Say you want to be a documentary filmmaker, and you’ve been given the opportunity to make only one film in your life. What subject would you choose?
Fortunately, the world is vast, and so too the interests of the people in it. Sex, crime and politics are natural documentary subjects sure to draw a film festival crowd– bonus points if your subject has all three and great music too.
But if you wanted to get to the root of the passing show that surrounds us, to reveal something true and lasting about the human condition, where would you point your camera? For my money, local filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin of Carnivalesque Films have found an answer in their beautiful and profoundly moving film Intimidad, one of the documentaries in competition at this year’s AFI Dallas film festival.
The film follows Cecy and Camilo, a young Mexican couple, as they try to save enough money to buy some land and make a life for themselves and their young daughter, Loida. On his blog on Guide Live.com’s The Screening Room, local critic Chris Vognar, whose writing about film I like a lot, calls Intimidad a “slight, but bracingly intimate portrait…” I think Intimidad is anything but slight. In Cecy’s and Camilo’s struggle, the filmmakers find a way to represent both the foundations of human happiness and the forces that eat away at it. The subject of the film is as big as it gets, and in my view the simplicity and economy of the way the story is told contribute to both its power and its ultimate significance.
Watching Cecy and Camilo work out the economic challenges and emotional conflicts involved in pursuing their dream, I thought of Thoreau, who famously went to the woods to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…” Cecy and Camilo don’t have to go to the woods to confront “the essential facts of life,” and in trying to build a home for themselves on the U.S.- Mexican border, they have no choice but to live deliberately. But despite the differences of culture and context, the rewards of this film satisfied me in ways that reminded me of Walden, and of Leaves of Grass, too, in which Walt Whitman found so much to celebrate in aspects of the world that by the standards of his time were considered too humble to be the subject of proper poetry.
Of course, Whitman’s poetry was also considered too intimate for his day. In Spanish-English dictionaries, “intimidad” gets translated as both “intimacy” and “privacy,” two words with very different connotations. Intimidad invites the viewer to consider both. Cecy and Camilo live their private lives out in the open, both emotionally and in terms of their physical living conditions, and the absence of privacy in this sense helps create an unusual degree of intimacy.
In conversation with Krys Boyd this past week on KERA’s Think, available via podcast, Redmond and Sabin said that their initial idea was to explore the political and economic issues surrounding the production of Victoria’s Secret bras in a maquila factory on the U.S.- Mexico border. A complex subject of international significance. Politics with a hint of sex– and of crime, too, depending on whether you think Mexican workers are exploited. In short, a perfect festival film.
Meeting Cecy and Camilo offered the filmmakers a risky choice to narrow their focus, to spend the next four years following the fortunes of an ordinary family in the midst of making choices that we all make to some degree, choices that– however ordinary– create the very fabric of our lives on earth.
It’s our good fortune that Sabin and Redmond made the courageous and compassionate choice they did– and that they found in Cecy and Camilo a couple of equal compassion and courage. As it turns out, I don’t think the filmmakers’ embrace of the personal has resulted in an abandonment of the political. Empathy makes it possible to cross a lot of borders, and at the very least, Intimidad provides ample evidence that the pursuit of happiness in the form of what we used to call “the American Dream” is something we share with the rest of the world.
Intimidad will be shown on Tuesday, April 1, at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday, April 2, at 10:00 p.m., and Friday, April 4, at 1:15 p.m. Check AFI Dallas for screening locations.