Drought: LAFF Review

Drought Film Still LAFF - H 2012

Drought Film Still LAFF - H 2012

A tough and poetic depiction of some of the last cowboys in North America.

Everardo González's documentary offers a multifaceted picture of life in Cuates de Australia, the name of a communal ranch near the Texas border.

Its English title might suggest a film organized around a climate-change theme, but Drought is, rather, a cinematic meditation on ranchero culture in northeastern Mexico, where waiting for rain has become a way of life. It’s a tough existence that, on the evidence of Everardo González’s potent, mostly vérité essay, might not be sustainable much longer. Competing in the documentary section at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Drought is a worthy fest item whose portrait of modern-day cowboys could be an art-house or video draw in select markets.

Over the course of three years’ shooting, González captured a multifaceted picture of life in Cuates de Australia, a communal ranch near the Texas border (whose name is the original title of the film). An experienced director and cinematographer, González begins his documentary with images of fecundity in the desert setting: successful nighttime hunting, horses mating, a young rancher and his wife gazing happily at the ultrasound of their unborn child.

Gradually the extreme challenges of this remote-plains subsistence become clear. A woman explains to a census taker that the workday begins “when God rises,” and a man, addressing the camera, emphasizes the suffering involved in working the land. For the residents of this spread in the state of Coahuila, the cycle of drought is a matter both practical and metaphysical. As the rains grow scarce, those who aren’t watching the skies are dowsing for water using forked branches. The film observes the ranching families’ annual exodus from the parched parcel but doesn’t follow them to the various places where they wait out the dry season.

Yet adapting to adversity is but one aspect of Drought. González’s nimble camerawork catches card games, fiestas and horse races, a dance lesson for teens, and the comic grandstanding of a tough-talking young boy. There are also a couple of grim scenes of animals being slaughtered; the ranchers’ and farmers’ relationship with their animals — mostly cattle, horses and beast-of-burden burros — is utilitarian. When they scatter to less arid territory, the animals left behind suffer, as unblinking footage of their carcasses, and the attendant vultures and coyotes, attests.

As he intended, González’s feature transcends the genre of ethnography; he has shaped his eye-opening chronicle with a powerful aesthetic sensibility. Pablo Tamez and Matías Barberis’ ambient sound is a fine complement to the visuals. Further heightening the material’s impact, to haunting effect, are 1970s recordingsof cantos cardenches — folk songs that are, fittingly, named after a type of cactus.With their aching melancholy, these a cappella numbers for three voices are the perfect accompaniment to the understated drama unfolding in this dusty terrain.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
A Cienega Docs and Foprocine production, with the support of the Tribeca Film Institute and Jan Vrijman Fund
(In Spanish with English subtitles)
Director-writer: Everardo González
Producer: Martha Orozco
Directors of photography: Everardo González, Eduardo Herrera
Editors: Felipe Gómez, Clementina Mantellini
No MPAA rating, 84 minutes.