid here is in a way a "reverse" apartheid.

The part where you have to pay close attention may be considered a “spoiler”, so continue to read at your own risk (personally I don’t think it is a spoiler in the classic sense, but I’ll let you be the judge of that). It could be said that the climax of the story takes place when Carola is visited by two native Bolivian women, dressed in typical native garb. One of them is wheeling a large suitcase, and they are both accompanied by a third woman dressed in business attire. Carola is courteous with them and invites them in for a refreshment. What Carola doesn’t realize is that the two native women are there to buy her out of the house, and the suitcase contains $250,000 in cash. In the other countries I mentioned earlier, such a scene would raise eyebrows and would leave the audience thinking that the natives must be crooked. But outside of our house bubble in the story, Bolivian natives have slowly been taking back their region, politically, socially and economically – since as far back as 1953 (the Agrarian Reform law).

To be clear: “reverse apartheid” taken literally is too strong of a statement, in the sense that the unblended white population of Bolivia is not being forced into basic labor with few or no benefits, or forcibly segregated. My point in this commentary is not to make a political statement as to whether there have or have not been a certain amount of injustices committed by both sides – or who is “winning” that pissing contest. The only point I am trying to make here is that, in a world where stories of revolution and oppression have almost always been clearly delineated along obvious economic and/or racial lines, the social revolution twist in Zona Sur is almost Hitchcockesque to the impartial observer. An appropriate analogy, by the way, if you are familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s extended/slow panning camera technique, most notably used in his masterpiece Rope


Zona Sur Trailer

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