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 n 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 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.