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Revered by troubled dreamers the world over not only for his politics but also for the famed austerity of his personal life, Jose Mujica, the former president of Uruguay, for many people seems to speak an inspirational new political language. The words of the elderly Mujica — a humble, soft-spoken figure who looks like a retired farm laborer rather than a retired politico — structure Guillermo Garcia Lopez’s Fragile Balance, a clear-sighted first documentary about the socio-economic mess we’re making of our world, but it also comes with suggestions from Mujica about how to change it for the better.
In Spain, the film’s quiet message of hope in embattled times, a hope embodied by the figure of Mujica himself, has generated positive buzz and also far better box office than normal for a doc. This being, for better or worse, a globalized world, there’s no reason why Balance should not strike out beyond the Spanish border: Its clear message about our current political confusions and their effects on our lives deserves to resonate internationally.
The pre-credits sequence is pretty depressing, taking in interviews with would-be African immigrants living rough on Mount Gurugu in Morocco who are aiming to break into Europe via nearby Spain, a middle-aged Madrid man evicted from his home for not paying the rent, and a wealthy Japanese executive worried that his life lacks meaning. Typical of the film’s sharp eye, there’s a focus pull from a homeless man shivering in the streets to a shop window mannequin, wearing a warm wooly hat. And if all that wasn’t disheartening enough, the sequence ends with train driver’s cab footage of a man detaching himself from the crowd to throw himself onto tracks.
“The living world is a fragile balance,” Mujica tells us, and it would seem, on this evidence, that we’re far from getting that balance right. The film goes on to amplify these three scenarios, largely by juxtaposing Mujica’s words with cannily edited, often ironic images, of cityscapes and of lots and lots of people going about their lives, all over the world, as Zeltia Montes‘ minimalist, gentle score plays along. Mujica speaks almost in proverbs — “we have the means to make a more liveable, less selfish world,” “Politics is about useless power debates, never about solving problems” — which are of course cliches, but they garner extra authority when spoken by someone who has been not only an idealist, but also a president. (At the time of shooting, he still held that position.)
The Mount Gurugu interview sequences do bring over the massive injustice inside the phrase “illegal immigrant.” These people are too often presented by the media as a danger, as shown here in footage of them scaling, falling from, and being beaten beside the high fences that keep them from entering Spain. “This is the 21st century, I shouldn’t have to live in a wood,” one of them complains; and even if they do enter Spain, of course, their problems will be far from over.
The Madrid interviews with evicted people — one of them a middle-aged man who ground himself into poverty paying for his wife’s hospital bills — and the footage of the evictions themselves are equally harrowing, and equally designed to jolt viewers out of their comfort zone. But what gives Fragile Balance its extra dimension of perspective, over the multiple documentaries that have been made on these subjects, are the Japanese sequences, largely built around a quiet conversation between two stressed, unhappy Tokyo businessmen who are questioning the degree to which work is dominating their lives.
Because even the corporate workers are unhappy slaves. Images of masses of executives moving in absolute silence — and solitude — through the streets on their way to work, sleeping exhausted on trains, and yes, lying down on street benches to sleep in their suits, as though they were homeless people, damningly reveal that there are indeed global balances that are not being struck, to the detriment of even those who, on our current value system, would seem to have gotten it right.
“Life itself is the greatest good,” says Mujica, going on to declare that we must govern ourselves, rather than letting the market govern us. He ends by pointing out the difference between altruism and solidarity: He prefers the latter, he says, and the notion brings to an apt conclusion an inspiring but unsentimental film that has been made precisely to generate the very solidarity of which Mujica speaks.
Production company: Sintagma Films
Cast: Jose Mujica, Mamourou Dembele, Andres Gonzalez Manzano, Taisuke Mori
Director, screenwriter: Guillermo Garcia Lopez
Producers: Pedro Gonzalez Kuhn, Guillermo Garcia Lopez
Executive producers: Pablo Godoy-Estel, David Casas Riesco
Director of photography: Pablo Bürmann
Editors: Guillermo García Lopez, Victoria Lammers
Composer: Zeltia Montes
Sales: Sintagma Films
No rating, 83 minutes
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