The movements of grief are intricate, penetrating, and cyclical. American culture offers few collective rituals that honor this complexity, and so the work of creating them often falls to individuals and artists.
These very internal and reflective days are a fine time to bring two such works – “El Lobo y La Paloma” and “The Infiltrators” – into our homes.
During this pandemic, as many people navigate many different griefs in unprecedented solitude, we can find special solace and wisdom in the danced and spoken rites of the multidisciplinary flamenco work “El Lobo y La Paloma (The Wolf and The Dove), created, choreographed, and performed by Lindsey Bourassa, captured as a film by Scott Sutherland and David Camlin, and now streaming online.
In a work inspired by the loss of her father, local flamenco master Bourassa, in the role of The Griever, brings together dance, Arabic music, poetry, and visual art to tell a story of loss and a journey between worlds. Shot during a live 2018 performance in South Portland, the film not only documents the work of its dancers, musician, and singer, but also beautifully enhances the visual elements of the project.
“El Lobo y La Paloma” is part filmed performance, part art film, a lyrical, meditative, visionary exploration of the experience of loss – loss of a person, an identity, or even a country. “The griever grieves in order to heal,” we’re told, and “the music guides our suffering.”
In this way, the dance of “El Lobo y La Paloma” is a psychological and spiritual journey experienced through both the physical movements of the body and the narrative movements of classical flamenco forms. Over the course of 12 chapters, Bourassa moves through a variety of traditional palos, or specific flamenco dances – for example, a Soleá, traditionally steeped in the emotions of love and loss, during the chapter called “Sudden Solitude,” in the immediate aftermath of death.
Accompanying Bourassa are beloved local oud virtuoso Tom Kovacevic, performing his own Arabic-influenced compositions; singer and song composer Talal Alzefiri, performing vocals sung in Arabic; and dancer Megan Keogh on palmas, flamenco’s percussive clapping, and in the role of The Wolf.
The Wolf, we learn in narration by Kovacevic, is a symbol of “facing death with dignity and courage” and “going into the unknown,” while The Dove is a “spirit messenger” who makes possible “communication between worlds.” We see them visualized in striking animistic paintings by Khosro Berahmandi, a Montreal-based Iranian artist, in which these animal-spirits travel on boats, lift wings, reach toward the moon. Each has a role in guiding The Griever, and we experience her progress via narrated poetry – some written by Bourassa, some by her father – as well as the strains of Arabic lyrics.
The verses in English are bright and lyrical, alive with both ritualistic and natural imagery – veils and serpentine cycles alongside brine, foam, and shells; thoughts tuck themselves away “like hermit crabs that make their beds in mollusk shells.” Some songs are inspired by traditional Bedouin song, one by legendary flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla, and this tapestry of disciplines and influences conjures a rich spiritual and imagistic landscape, as well as a sense of myth that is living, dynamic.
Between words, paintings, and video, one image aligns with another in striking ways. “The ancients keep wisdom in tinctures on the tongues,” the narrator intones, as we watch water pool and rush; footage of starlings spiraling in the sky is superimposed over a painting of The Dove.
Bourassa’s stage performance of “El Lobo y La Paloma” included these images, projected on the back wall, but the film makes them immersive and brings yet more hypnotic layers to the project. Ocean waves and sand are not just projected behind but superimposed over and through the dancers, sometimes in kaleidoscopic mirror images. Footprints in shifting sand serve as a counterpoint to The Griever’s vital, seeking feet. We sometimes see Bourassa’s form as ghostly doppelgangers, with multiple iterations and angles of her body visible in the same moment.
I saw the performance in South Portland two years ago, and watching Sutherland and Camlin’s subtle and inventively wrought film has deepened my sense of the synthesis achieved by the project’s many elements.
And even if the film had merely documented the production, the intimacy of the cameras’ angles affords rich extra pleasures: We get up breathtakingly close to Bourassa’s swoon-inducing, exquisitely fast footwork, then watch the remarkable golden ratios of her body’s movement from a birds-eye view, and finally move close to her face to see the pain and bravery of The Griever.
After the most intense and percussive of Bourassa’s dancing, there often open up long moments of silence and slow, minimal movement, when we can focus exclusively on the simple power of Bourassa’s extended arms and expressive gaze. These moments bring us back to the fact of the physical form, the human body, within which these complex, impossible-seeming feats of grief and healing unfold.
“El Lobo y La Paloma” reminds us what a mystery it is – and what a miracle – that a body can hold and transform so much.
Sometimes grief and suffering call for internal healing, and sometimes they call for other kinds of action, different modes of bravery and journey.
“I believe none of us is free if one family is suffering from deportation or separation,” says a young man named Marco Saavedra. He is undocumented. And yet where his conviction compels him to travel, intentionally, is inside a border detention center.
Marco is a member of a visionary activist group of young DREAMers, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, who work for the release of unjustly detained undocumented people. They’ve been contacted by the son of a detainee named Claudio Rojas – who was arbitrarily arrested in front of his house and family one day as he took out the trash – and NIYA’s strategy has just gone radically stealth.
First Marco, and later his comrade Viridiana Martinez, are seeking to secure releases undercover-style, from the inside out. And so up they walk to the border patrol station of Broward County, Florida, to get themselves arrested.
This actually happened back in 2012, and we watch their mission unfold through both documentary footage and dramatic enactments in “The Infiltrators,” a provocative and fully thrilling hybrid documentary by Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra. It’s screening online now as part of the Portland Museum of Art films, in co-presentation with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and Presente Maine.
Being hybrid, “The Infiltrators” presents a few film idiosyncrasies to get used to as we settle into the story. We’re introduced to the real Marco, Viri, and Claudio, who we see variously in interviews, YouTube videos, and some verite footage, even as we cut back to actor versions of Marco (Maynor Alvarado), preparing to go inside, and Claudio (Manuel Uriza), already inside a dramatized detention center.
At first, this meeting of genres, the tectonic plates of documentary modes and even different narrative film styles, is a little jarring. “A year ago, I was reading Kafka,” says actor-Carlo in dramatic voiceover, as we gaze at drone shots of the detention center. “Now, I was living it.”
Elsewhere, the film embraces the comedy of the situation: “What can I do for you,” the border agent says warily to Carlo, who’s just walked up to be arrested, and who replies, after a perfect, trailer-ready comedic beat: “Um, hi.”
As the older Claudio takes Carlo under his wing in detention, we lean into the story archetype of an older man showing a younger the ropes of prison. And of course, once the phone numbers and documents are being smuggled in, out, and between detainees, we have the tropes of the prison-break flick.
Meanwhile, we watch verite footage of twentysomething NIYA members, serious and laser-focused on action phone calls, then endearingly goofy and playful in a restaurant booth, telling the cook about their scheme as Viri casually checks her make-up, everyone melting into laughing agreement when the cook, smiling, says to her, “So, you’re the bait.”
While at times the narrative writing feels a little on-the-nose, especially as set against this much looser extemporaneous doc footage, the aggregate of styles comes to feel like a high-energy, slightly chaotic whole, as well as a kind of extension of the different modes in which these activists engage – now giddily themselves, now playing various roles.
Watching the real Viri prepare for this transition herself demonstrates the film’s hybrid methods at their most bracing. While the real Marco seems already to have been inside when filming began, the filmmakers are along for the ride as the group drives the real Viri up to the real Border Patrol in a Mustang, ask if she wants a shot of Patròn, and then track her approach to the agent. Once she’s inside, of course, we switch to the actor Viri (Chelsea Rendon) – and with this shift comes an odd sense of disorientation, even of loss.
Dramatic enactments in documentaries are an inherently risky business, and especially so, you’d think, when the actual subjects are just a quick cut away from the actors playing them. But in “The Infiltrators” the approach proves to be not just a narrative necessity, but an impressively savvy rhetorical device: To watch a character be finally released from detention and also, as a result, from their portrayal by an actor – that is, to regain their agency in self-portrayal – is a powerful and viscerally satisfying resolution.
For all the serotonin of NIYA’s successes, “The Infiltrators” leaves us with a clear sense of the challenges ahead, both for individual characters and for the nation – continued required check-ins with ICE, for Claudio; the 2016 election, for everybody. And in fact, Claudio was detained for deportation just before the Miami premiere of the film.
A world of work remains to be done, and a crucial part of it is the act at which “The Infiltrators” succeeds most formidably: bringing to the fore the human stories behind an issue that’s so often discussed in contentious abstractions.
Finally, “The Infiltrators” presents these young NIYA activists as the new Civil Rights workers of our era. They are bright, creative, brave enough to put themselves on the line, and motivated above all by love, by the desire the end suffering inflicted on our neighbors and our nation, which is to say, on ourselves.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Art at home
• Speedwell Projects Live has a range of interesting literary people lined up to Zoom-talk about interesting things: On May 7, Mitchell Rasor talks about Patti Smith, May 13 features poet Cate Marvin conversing with author Bill Roorbach, May 21 is Jocelyn Lee and author Debra Spark on Lee’s forthcoming book, and May 28 brings together poet/bookstore maven Gary Lawless and fiction writer/publisher Agnes Bushell. All talks start at 7 p.m.; go to https://www.speedwellprojects.com/speedwell-live for links.
• For some fresh documentary stories by a new crop of documentarians, tune in to WMPG for “All Things Reconsidered,” a live broadcast of the final projects of students at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, on May 7 at 7 p.m. For more info and the streaming link, visit https://www.meca.edu/academics/graduate/salt/salt-spring20.
• Finally, need some old-fashioned comic relief? Freeport Players is offering a live online performance of Abbott and Costello’s classic diversion “Who’s on First?” featuring David Webster and Adam Normand, May 9 at 7 p.m. Watch at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86475497516.
— Megan Grumbling