Neil Young’s Film Lounge – A Weapon Loaded With Future : Achero Manas’ November


Exactly four decades after its first public showings at the Toronto and San Sebastian film festivals of 2003 this seems an appropriate juncture to revisit Achero Manass November: the movies future has finally become our now. Many viewers were initially disoriented by temporal dislocation deployed in Manasfaux-documentary tale of a radical street-theatre troupe from 1997 to 2001. Scenes showing the student-age members gravitating around the charismatic, chamaeleonic Alfredo (terrific Oscar Jaenada) alternate with stark (and, crucially, utterly convincing) talking-head testimonies from the principals, now visibly in their early sixties.

Though the Reds-style testimonies are clearly set at some (unspecified) date around, say, 2043, the coy Manas is careful to avoid any science-fiction trappings. The speakers costumes and hair are studiedly neutral, and we learn next to nothing about the future, though someone does wistfully remark how unthinkable the troupes refusal of payment seemed back then, when nothing was for free. This technique to have the action of the present commented upon from the (unemphasised) perspective of a middle-distance future seemed in 2003 primarily like a bold experiment with cinematic narrative, and provided the first hint at the extent of Manass audacious imagination.

His debut battered-child drama El Bola (2000) – had of course won him the Goya (Spains Oscar equivalent) for Best Picture and the Discovery Prize at the European Film Awards. But while suitably harrowing and unsentimental, it was a familiar and relatively conventional slice-of-life: the sort of worthy subject-matter which never seems to go out of favour with either funding bodies or awards juries.

November, however, was a quantum leap forward: I myself still vividly recall standing in the old town of San Sebastian back in 03, seriously wondering whether I felt like enduring what looked like the woefully predictable rise and fall of a radical street-theatre company. Thoughts of a walk-out were dispelled as soon as I saw Alfredo, auditioning for drama school, perform his marionette show with a puppet strikingly similar to those deployed in Spike Jonzes Being John Malkovich (1999). Though for the most part far from comic, Manass film soon stakes out a territory of deadpan absurdity not that far removed from Jonzes off-kilter world.

As November (so-named because that months revolution came after the more famous October event) stage their happenings beginning with the usual harlequin-punks causing merry hell in public its impossible to tell whether Manas is celebrating their antics or quite royally taking the piss, Spinal Tap style, or both: Revolutions waiting to happen, dreaming of changing the world, someone sings, semi-mockingly, at one point.

This (relentlessly intriguing and entertaining) film works just as well either way, and the message is thus a subjective issue depending on what each individual viewer brings to the party. Or rather, the fiesta: so strongly do the colourful, energetic troupes more elaborate costumed pieces recall the licensed bacchanals of the traditional Spanish feast-day parades, while cocking a somewhat Bunuelian snook at the countrys more conservative forces of order and tradition.

This anti-authoritarianism is to some extent played for laughs Oscars tickings-off from a long-suffering but sympathetic cop (El Bolas cool dad Alberto Gimenez) are unambiguously funny, and there’s an excellent gag during a Christ-on-the-cross piece in which Oscar indulges his messianic side. But there’s no mistaking the genuine anger that motivates this ferocious anti-capitalist among the troupes more effective pieces of Documentary Theatre is The Forgotten (Los Olvidados, a clear Bunuel nod) in which the noviembristas pose as the dispossessed to torment (obviously genuine) passers-by.

November 1999s Shooting, which takes the form of an all-too-convincing firearms incident in the street, is a major turning-point: intended to help people understand modern issues, like terrorism, it gets the troupe arrested and charged: We were accused not only of simulating a crime, but of justifying terrorism. The groups unity shattered by the inevitable internecine rivalries and jealousies not to mention artistic differences Alfredo stages his ultimate performance/stunt at the Royal Theatre, in the presence of major dignitaries, in September 2001

That isn’t an accidental choice of date, of course Novembers drum-tight script is calibrated to the tiniest detail. The jarring climax, in which the film suddenly goes beyond seriousness to the point of shattering tragedy, raises fascinating questions about the very existence of Oscars dealistic, radical, transgressive, prankish art in the post-9/11 world: Art is a weapon loaded with future, reads a title-card, after a survivor has commented We wanted to change the world. We failed miserably. Now I just try not to let the world change me. So, was The Fool really dead? Was it really no longer possible to change the world. Forty years on, the answers seem plain. But, as November continues to remind us, things can look very different with the benefit of four decades hindsight.

7th November, 2043
(written via precog, 7th November 2003)

For the original review of November click here.

by Neil Young