Underviewed/Undervalued: CELSO AND CORA
Since it is the express purpose of Cinema Underground to, in part, celebrate films that
are rarely seen, I would like to discuss a documentary that is quite difficult to find. If
you don’t take a course in documentary film at university or you don’t live next to an art
house theater that puts on a Gary Kildea retrospective, you have probably missed his
classic, Celso and Cora. I can’t even find images for it to dress up this post.
The only picture I could track down was at Icarus Films where you can buy a VHS copy
of the movie for $440. It is a shame that so few people have the opportunity to watch
this ground breaking documentary. In addition to being every bit as important as films
like Sherman’s March and Roger and Me in terms of challenging the traditional
documentary form by making it more personal, Celso and Cora possesses many other
virtues that I shall enumerate below.
I have to begin by discuss what other people think of the movie. This is part of what
makes it “undervalued” after all. I am often curious about audience reaction in general,
but I think in the particular case of this film a misunderstanding about its content and
purpose may contribute to its limited availability. The first time I watched Celso and
Cora I was in a course about documentary filmmaking, and I remember the consensus
appraisal of my classmates being that the movie was exploitative, that Kildea took
advantage of his titular subjects. It was introduced to us, in fact, as a “problem” film,
and the class identified the problem correctly.
It is typical of people who have never wanted for anything in their lives to find fault
with anyone who tries to show them that there are people less fortunate in the world.
We have a rather narrow view of people who live in poverty and so we have a quite
limited range of expectations from a film that features them as the subject. Celso and
Cora raises questions about the responsibility and honesty of the filmmaker to be sure,
but accusing it of exploitation seems to me to reveal more of the viewer’s unwillingness
to confront his middleclass liberal complacence than the selfishness of the filmmaker.
What are the responsibilities of the filmmaker? He must present his subject in a truthful
way. It is particularly significant in Celso and Cora that the truth runs deeper than
revealing the economic hardships of poor people in Manila. It would perhaps be more
comfortable for us to watch a documentary simply about being poor. Talking heads and
found footage are often easy to distance. As it turns out Celso and Cora is as much
about the communication breakdowns between people who are in love as it is about
poverty. It is actually less about the economy as it is about how hardship adversely
affects marriage, family, friendship and love.
Celso and Cora is also about the relationship Kildea develops with the couple and their
family. It shows that the filmmaker and his “subject” have become friends. Kildea
films the process of getting to know someone. By doing so he adds another layer to the
narrative so that the shift in Celso when he begins calling Kildea “pare,” is as important
as Celso losing his job. There is more than one thing going on in the movie. There is
more than one story and more than one tone.
Celso’s attitude in general shows that a person can be happy even as his means to
happiness are stripped away again and again. When we finally see Celso unhappy, it
isn’t because he is poor; it’s because Cora has left him. Is it really his humanity that
makes viewers uneasy? Is the most unsettling aspect of the film the fact that people
who live in abject poverty still live a very similar life to my own? Celso and Cora and
their children are not the Yanomamo in Ax Fight do not, and I think the chief reason is
that Kildea thinks rather differently of humanity than Napoleon Chagnon and Tim Asch.
The way Bill Nichols describes the situation in Representing Reality this is indeed the
fundamental problem with ethnography at all. The subjects are humans, yet all the film
seeks to do is expose their weirdness, otherness, inhumanity. What kind of movie is
that? Is it not just a bit too easy to depict the Yanomamo as “primitives”? Obviously
they are different from “us.” Instead of counting and cataloguing the ways in which
they are so, why not save some room to show how they are like us as well so that we
can understand them to be human?
Celso and Cora succeeds because its subjects are not a topic. There is a reason Kildea
did not call his film Poverty in Manila, or The Poor People of Manila. It is not an issue
film. Celso, Cora and their children are not cast as primitives either by race or by social
class, but presented as people very much like the audience that watches them. They are
emotionally complex. They are hung up on heavy existential doubts. They worry from
day to day about how they will get by financially. I’ll admit that this is not the point of
ethnography or even “documentary”, but for Kildea and the couple who became his
friends, at least it makes a good film.