Bookmark and follow our exclusive coverage of New York Film Festival 2015.
When the man’s got you down and is sticking his foot up your ass, always remember your three Rs: resistance, revolt, and revolution. Those are tremendously valuable lessons one takes to heart while watching Carmen Castillo’s documentary essay on human rights and geopolitics, We Are Alive. It’s a staid account of world inequity, guided by reflections on the prose and philosophies of Daniel Bensaïd, and first-hand accounts of fights against oppression in its many forms. This is a doc for right now, with far-reaching inquiries, deep context, and sympathy for the struggle to act in a two-sided world.
Castillo starts by contemplating the state of social action across the world in the wake of her friend Bensaïd’s passing in 2010. Bensaïd was a reactionary, a Trotskyist/Marxist/Leninist raconteur, constantly battling on behalf of the disadvantaged. Castillo quietly longs for the kind of large-scale grassroots political vigor that’s seemingly been swept under the rug in modern times. Mind you, this isn’t a call to enlist in Bensaïd’s army of whatever-it-is-you-should-rebel-against. No, We Are Alive is first and foremost an observation, broad and analytical. (Pick your own cause, the film hints, but when you’re ready to commit, and for the right reasons.)
Today, the French philosopher’s ideas live on rebellion, self-defense, and passionate organizations from around the world. We Are Alive documents the state and spirit of new social movements, and the people that resisted, as Castillo eventually pushes for every nation’s right to fight.
The Zapatista Army of National Liberation of Mexico is chronicled for their war “against the Mexican state,” and they example the possibility and worthwhile nature of rebelling. Home videos of the cops rushing Chileans in 2000, or French police beating and wrangling the families of immigrants only a few years ago, are shown for the clear brutality and subjugation of impoverished citizens they evidence. Castillo interviews farmers, migrant workers, union laborers, nativists, and all manner of other people from all around trying to get a fair shake. All bring tales of revolt, shown for the passion and energy and sometimes problems their moments of collective fervor elicit. Contexts change throughout, but the constant of human rights is clear. Castillo’s outline is simple: interview after interview to elucidate Bensaïd’s principles.
Castillo’s interviews are the film’s spotlights. Castillo speaks to wonderful subjects, outraged and articulate people sticking up for whatever it is they believe, protecting themselves from whoever’s trying to keep them low, bravely pointing out absurdities in the systems. These are people that normally might be ignored, but are given a forum thanks to Castillo. Suss-mouthed farmers, fellas in hard hats, and general everyday people make the best points. Never put up with it if you don’t have to.
We Are Alive seldom deviates from its criticisms, or its commentary and unfussy form. It is direct and makes cogent, familiar points. Formally, Castillo goes for low-budget digital imagery (a freshly accessible and popular language and medium for the underprivileged – more on that in a moment). The film is heavy on close shots, narration of Bensaïd’s work to broach various topics, and a reliance on straight talk from her subjects. It gets repetitive, but the point is made.
The plights of the larger, underdeveloped world are not new, sadly, but her attention, subject matter, and willingness to dig into real stories gives We Are Alive a pressing quality. Castillo’s driving thesis about people deserving a chance to rise makes the film feel academic, but thankfully sympathetic as well.
In the time of digital recording giving weight and importance to events in Ferguson or Greece, We Are Alive gives continued attention to previously under-heard voices. A keen international news reader, or global affairs scholar will know the stories of privatizing water in Bolivia, or of labor struggles in Saint-Nazaire. Yet, for those not in the know, there are scary things to be learned from Castillo. Now repeat those R’s.