Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The endless afternoons of Paraguay

I haven't left the bus station at Retiro when I am already flashing the cash to get all my luggage on the bus to Asunción. I am relieved, though. I've gotten a gargantuan additional bag on the board for 2,5 euros - not much per extra kilo. And I suppose the bus assistant was happy too: he gained ten times the tip he usually would recieve per bag, even though this one took two men to lift.

At the border in Puerto Falcon the corruption reveals an uglier face. A Paraguayan family is forced to pay 350 pesos - around 80 euros, a huge sum for poor people - for a minor mistake in the paper work. In Paraguay, South America's most corrupted country, bribery is the way of life. The forgotten country is the third poorest in the continent, a surrealistically sleepy, isolated backwater. Yet there are shiny, brand new Mercedez-Benzes rolling around the capital.

The fields of war

History of the country - sad and tragic, like most histories are here in south - is stained with the usual bloody dictatorships and two of the most bizarre wars fought on the continent.

In 1865 megalomanic and obviously mad dictator Francisco Solano López declared a simultaneous war on Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Allied forces outnumbered the Paraguayan ten to one. For five years the insane war dragged on. Half of the population of the country was annihilated. In the end of the war, 12 year old boys were dying at the front lines.

Equally pointless Chaco War of 1932-1935 against Bolivia was especially tragic for the involvement of the greedy foreign businesses in starting the whole conflict. Unclear border of Chaco region had been raising tensions between the two countries for years, and Bolivia - left land-locked in the War of Pacific against Chile (on which the Bolivians bear grudge to this day) - was hoping to get at least an equivalent of a sea-shore port by forcing it's way to Río Paraguay. Yet what in the end sparked the full scale war in 1932 was the handiwork of the usual suspects, the international oil companies. These started to speculate on petrol resources in the region and used the local armies to settle their competition, Shell backing up Paraguay and Standard Oil co-operating with Bolivia. Guerilla tactics and fighting conditions favoured the eventually triumphant Paraguayan forces against the much stronger Bolivian army. War left 80,000 dead. Oil was never found.

...and a Paraguayan hammock

This is the backdrop of the Hamaca paraguaya, the first feature length film by the Paraguayan director Paz Encina (b.1971), from year 2006. Hamaca has been gathering awards and praise in the festival circuit around the world, including a FIPRECHI-award at Festival de Cannes. A minimalistic film, melancholic, lyrical and beautiful. Suggestive, surprising, extremely original. Opens your heart and lingers in your soul. In the words of the critics.

Paraguay, 1935. An aging farmer couple, Cándida and Ramón, are waiting for their son to return from the war. And waiting for the rain and wind to take away the heat. Like Beckett's sad clowns waiting for Godot, their waiting seems hopeless from the beginning. Thunder is rumbling in the heavy, grey sky, amid barking of their son's dog and omnipresent noise of locusts. But the rain drops never fall. Days are spent sitting in a hammock, going through petty arguments and fighting through the daily routines. Cándida is tired of waiting and tries to convince Ramón that their son is dead. Ramón decides to firmly believe in their son's return. Until both hear news that their son is almost certainly dead and the tables turn. Both decide to keep the news to themselves and Cándida starts to firmly deny the death of her son. It's better to keep on waiting. Someone must keep on hoping or the world will end.

Film moves on in a hypnotic, dreamy pace. At the same pace as the life in this country. There is something ageless about the film, as there is something ageless about Paraguay. In the film the past and the present melt together under the blazing heat of Paraguayan autumn. Dialogue moves separate from the static, long shots that rarely dare to move close to the characters. Sometimes we hear conversations from the past, their son leaving to war, sometimes we hear arguments of the moment, in sync with images. And in a similar fashion, on the streets of Asunción you can simultaneously exist in a time and place that has remained unchanged for centuries and shop in desolated malls for the latest eletronic gadgets, from iPod Touches to fanciest Nokias.

Finally, in the end, when the couple decides to keep on waiting, it becomes apparent that the future will be the same as the present, like the present is the same as the past. Cándida and Ramón are still sitting somewhere in the end of the world, in the netherworld of the Paraguayan country-side, waiting.

No comments: