QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM TRANSYLVANIA
Children working and living in a landfill make for a promising cinematic combination: the most sacred and vulnerable people of our society are left to fend for themselves in the face of abject poverty. There is no shortage of recent films dealing with such topic, whether it’s in Brazil (Stephen Daldry’s Trash, from 2014), in Egypt (Abu Bakr Shawk’s Yomeddine, 2018), in Iraq (Ahmed Yassin Aldaradji’s Hanging Gardens, 2022), or indeed in Nicaragua. This combination, however, is no fail-proof recipe. Daldry’s film is mediocre and dogged with cliches. Daughter of Rage has some good moments, but it’s not without faults and predictable platitudes.
The topic choice generated a lot of international interest. Daughter of Rage is an international co-production of seven countries, the majority of them in Europe: Nicaragua, Mexico, Netherlands, Germany, France, Norway and Spain. That’s presumably the only way of vouching for the financial viability of a relatively ambitious film from a small country with virtually no film industry and tradition.
Maria (Ara Alejandra Medal) is around nine years of age, living with her mother Lilibeth (Virginia Sevilla Garcia) in a precarious shack in the vicinity of Nicaragua’s largest dump, La Chureca. They spend much of their time collecting discarded valuables from the towering garbage hills. They seem strangely content with their existence, comfortably enjoying each other’s affection, despite the revulsive surroundings. Fortunately for us viewers, film does not have the power to convey the overpowering smells that intoxicate the environment. Maria the other children have normalised the objectionable. They makes toys from their latest find, and joke about that some random human part (a head, a leg, or perhaps a mere hand?) that made an appearance. A litter of puppies provides Maria with company and solace, and the movie with a clumsy touch of cuteness.
Lilibeth becomes involved with a gang of animal traffickers, in a relationship that’s both monetary and sexual. Maria knows something isn’t right, but she isn’t quite able to understand the power dynamics with which her mother has to contend. One day, Lilibeth leaves Maria in a nearby recycling plant, under the care of a ruthless man and his more affable wife. She is forced to work with a group of children around her age. Lilibeth promises her daughter that she will return soon, but their eventual reunion becomes increasingly unlikely as time goes by. Maria decides to takes matters into her own hands, but the consequences could be very serious.
Maria observes most developments from a distance. She is quiet, gentle, stoical even. She is never furious: there is nothing reminiscent of the rage in the film title. Instead our young protagonist is mostly accepting/takes for granted the many tragedies that have befallen her: poverty, forced labour, failed parenthood/orphanhood. Socio-economic topics remain in the background: organised crime, privatisation of garbage collection and child labour. You wouldn’t expect such a young girl to grasp these serious phenomena in their full complexity. I also wonder whether the movie was subject to censorship. Nicaragua is a country under a strict dictatorship with little tolerance for dissenting voices and criticism.
Marketed as a piece of “magical realism”, Daughter of Rage wilfully sets out to cosmeticise poverty. There are no buzzing insects flying around. The abominable becomes strangely beautiful, even fascinating. Poverty porn comparisons become inevitable, particularly in the film’s opening sequence (with dancing children sprouting out of the rubbish piles). This is not Glauber Rocha’s Aesthetics of Hunger, but instead the fantasy of the insalubrious. These fantastic aesthetics find a narrative justification in the child’s gaze: the film is seen from the perspective of the puerile Maria. Countless dream sequences blend seamlessly with reality. The fetishisation of poverty isn’t the only problem here. The poetic devices are often a little cumbersome and exaggerated, particularly in the film’s denouement. Overall, Daughter of Rage would have benefited from less magic and more realism.
Daughter of Rage showed at the 22nd Transylvania International Film Festival, in Cluj Napoca. DMovies is live at the event unearthing the dirty gems exclusively for you.