'The Ballad of Oppenheimer Park': Cinema du Reel Review

Courtesy of Fragua Cine
A poetic look at First Nations people living on the edge.

Mexican filmmaker Juan Manuel Sepulveda captures life in a Vancouver park.

Many major cities have, or at least used to have, a public park where social protests and social vagrancy could sometimes collide. In New York it was Tompkins Square Park. In Berkeley it was People’s Park. In Tokyo it’s Meiji Park, where the 2020 Olympics will take place. And in Vancouver it's clearly Oppenheimer Park, a few acres of green that's home to a small community of First Nations people who live, sleep, drink and drug themselves there, staking claim to land that once belonged to their ancestors.

Capturing the daily struggle and insobriety of the park’s inhabitants in a manner that recalls Lionel Rogosin’s classic 1956 study, On the Bowery, Mexican director-cinematographer Juan Manuel Sepulveda offers up an intimate group portrait that can be both heartbreaking and hilarious, focusing on a few lost souls banding together against the raw deal handed to their tribes. After premieres in Cartagena, Guadalajara and Paris, The Ballad of Oppenheimer Park (La Balada del Oppenheimer Park) deserves further exposure on the fest circuit and beyond.

It’s rare to see a filmmaker getting this close to such self-destructive subjects, and the various inhabitants we spend time with — Bear, Harley, Dave and Janet, among others — are the kind of people you’d probably avoid walking by, let alone engaging with. Yet they somehow gave Sepulveda access to their world, allowing him to capture scenes of quiet anguish and dead drunk celebration as they talk, laugh, sleep, fight and otherwise lounge around, while staging a few demonstrations against city government. (Oppenheimer Park is located in a part of Vancouver that’s home to one of Canada’s largest Native reserve populations, although the park itself remains city property.)

Many of the characters — especially Bear, who was obviously nicknamed for his size — have a fatalistic brand of humor and a sharp sense of repartee, making us laugh more than one would expect given the circumstances these people find themselves in. Yet all the banter, binging and, yes, crack smoking, only seem to deepen the wound inflicted upon the First Nations people throughout history, leaving them, in this case, with just a few acres of park land they shouldn’t even be occupying. When, at one point, a drunken Bear grabs the camera and erupts into a slurred speech about how a “warrior has got to stand strong,” it may be one of the saddest acts of protest ever recorded.

Sepulveda — who shot Michael Rowe’s Cannes Camera d’Or winner, Leap Year — has an eye for capturing such moments of distress and hilarity, letting shots run on if they need to and framing his characters in golden natural light. He’s also chosen a cast of born performers, and though we are clearly in documentary territory, Bear and co. have an almost theatrical way of expressing themselves. In one memorable sequence, Neil Young’s “The Needle and The Damage Done” plays somewhere in the background while in the foreground, a man poetically mimes shooting up heroin and zoning out.

Some could accuse the director of making “poverty porn” by focusing on so much debauchery and idleness, but as The Ballad of Oppenheimer Park progresses, the socio-political implications of the people and place depicted become increasingly clear. When, towards the end of the film — which only last 70 minutes, though its lack of narrative content may put off some viewers — we see the group attempting to perform a burial ceremony, only to be reprimanded by a parks department worker, the historical tragedy of their situation is suddenly laid bare: Even on this scrap of ancient tribal land, there’s not much room for living, and there’s no place for the dead.

Production companies: Fragua Cinematografia, Zensky Cine
Director: Juan Manuel Sepulveda
Screenwriters: Juan Manuel Sepulveda, David Cunningham
Producers: Juan Manuel Sepulveda, Elsa Reyes, Isidore Bethel
Director of photography: Juan Manuel Sepulveda
Editors: Isidore Bethel, Leon Felipe Gonzalez, Juan Manuel Sepulveda
Sales: Fragua Cinematografia

In English
71 minutes