Real and Illusory Spaces

Jakob Isak Nielsen

Bamboleho (a love story) is a Spanish short film that tells the story of Migue (Eloi Yebra), his girlfriend Mara (Alicia Gorina), and his younger Moroccan friend Ahmed (Hafid Abou. El. Hakam). In the opening scene of the film, we see Migue as a young boy being called for by his mother and chased around by his stepfather. The setting is a dumpsite that supposedly serves as the family's home. Migue's parents want him to eat his dinner: a pile of snails that appear to have passed their expiration date eons ago. Ultimately, young Migue runs away from their dwelling to the words of his stepfather: "If you run off now, don't bother coming back again." The film then jumps ten to fifteen years ahead to a scene with Migue and Mara kissing on a rooftop in an urban landscape. Complex camera movement, which I will discuss in depth below, connects this scene to their Moroccan friend, Ahmed, buying beer in the streets below. A group of aggressive men drive up to the store and set out to capture Ahmed. Ahmed drops the beer and runs down the street shouting "Migue, Migue". At first it comes across as a cry for help, but it actually turns out to be a cry of warning for Migue to get away before the men reach him. Migue hears Ahmed shouting while making love to Mara. He puts on his shoes and barely gets away from the pursuers by jumping a wide gulf separating two rooftops. An extensive flashback ensues that reveals the circumstances leading up to this event. Migue and Ahmed had lifted a bag that turned out to contain a digital camera and a large lump of hashish. They sell most of their loot but are given away by their fence. We then discover that the chase had quite a different conclusion: Migue fails to bridge the gulf and plunges to his death. Mara cries out for Migue as he falls to his death. The film concludes by going back to the childhood sequence where Migue's mother calls out for him. We see him balancing on a wall as if balancing between life and death. The film ends with a shot of Migue dangling on a wall with a smile on his face.

There is an element of social commentary and critique in Bamboleho that relates to demographics, orphanages, immigration, urban slums, unemployment and crime. It poses questions about the state of the world in which the characters live: What is wrong with it? How can Migue, Mara and Ahmed be free? Can they change things within the world in which they are living? In fact, this can be taken even further than that because the film seems to reach out towards the "real world". The grittiness of downtown Barcelona serves as the main location of the film, and one commentator on could even pinpoint the exact location as the densely populated area of El Raval. Furthermore, there is that rough edge of authenticity about the appearance and vernacular of the characters that well-cast amateur players sometimes convey, and some members of the cast even appear to be locals. In that sense the questions raised about the fictional world of the film could readily be applied to real places, real living conditions and real people. In short, the film contains elements pertaining to social realism.

Yet the film is also about illusion, make-believe and artifice. It contains elements of the fantastic and it complicates the notion of worldhood itself - i.e., ontological notions of which world we are observing. Consider the opening shot of the film. Notice how the composition focuses our attention not on young Migue, but on a middle-aged man sitting in the middle of the dumpsite watching TV (fig. 1). Maybe he is the grandfather of Migue; maybe he is just an emblematic "old man". Gradually, one realizes that the old man has tuned in to the opening credits of a film called Bamboleho - the film that we ourselves are watching! In the top left corner is a label saying "SuperTrinitron," yet the technical quality of the TV is not exactly super: it's impossible to get a clear signal and both image and sound occasionally fall out. Ultimately, the signal disappears completely. As in other scenes in the film, we continually snap into and out of illusionary worlds; and as in other scenes of the film, the illusionary bubble bursts: Ahmed thought there would be naked women and jobs in Spain and Migue didn't make the vital jump after all. In fact, looking back on the beginning of the film, one realizes how the film quite elegantly intersects the illusionary with the realistic in the very fabric of the opening shot. Compositionally, the old man is placed in the middle of a diagonal line that runs from the TV in the right foreground to two bit players in the left background - i.e., the old man's attention towards the credits and the sounds and images emanating from the TV reach each other along a diagonal line. The diagonal "pull" of the image from right foreground to left background is enforced qua a diagonal cloud formation on the bright blue sky above the players. However, the diagonal lines of the composition are intersected by the lateral direction of character movement in front of and behind the old man. These lateral movements introduce the story of Migue and his troubled relationship with his parents. Behind the old man, Migue's stepfather and mother walk across the screen from left to right. The stepfather says: "Your kid thinks he can do exactly as he pleases." Migue's mother carries a piglet in her arms. When Migue makes his first appearance in the film he does so by driving his plastic bicycle across the screen from left to right in the foreground of the shot (fig. 2). Hence, the story of Migue and his parents, which is marked by social realism, literally intersects with the meta-fictional play on illusionary constructs qua the lateral and diagonal lines of the shot.

Fig. 1Fig. 2

To complicate the genre hybridity even further, Bamboleho then introduces the love story of Migue and Mara. In fact, this seems to be director Luis Prieto's own genre proposal: "a love story" is the bracketed subtitle for "Bamboleho". It is a stunning task to mix social realism, the fantastic, a love story and meta-fiction, because these genres often negotiate very different types of viewer engagement: detachment versus involvement, medium or reality as reference point, different contracts on reality status - just to mention a few dissonant viewer activities associated with them. For instance, how are viewers to sympathize with the characters, involve themselves in the love story, and be concerned about the social and political issues raised if the film draws our attention to filmmaking and the construction of its tale?

One way of looking at it is that the structure of the film is dictated by or issues from the psychology and social circumstances of the characters. In other words, the meta-fictional credit sequence is not meant to put a distance to the world of the characters, question their integrity, or disengage viewer involvement with them. By showing the SuperTrinitron TV lying in a waste container towards the end of the film, Prieto invites the viewer to contemplate a number of things: our daily intake of illusions versus the harsh realities of life in El Raval, or perhaps the fact that illusions will always lose out to harsh reality. First of all, however, the innovative credit sequence and the malfunctioning TV are thematically linked to how the characters themselves foster and generate illusions, and the consequent termination of illusion-making when Migue dies. Before this comes to pass, the characters of Bamboleho have illusions about places: Ahmed thought there would be naked women and money in Spain, Migue's image of Paris versus Morocco is rectified by Ahmed as Morocco is not exempt from either Frenchmen or snail eating. Under the influence of hashish the characters also have visual illusions: Migue and Ahmed see a roaring lion; Ahmed sees a beautiful naked woman smiling at him from a rooftop. Yet these images don't live up to what they see in El Raval: a cat, a painting of a lion, and a giant poster of a gorgeous female. With regard to make-believe, both Ahmed and Mara pretend to be other than themselves: Ahmed acts out the role of Jimmy Hendrix and Mara imagines herself to be both a seagull and a goddess. The scope of their dreams reveals the hopelessness of their situation. Mara isn't simply dreaming of buying fancy clothes but imagines herself to be a goddess, Ahmed doesn't simply want a place in the local soccer team but to play for FC Barcelona's first team.

The theme of illusionary versus real spaces, or simply dreams versus grim reality, is also brought into play qua the many images of separation: the gulf that Migue jumps/fails to jump, the wall on which Migue balances towards the end of the film (fig. 3), the fence that surrounds young Migue as he walks away from his parents, and the contrast between the grey colors of the dumpsite versus the bright blue sky above (fig. 4). These images highlight the characters' dreams of being in a different world: being someone else, being somewhere else, leading a different life. The film does in fact present motifs of freedom such as an aerial balloon, pigeons taking off, seagulls passing over Migue and Mara; and courses of action where the "gap is bridged" such as Migue's phenomenal jump - but they remain within the realm of the symbolic as opportunities that could not be grasped, or simply as images of wish-fulfillment.

Fig. 3Fig. 4

However, the way the characters snap into and out of illusionary and real spaces does not fully explain how these shifts are conveyed to the viewer. How the viewer experiences these shifts and how they are experienced by the characters are two different things. I'd like to conclude this article by taking a closer look at a specific shot that illustrates both the complexity and the ingenuity of how these shifts are staged. I'm referring to the complex camera movement immediately after the opening sequence. To get the full picture of how the shot works, we actually have to move back a little to the last couple of shots of the childhood sequence: Young Migue walks away from a couple of kids playing football behind him, we hear the sound of an airplane and see him looking up (shot a) into a clear blue sky (shot b) before looking down again (shot c). The frontal close-up of Migue allows us to see a relatively fresh wound on his forehead. This will enable us to identify the older version of Migue shortly after. The transition to the scene of Migue and Mara is marked by a fade out; we hear the sound of Mara asking: "What were you thinking about" and, finally, the shot of the two turns up on-screen.

With the image of a bright blue sky fresh in our minds, the shot of Migue and Mara in front of an ocean view with the sound of sea birds, ocean waves and foghorns taking over after the sounds of a squealing pig and an angry stepfather, the scene almost has a paradisiacal feeling to it. The way the shot is staged, Migue and Mara are encapsulated by blue waters as well as a clear blue sky, which seemed so far beyond reach in the previous shots of young Migue. Was the opening scene a bad memory that he has now put behind him? Mara and Migue begin to kiss and talk of their love for one another. Their faces fill most of the screen and director Luis Prieto refrains from cutting back and forth in a shot/reverse shot pattern. Instead he crams the frame with a two-shot close-up of both Mara and Migue (fig. 5), thereby creating a very intimate space that the two of them share. But then the camera begins to pull back and the sounds of foghorns, seabirds and ocean waves subtly ebb away. As the camera pulls back we realize that the ocean view was just an illustrated backdrop, a poster on a concrete wall behind them (fig. 6). Camera movement is a visual process and as such it is well suited for gradual alterations of tone and atmosphere: building up suspense, increasing or decreasing tension. In this case the camera movement gradually reveals surprising aspects of off-screen space that completely re-contextualize our understanding of Migue and Mara's encounter. Famously, the pull-back is used as the final shot of a film to disengage audience involvement and draw us out of the fictional world. To some extent this pull-back follows the traditional function of disengagement as our focus moves from the intimate interaction of Migue and Mara to their interaction seen in relation to their surrounding - in this case an urban wasteland of asymmetric, brightly colored rooftops. The camera draws us out of the intimate and paradisiacal space and offers us an exterior view of Mara and Migue from which we can evaluate the scene in a more realistic way. Yet the initial atmosphere of the shot may very well have been completely true to how Mara and Migue experienced the encounter. It may well have been a magical moment to them - perhaps aided by the influence of hashish and a dreamscape backdrop. In that sense the film doesn't "lie" about how the characters experience the situation, it only makes us aware of the grim urban surroundings in which their magical and paradisiacal space is situated.

Fig. 5Fig. 6

What follows is quite fascinating to me. Initially, an intimate and paradisiacal space was created; then the camera took us out of the illusory bubble. As the camera moves farther away from them, the emphasis is changed again. Now the camera ventures on to establish another sense of place, a sense of a place that is grimly real: We see the old mattress on which they are sitting, a couple of boxes used as tables, a chair, clothes and shoes lying about, a few other posters on the wall. Apparently, Migue lives on the rooftop of this building. The camera ascends, then curves away from Migue and Mara, moving laterally across the rooftops, bringing clotheslines, empty bottles, a forest of parabola discs and TV antennas into the frame; sounds of the streets rise up to the rooftops - a medley of church bells and police sirens, rattling music from a radio and indistinct voices from alleys and backyards. This is the world in which they live (fig. 7).

As the camera glides past a horde of empty alcohol bottles and a pair of shoes, it briefly rests on the edge of a building. Qua an impressive zoom effect the frame is moved to a shot of a bar on the street below (fig. 8). From the bead curtains of the bar Ahmed appears with beer bottles in his hands. "Camera movement connects, editing separates" - a phrase often attributed to Robin Wood in Personal Views - is a classic dictum. Wood himself stated that this "apparent truism" needs drastic qualification when confronted with the work of a major artist. I would rush to add that the claim needs qualification regardless of which filmmaker or camera movement you're dealing with. As my analysis of the shot has illustrated thus far, this camera movement serves several other functions. However, the textbook rule does to some extent apply: The last zoom effect does connect the scene of Mara and Migue to the scene of Ahmed. The following shots and scenes make it clear that events on the rooftop and in the street are indeed interwoven, and that there is also a chain of cause and effect linking the two. There is a suave quality to the effect, but the rapid movement from rooftop to street level also has more dire insinuations. In fact, it marks the first of a series of falls: the zoom effect causes us to plunge from rooftop to street level, then the beer bottles fall from Ahmed's hands and shatter on the paving stones before he takes off down the street and ultimately, of course, Migue falls to his death from the rooftop of a building. In that sense the final segment of the shot emphasizes the theme of verticality: seen in the most positive light imaginable, living on the rooftop and not having a roof over one's head puts the characters closer to the firmament; here they may harbor dreams of being elsewhere, but at the same time it will always put them in danger of downfall.

Migue's downfall was perhaps predictable. The wound that we saw on young Migue's forehead has left a scar that is still visible as we see him ten to fifteen years later. He quite literally seems to have been branded from very early on. By using the childhood sequence as a framing device, the film conveys to us that it was here that the course of his life was laid out. The smile on his face in the final shot of the film leaves the impression that maybe there really was an alternative route for Migue; however, the route was not taken. As things stand, Migue can join in briefly when Ahmed sings Bamboleho, but unlike both Mara and Ahmed, cynicism keeps him from harboring dreams of being someone else, dreams of having sex with Kim Bassinger, and dreams of being free. His resigned reply to Mara that no one is free indicates that he for one - despite his love for Mara - had no illusions about his life and how it would end some day.

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