Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 25, 2021 11:12 am 
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Loving rural intimacy that makes self-revelation possible

This superb Mexican documentary is coming on PBS's "POV" series this evening. Shot over a three-year period in the small, impoverished Atlantic coastal fishing town of El Roblito, it is focused most significantly, but notably not at all only, upon a sixteen-year-old boy. Already out as gay to his family since age twelve he now wishes to become a girl and ends by asking his simple parents, in front of his siblings, for permission to dress in women's clothes. That is a kind of climax to a rich and subtle buildup. But this is a film that impresses you not so much, or not only, for its subject matter, as for its intensity and a style that links it with the boldest recent Latin American directors. I'm referring to Carlos Reygadas, Lisandro Alfonso - filmmakers who bring us into a haunted, magical, wild world, with a sense of danger and excitement (the title itself declares it) that draws on native vigor and on the unpredictability and violence of the environment, a sense of immanence, that anything can happen. And here there is a sweet family intimacy that becomes beautiful, enhanced by glowing light and radiant brown skin.

This filmmaker introduces us so casually to his story at first we don't at all know what it is. It relies on the viewer's ability to connect the dots, an apt way to approach someone who is still in process of discovering or making known to others their own story.

In the mangroves of Nayarit, a paramotor operated by a man dressed as Santa Claus drops bags of candy to eager children. At first the camera is up there with him. The kids run to catch the candy, but are they the protagonists? Is the film about their festival? Moments later, a group of them are learning a dance with the help of the smiling, longhaired teenager his family call Noño, who "he" prefers to be called Arturo, and we may also call Dayanara and see as a young trans girl still playing the birth-assigned role of (gay) boy but preferring to be referred to as "she." After this introduction, she travels to an isolated, secluded location with the cameraman-photographer to put on makeup and don a dress and snap herself and be photographed thus.

Eventually it becomes clear that, if the documentary has a protagonist, it is indeed Arturo, because she is the one to whom it always ends up returning. But there are also numerous tangents, from the preparations for the local festivities, to the many children's games and activities - so intimately and kinetically photographed it's almost a tour de force - to a pool of dried blood that's the aftermath of a shooting on the basketball court that serves as a village plaza.

These are moments captured poetically and without explanation. As the children run through the streets, the camera follows them at their eye level, as if to play with them. Photographs with interviews show the filmmaker practically became a member of Arturo's family, and he says he played with the camera like a child to capture the spirit of the children's playing. The town loudspeaker broadcasts announcing in archaic exalted tones the showing of a film or the availability of water, become an authoritative, disembodied voice that dominates the town. Narration is reserved for moments, when Arturo shares something intimate.

Things We Dare Not Do forces its story in abrupt directions. When Arturo finally "comes out" to her parents about wanting to wear dresses, the atmosphere is more tense than hostile; Arturo's parents are trying to process something about a child they have always loved. Arturo sheds tears, and waits for his Papá's decision. It is slow in coming.

An interview article from The Queer Review reveals that the director was inspired or felt obligated by Arturo’s bravery to come out as gay to his own parents before the film premiere. This, his second documentary feature and fourteenth outing as a cinematographer, is a display of both courage and loving intimacy.

Things We Dare Not Do/Cosas que no hacemos, 75 mins., debuted at Toronto (Hot Docs) May 2020, and was featured at Lima in Aug., at DMZ (Korea) Sept., Chicago Oct., DOC NYC and Amsterdam Nov. 2020, Helsinki Jan., Mexico City (FICUNAM) and Ukraine Mar. 2021, Munich (DOK) May 2021, and the list goes on. This second Santamaiía Razo documentary, which was preceded by his 2016 portrait of a street prostitute Margarita, will be shown on PBS in its distinguished POV documentary series on Mon., Oct. 25, 2021 and will be available to stream there until Nov. 25.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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