Breaking Boundaries
Max Carpenter on Territorio

Territorio plays Sunday, January 8, with Alexandra Cuesta in person, as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2017.

A shabby blue-green boat motors through a gray sea under an overcast sky; a young man standing at its bow faces the unrelenting horizon, his left foot cocked sideways like the figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. A black screen interrupts with the film’s title before Alexandra Cuesta’s next tableau: a static medium close-up of an Afro-Ecuadorian boy with a straight-on, scrutinizing gaze and a ringed hand resting under his chin. The boy is in a house, behind a windowpane and a half-drawn lace curtain. The shot is too close to reveal anything beyond the exterior wall and window, but there’s a fascinating play between the boy’s palpable boredom and slyly staved smile.

Territorio is Cuesta’s debut feature, following a decade of festival-weathered shorts on subjects like Jackson Heights and East Los Angeles. Structurally, Territorio is indebted to James Benning, Cuesta’s former film instructor at CalArts, whose geographical features are made up of meticulous static long takes assembled around central themes (for example, lakes and skies, California’s Central Valley). But while Benning is the master of depopulated Western landscape shots, Cuesta serves up people and faces in lieu of places. Her variations on the theme of Ecuador—the film’s titular “territory”—rarely put the country’s luscious vistas front-and-center. Indeed, after the opening sequence described above, seven minutes of children, men, and dilapidated concrete buildings pass before we are offered a nature scene of stones and babbling water and a trio of sunbathing tweens. The setting is unclear—it could be near Ecuador’s coast or in the Andean valley of Chota (a locale mentioned in the end credits)—but questions of location are ultimately immaterial to Cuesta’s freeform human tapestry.

Cuesta is a delightfully playful director and acts as her own cinematographer. The different kinds of eye contact she is able to coax out of Territorio’s modeled subjects form the heart of the film. The sassy, unbroken gaze of an open-mouthed toddler who abruptly bikes into an early scene’s foreground is both inane and captivating; he seems to be sizing up the viewer with each arch of his brow. In the following scene, a shirtless man is shown receiving a street-side buzzcut, his wary eyes raising meekly to meet the viewer’s as the malfunctioning clipper jams against his scalp. Later on, another man, backgrounded by a wall with an artificial painted seascape, sings a Bomba-style song while dividing his earnest and soulful attention between the camera and his off-screen bandmates. Wizened elders feature in a handful of candid, meandering interview fragments on the topics of old-fashioned dresses and hang-gliding. It is tough to pigeonhole Cuesta’s Ecuadorian studies. We are given tableaux, interviews, and mere presentations of people in their environments. The only detectable through line is Cuesta’s sympathetic eye.

Cuesta was partly inspired to make this debut feature after reading a travelogue by Henri Michaux, the mid-century Belgian poet and abstract painter. Michaux’s Ecuador (1929) begins with a caveat: “A man who knows neither how to travel nor to keep a journal has put together this travel journal.” (The writings vacillate between in-depth daily coverage of his journey, semantic ruminations, and versified incantations, all wiser and more succinct than Michaux’s warning would have us believe.) A similar uncertainty pervades Territorio. Does Cuesta, an Ecuador native, truly mean to assemble a filmic travelogue of her home country? Territorio’s map-conscious title seems mere bait: we come for the exotic country’s allure and stay for the people.

Michaux’s journals begin with an anticipatory chronicle of seafaring en route to Ecuador, which Cuesta parallels in Territorio’s opening ocean wanderer. Cuesta’s young man on the boat is initially shown with no land in sight. It is not until about 40 minutes into the hour-long film that the same boat reappears, bobbing sleepily toward a sparsely lit coastline in the night. These two shots—the wandering and arrival—are the only narratively related sequences in the film, and a decision to prolong the arrival stands in direct contrast to Michaux’s linear expedition. By the time the boat nears land, cloaked in dusk, the viewer has long forgotten the notion that she is traveling to Ecuador, rather than that she is living with its small-town residents.

A few images burn bright in my mind. First, a strapping, sweaty young man stands at the bottom of a well-shaped hole, digging with a shovel and pick mattock and tirelessly loading dirt into a sandcastle-sized bucket hanging from a frayed rope. Is this the ‘terra’ of the film’s title? Second, four kids with mossy, green plants on their heads swim up and down a lazy river like benevolent freshwater imps, behind them a wall of shady jungle plumage. Their ersatz headgear keeps falling off and Cuesta keeps the camera rolling long enough to capture their do-over laps. She patiently gives the children ample time to express themselves, though it is unclear whether this is a game of hers or the kids’ making. Lastly, an open-bloused woman sits on a rock facing the fruit-colored facade of a nightclub chatting carefree into a cellphone. When she moves her crossed legs she reveals a pregnant belly. As she darts a third, half-suspicious glance at the camera; the shot is ended by a hand-clapping slate, to the woman’s smiling amusement. Cuesta runs the gamut from fly-on-the-wall documentarian to cinematic free agent, and these three shots invite an array of viewer responses, from symbolic interpretation to playful observation. Territorio’s disparate parts unfold with careful focus, asking the viewer to pay close attention. Like James Benning, Cuesta is an auteur walking the tightrope between cinema and media art, but a film such as this belongs chiefly in a theater, without the threat of lapsed interest endemic to galleries.

The ever wise and witty G. K. Chesterton had more than a few mean words to say about the travel writer of his day:

"The globe-trotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo. But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the universe, and breathe, not an air of locality, but the winds of the world. The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men—diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men—hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky."

Cuesta, in Chesterton’s parlance, unites men. Her compassionate portrayal of Ecuador consists of everyday actions and presents idiosyncrasies with muted matter-of-factness. It is unexoticized. We may see small-town poverty on the screen, but its ordinariness shines through. We may notice America’s global reach in images of Abercrombie tees and a television playing Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but any Marxist bent is faint. It is purely Cuesta’s home turf that we are invited to travel to in Territorio. Her own authentic portraiture stands in the way of any romanticization of scenery. Her pseudo-Romantic, territory-seeking boatman is directly answered by the boy in the house looking outward. We can both see the boy through the house’s front window and see an out-of-focus street through an inside window; we can both look into the house and look through it. We may either respect Ecuador’s boundaries or view them as arbitrary constructs, but in both cases the boy remains the centerpiece.