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It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Tania (Beatriz Bastarda) is a Portuguese immigrant in the dull and lifeless resort town of Great Yarmouth, on the east coast of England. She oversees Portuguese immigrant workers in the local chicken factory, ensuring that they comply with their strict rota and do bemoan their precarious accommodation in the makeshift hotel-turned-dorm Ocean bride. She is nicknamed “mother”, yet there is nothing maternal about the treatment that she offers her fellow countrymen and women. They hardly have time for a break, and genuine sickness is dismissed as laziness. She’s prepared to get rid of the ill and least hard-working ones with a touch of unimaginable callousness. She personifies Simone de Beauvoir’s famous claim that “the oppressor would not be so strong if he did not have accomplices among the oppressed”.
The Portuguese workers are confined to the most arduous and unpleasant tasks: beheading, trimming and deboning the birds. The less repulsive jobs such as packaging and fritters are reserved for British workers. These people are consistently “fleeced” by the system that keeps them in working conditions analogue to slavery. The titular “provisional figures” is the legal description bestowed on workers whose migration status is yet to be defined. These people live in a legal and also in a literal limbo. The movie aims to vacate Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, unequivocally asserting that humans represent a step backwards in the process of natural selection. Birds are far more developed than human beings, at least in philosophical terms.
The whole factory smells of shit and blood, we’re repeatedly told. In fact, the entire seaside town stinks. The images do justice to this sensory perception: the cinematography signed by João Ribeiro consists mostly of dark shades of grey blended with the colour of blood and faeces. The killing of chickens is extremely graphic, which is guaranteed to ruffle some feathers amongst animals lovers. The entire film looks like a smelly prison, often filmed through dirty and steamy glasses, walls covered in mould and ripped wallpaper, daylight as rare as unicorns. Tania relationship are equally dark and dirty. She has an English partner and several Portuguese lovers. They have an ill-conceived power relationship, with Tania failing both as the oppressor (with the Portuguese workers) and the oppressed (with her husband). The sex scenes are bleak and revulsive. Under the thin veneer of a devoted wife and doting boss, Tania a human being with whom nobody wishes to have close contact.
Despite taking place three months before Brexit and claiming to be based on real reports, Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures is a film more concerned about crafting an inescapable nightmare than about making a political statement, or even creating a coherent narrative. It is very fascinatingly uncomfortable to watch, yet it is unlikely to make a significant contribution to the debate around xenophobia and immigrant working conditions. The wilfully monstrous characters and imagery are just too exaggerated for that purpose. What you get instead instead is a darkly lyrical film, akin to Eastern European filmmakers such as Andrey Zvyagentsev, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, and Sergei Loznitsa. The nightmare aesthetics of films such A Gentle Creature (Loznitsa, 2017) and DAU.Natasha (Khrzhanovsky, 2020) come to my mind.
Great Yarmouth: Provisional Figures is showing in the Official Competition of the 70th San Sebastian International Film Festival/ Donostia Zinemaldia.