by Ilene S. Goldman
Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 33-38
The Colombian filmmaking team of Maria Rodríguez and Jorge Silva are well known for a documentary cinema style that combines ethnographic filmmaking with an engaged political cinema. Their work grows out of the New Latin American Cinema movements of the 1960s, combining a mode of filmmaking informed by anthropology with a politically engaged alternative cinema. From their first film CHIRCALES (THE BRICKMAKERS, 1972) to AMOR MUJERES Y FLORES (LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS, 1988), Rodríguez and Silva's works have analyzed the injustices of the lives led by Colombia's lower classes, and their cinematic practice has questioned traditional processes of documentary filmmaking.
LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS deals with the socio-economic and political position of Colombia's flower growers. Specifically, the film documents the health hazards of the country's flower industry, Colombia's second largest export industry. Because the industry employs so many women, the film concentrates primarily on how the pesticides and fumigation affect women workers' health. Although the film depicts, among other things, a women's health issue, the film is not feminist in a North American sense. Rather, it deals with the issue as part of the general condition of Colombia's working classes. In this context, women's struggles are inseparable from class struggle. The film also raises the issue of the health of male workers as well as the damage done to families.
LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS' powerful presentation of the workers' struggle made the film quite controversial when shown on Colombian television. The film's critics were afraid that it would damage Colombian flower sales abroad. Its supporters applauded it for the frankness with which it confronted a serious social issue.
Rodríguez and Silva always intended that their films stir up discussion about important social problems, and this goal has connected them to other Latin American filmmakers. As Rodríguez said in a 1974 interview,
Various forms of politicized cinema emerged in different Latin American countries throughout the 1960s. Many of the directors at that time strove to make films the working class could use, films with which the poor might identify and ones that would help them analyze their own situation. Importantly, this self-aware (self-conscious?) mode of filmmaking has not been limited to any one type of film. It encompasses documentary, narrative fiction and experimental film (and video) making.
The New Latin American Cinema was influenced by Italian neo-realism as well as by John Grierson's social documentary. In the former movement Latin American filmmakers found a cinema
Grierson's work was invaluable to Latin American filmmakers who did not have access to resources for feature filmmaking and needed alternative ways to reach audiences. They took from Grierson not only the concept of the social documentary but also the idea "of documentary as a hammer with which to shape reality" (Chanan, 2). The Latin American cinema that evolved dared to look at the reality of Latin America and its people in order to present a more just reflection, or in the words of Marta Rodríguez, "the real face of [their] people."
These filmmakers found a social and imaginative reality which differed greatly from that which had given rise to new European modes of filmmaking. Latin American cinema had to respond to a reality that was founded upon an oral culture, a tradition of folklore, which incorporated a distinctly Latin American symbolic order. From its earliest moments in the work of Fernando Birri and the Institute of Cinematography at the National University of the Littoral in Argentina, New Latin American Cinema sought an authentically Latin American voice with which to portray the continent's reality. As Michael Chanan notes, the filmmakers' responses to this quest have been varied:
It is not difficult to see how Rodríguez and Silva, as documentarists, fit into the continuum of this search for an authentic Latin American voice. Birri sought
We can locate a comparable driving force behind films like CHIRCALES and LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS.
By working with the community, Rodríguez and Silva work for the community. CHIRCALES highlights a group of brickmakers in the outskirts of Bogota who, within the confines of underdevelopment, maintain a sense of art and artifice in their lives. LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS documents workers' awakening consciousness to the benefits of unionizing. The film presents a facet of the Colombian national identity, industrialized rural labor, to those living in the metropolis. Although the filmmakers have advantages which the brickmakers and the flower growers do not, they, like other New Latin American filmmakers, attempt to use filmmaking to bridge the gap. In films like CHIRCALES, CAMPESINOS (1976) and LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS, Rodríguez and Silva unite city and country into a Colombian people, a society with problems that can only be resolved in an united way.
This is part of the revolutionary function of cinema in Latin America as identified by Birri in 1967:
The "extended investigation" which Chanan attributes to Rodríguez and Silva stems from what Rodríguez has called "anthropological investigation." The approach to ethnography places LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS within the "interactive" mode of documentary filmmaking as theorized by Bill Nichols. According to Nichols.
LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS, like all of Rodríguez and Silva's work, results from extensive fieldwork and interviews. Clearly, the film's success depends on the interaction between the filmmakers and the subjects. Rodríguez and Silva examine the "local knowledge" and present it in a manner which universalizes the people's problems. By interacting with both the film's subjects and the film's audiences, the filmmakers expand on this mode of documentary filmmaking.
The incorporation of the filmmakers' experience into LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS highlights the ethical dilemma of interactive documentary. As the film's epilogue tells us, Jorge Silva died as a result of the tolls of his lifestyle. Viewers might infer that his health was adversely affected by the time spent among the flowers and the pesticides. Perhaps his life was ended and that of his partner, Marta Rodríguez, irrevocably changed by the experience of making this film. This would be an extreme case of a filmmaker's life being affected by documentary filmmaking. The truth of our inference about the cause of Silva's death is irrelevant. Rather, his death before the completion of the couple's last project informs this film, both how it was eventually edited and how the audience reads it. Given the subject matter of the film and the issues and concerns voiced by the women who speak within it, Jorge Silva's death echoes with a raw irony.
The inscription of Silva's death into the text constitutes an abandonment of
This is what Nichols calls the "interventionist gaze" (Nichols, 85). Silva's death
Authorial intervention in this sense plays more of a role in LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS than in Rodríguez and Silva's other work, and here it indicates the constant innovation which has marked their collaboration. As Rodríguez notes in an interview with Dennis and Joan West which appears elsewhere in this issue, the filmmakers realized with LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS that the "militant film language of the 1960s and 1970s had become exhausted — it was no longer viable." LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS provides a segue into a new documentary approach, one which "retains the denunciatory aspect of [Rodríguez and Silva's] films" but which also incorporates poetic and magical dimensions (West interview).
LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS opens with an extended pan across buckets and buckets of colorful carnations. A female voice speaks a litany of all the beautiful thoughts one usually associates with cut flowers.
Finally, the narrator asks what the price of producing beauty is. The response is both spoken and written on the screen: "Jorge Silva, 1985." Identification of the author, perhaps. But it also hauntingly resembles an epitaph. LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS articulates its subtext from the beginning. The viewer can only experience this film with the knowledge that Silva is dead and that his death is a direct result of the production of beauty, either the film or the flowers. This knowledge is potent, informing how one reads the text and continuously reminding the viewer that film, like beautiful flowers, comes from arduous labor. In the last moment of the film, the importance of Silva's role and the gap left by his death are emphasized by a still shot of him, a medium close up in which he holds the camera. This frame sums up his position as cameraman and director. The film's epilogue further punctuates the price of production. As a mime puts a flower on Silva's memorial, the narrator tells us that Jorge Silva died in 1987 at the age of 46, his health broken by his "battle to show the real face of his people." The writing on the screen identifies the narrator, Silva's companion, Marta Rodríguez de Silva.
I have dwelt on the inscription of Silva's death into LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS before discussing the subject documented by the film because I feel that this inscription is integral to how the film works and what it ultimately says to the audience. Rodríguez pays homage to her partner, reminding the viewer that this team made some of Colombia's most powerful documentaries. Further, she admits her personal voice, as filmmaker and woman, in a manner which adds to the viewer's engagement. The filmmaker's life as part of the process of filmmaking has become inextricable from the "real face" of the Colombian people that Rodríguez and Silva set out to portray.
Like Rodríguez and Silva's other work, LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS allows the workers to tell their own stories, either in direct interview format or in a voice over. Talking to an unseen interviewer, the women seem to tell their stories spontaneously. Although LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS is not a narrative, it does single out a few women and universalizes their stories. The film then implies a chronology by the "lifestage" progression constructed through these stories. Knowledge of Silva's death foreshadows the possible/probable manner in which these stories might also end. LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS winds its way up a poisonous path, ending with a workers' strike and death — not of one of the women but of the filmmaker who sought to change the workers' situation by making it public.
Unlike other texts which depict Third World laborers, this film does not didactically point fingers or directly accuse anyone (such as U.S. business) of exploitation. However, the women's tales relentlessly indicate that blame must be laid and changes made. Blame is implicit, constructed so as to emerge as a conclusion drawn by viewers, not as a truism preached by filmmakers. The workers constantly say that the blame for perilous working conditions rests with an unbending management. They complain about management's insensitivity to pregnant laborers, bad working conditions and avoidable safety hazards. One man explains the fumigation process in voice over. On-screen he dons protective gear which covers him from head to toe. He later explains that the women laborers, wearing no protective gear, just keep on working in the areas being fumigated. For the sake of a cash crop, management jeopardizes their health.
No particular flower company is singled out. The problem is industry-wide. The one man who speaks for management blithely comments on how smart and eager his workers are, painfully unaware of the health risks they are forced to take. Although his name is not given, he speaks Spanish with an obviously North American accent. The accent signifies social and economic structures. The filmmakers need give no further hints. They do not have to condemn the North American businessman overtly. He can talk himself into a hole, extolling the superior flower-growing climate of the Plains of Bogota, explaining that he has come from Harvard to found a cash crop industry. The North American man's accent is the rope with which he hangs himself. Alone, it identifies his difference from the workers and explains his indifference to them as individuals.
One of the irrefutable messages of LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS is that in the past twenty years the flower industry has changed the rural landscape physically, economically and culturally. The manager who talks about the region's flower-growing advantages could never see this. Instead, Rodríguez and Silva turn to workers' observations to explore how the Bogota countryside has changed since the flower industry has matured.
As in their previous films, Rodríguez and Silva deal with the entire process of production. Their project is always political but their work does not isolate a single injustice. Clearly influenced by classical Marxist thought, one of their major concerns is the entire production process. Here that includes the devastation of the region. Mother issue that they take up here is the organization of laborers. In dealing with all aspects of production, they have always sought to highlight the human effort involved.
The film gracefully brings women and flowers together. Intertwined with the process of production in LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS is a concern with the process (or cycle) of life and death. The life and death of the flowers depends upon the life and death of the workers. Since this work force is predominantly female, the dangers they face are inextricable from their potential reproduction of human life.
The first woman who speaks sets the tone for the rest of the film. She explains that she went into the flower industry very young and came out herself a withered flower. This is the first of a number of on-camera interviews, most of which recount the hardships experienced by the workers. This particular woman does not tell her story at this point but speaks about the beauty of the flowers and the damage they do to equally beautiful human lives. Such a generalization gives the film its political voice as well as its personal touch.
This speaker's voice and face are followed by an image of the businessman indoors, sitting on a couch playing with a single carnation followed by various images of the Plains of Bogota and the flower fields. In voice over, he speaks about his interest in the flower industry, how complicated it is to grow the carnations, and how the Colombian government had been promoting the development of export industries when he first decided to pursue flower growing. His almost scientific rhetoric contrasts with the woman who opened the film and with the voices which follow him. In fact, much of the first ten minutes of this film sets up a dichotomy between the industrialist who goes about his business and the workers who realize that "like a flower each woman is born with a beauty that must be tended." The industrialist's blindness to the fact that the women wither while flowers thrive is emphasized by images of pregnant women working on their hands and knees and close ups which isolate work-worn faces.
The beginning of LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS depicts the first stages involved in the process of growing flowers. A greenhouse is built, pipes laid, holes punched into the ground and seedlings planted. Intercut with these images are first-person narrations spoken by young women entering the flower industry. A mother tells of how her daughter, against the mother's wishes, began working in flowers because they had "no other options." A young woman recounts how at age 14 her mother sent her off to Bogota to become a domestic laborer. After two years she began to look for other work; by age 19 she was working in the flower industry. Another explains that she entered the flower industry at age 14 and after four years began to have serious health problems. Another, who entered the industry at age 16, bought a bicycle with her first earnings and "then began to get organized and buy other things." For these young women, the flower industry represents a better option than domestic or factory labor even though they are aware of the health dangers involved. Seeking independence and financial security, all of these women turned at a very young age to the flower industry. They seem to have found out quickly that the health risks are enormous but none opts to leave the flower industry, choosing what they see as freedom over good health.
For the most part, the film's images alternate between the direct address interviews and images of the flower growing process accompanied by a voice-over commentary. Discursively, the presentation of the stages of the production process is paralleled by the increasing age of the speakers as well as by the intensifying seriousness of the health problems resulting from the process. Some examples: As a voice over explains the management's insensitivity to pregnant women, every worker shown is pregnant. The women kneel on the ground planting seedlings and pulling weeds. The voice over then tells us that the women are not excused from work for pregnancy without a medical note and that often doctors' appointments are hard to get. Women have had miscarriages and died due to the strenuous labor. A woman, in direct interview, explains that she lost vision in her left eye because of the pesticides used on the flowers. Her interview is intercut with images of women performing the same tasks that cost her her eye: weeding, binding buds, pulling leaves.
The flowers are harvested and taken to the cold room to be cut and packaged. A voice over explains that while working in the colds rooms, one gets covered with pesticide and mud from handling the flowers. The interviewee at this point discusses her epilepsy, which she believes directly resulted from working with the flowers.
On a narrative level perhaps the most frightening story is that of Mariela, who got leukemia after four years in the flower industry. The story is intensified by her fiancé's recounting of their courtship and of the doctor's reaction to the engagement. After telling the couple that they should not have children, he asks the man if he still wants to marry Mariela. When the man says yes, the doctor responds, "Don't come to me in a year or two complaining that you are a widower." Toward the end of LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS we learn that Mariela is four months pregnant. The doctor has taken her off cancer medicine so the baby won't result a "mongrel." The implication: Bringing life into the world may very well end Mariela's life.
The frequent use of close ups adds to the poignancy of the verbal message. We see a series of close ups of eating utensils protruding from workers' pockets as they labor among the flowerbeds. About halfway through the film, another close up shows a bowl of rice in a woman's lap and her hand lifting the rice on a fork. A later shot of the workers on a lunch break punctuates the idea that the pesticides' danger is both external and internal, in short, inescapable.
Close ups also demonstrate how labor-intensive this work is. Women's hands manipulate wire and string to build lattices. Their feet walk up and down rows, framed by the watering hoses. Feet climb up onto benches and hands snap rubber bands around the buds. Frequently the framing cuts off the woman's head but accentuates a pregnant belly. The isolation of body parts does not make these women anonymous or without identity. It universalizes their experiences, making them "any women," not Jane Doe. And the emphasis on pregnancy broadens the effects of the problem — it might cause birth defects or other neonatal health problems. Also, because "there is no other option," the pregnant bellies symbolize an intergenerational problem, something that these workers would clearly prefer to solve rather than pass on.
After being grown and harvested, the flowers are cut, packaged and exported to industrialized countries. They are sold, like stock, at the Amsterdam flower market. Then they are sold by florists to people who take them into their homes. The North American businessman tells us that each Colombian flower is extra special because it has been handled "with pride by a Colombian girl." The "Colombian girl," in what functions as a retort, says that the flowers travel all over the world while the Colombian workers "get more and more ill until in the end we die because of [the flowers]."
LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS climaxes in a workers' strike. Actually, Rodríguez and Silva filmed two separate strikes at different plantations. The strikes are edited together. They represent the culmination of the laborers' realization that workers have to take things into their own hands in order to better their situation. Strike footage is intercut with personal hardship stories of older women who are months behind in their rent and who have had to stand up to a husband in order to participate in the strikes. Intertitles provide data about the strikes in which workers took over flower plantations and demanded better working conditions. The voiceover and direct interviews are angrier at this point. The women speak indignantly about the maltreatment they have suffered and express their commitment to better their situation. LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS emphasizes the strength of the bonds between the women and their growing comprehension of the importance of unity. Another intertitle comments on the outcome of one of these first strikes — "the workers were evicted with tear gas and rifles without the management's recognizing their rights." Before the epilogue there is a coda, an intertitle which reads, "Esto no fue una derrota, esta lucha apenas comienza. Amelia, obrera." ("That wasn't a defeat. The fight is just beginning." — Amelia, a worker)
LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS does not just document the workers' route to unionization. Its broader concerns are with motherhood and family. The workers' struggles, that is, the women's struggles, do not limit themselves to the flowerbeds. The film presents the infamous "double day" of Latin American working class women. The women cook, clean, care for the children, all after a long day's work earning the family's money. The voice over explains that frequently the women have to work and take care of their families alone because their husbands have abandoned them or are abusive. This portion of LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS speaks to the general situation of working class women in Colombia.
The women's struggles are the struggles of a whole class, not only a sector of that class. It is in this part of LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS that we can most readily see the concerns of Latin American feminisms. The issues for which these women agitate fall as consistently under the rubrics of "motherhood" and "family" as they do under the rubric of "worker's health." It is feminism that has thrived at the grass roots level, not unlike very early North American feminism, but it is very different from the feminism that many women theorize and practice in the United States today. We see encapsulated in this particular concern an increasing engagement of Colombia's filmmakers with women's issues — an engagement undoubtedly influenced by thirteen years of filmmaking by Cine Mujer, a women's filmmaking collective in Bogota dedicated to making films by and about women.
In making a film documenting the issue of the working conditions and burgeoning unionization of Colombia's flower workers, Rodríguez and Silva continued in their tradition of filming the "real face of the Colombian people." The evolution of their filmmaking style since CHIRCALES is evident in the direct address that the women and a few of the men make to the camera. Fundamentally, the major concerns are the same — to show the process of production in Colombia and the real faces of the laborers, to portray how the process of production is inseparable from the way the working classes live and what they aspire to, and to highlight the need for organization and reform.
LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS pays particular attention to women and their concerns even as it demonstrates how these concerns are intimately connected to the (re)production of life in Colombia. The women's concerns, the workers' concerns, are of national importance. These elements mark this film as a Rodríguez and Silva coproduction. But because LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS was edited by Rodríguez after Silva's death and after the completion of her project NACER DE NUEVO (TO BE BORN AGAIN), which concentrates on the lives of women in the mountains after a mudslide, we may not be remiss in attributing its focus on women's lives to an evolving direction in Rodríguez's own work.
1. Fernando Birri, "Cinema and Underdevelopment" in Michael Chanan, Twenty-Five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, London: British Film Institute and Channel Four, 1983, p. 12.
2. Julianne Burton, ed., Short Films from Latin America, New York: American Federation of Arts, 1992, p. 56. Because production dates vary for Rodríguez and Silva's films due to various exhibition and distribution complications, I have chosen to use the dates listed in the filmography of Short Films from Latin America, the catalogue for the current American Federation of Arts traveling exhibition of the same name because it is the most recent and current compilation of data on Latin American films.
3. LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS is available for rental in the United States through Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, Suite 501, New York, NY 10013. 212/ 925-0606. I would like to thank Debra Zimmerman of Women Make Movies for providing a review copy of the film.
4. I am indebted to Margarita de la Vega Hurtado for an illuminating discussion of this film and its reception in Colombia and abroad, as well as for her insight into Rodríguez and Silva's work.
5. Julianne Burton, "Jorge Silva and Marta Rodríguez: Cine-Sociology and Social Change," Cinema and Social Change in Latin America: Conversations with Filmmakers, Austin: University of Texas, 1986. p. 31.
6. Michael Chanan, p. 2.
7. See Dennis and Joan M. West's interview with Marta Rodríguez in this issue of JUMP CUT.
8. Nichols, Bill, Representing Reality, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991, p. 44.
9. At the end of the film we learn that Silva died in January, 1987. This information changes our interpretation of the written words we now must attribute the opening litany to Silva's authorship.
10. I refer here only to the footage which remains in the final edited version of the film. See Dennis and Joan West's interview with Rodríguez for a discussion of the production process involved in shooting three months worth of strikes, the implications of international co-production in the editing process and the solidarity between striking flower workers and striking garment workers.