Between 1954 and 1975, the Canadian government resettled thousands of Newfoundlanders living in remote, impoverished communities, many of which were deemed unviable and abandoned. Such a fate threatened the small island of Fogo. In the late 1960s, while the outlook was still grim, the director Colin Low shot a series of short documentaries known as the Fogo Process, which sought both to record aspects of an everyday life with extinction looming over it, and to address community concerns by giving islanders a platform to discuss them. These were films made by an outsider (from Alberta) in collaboration with locals, and which were then publicly screened on the island. Many of them were overtly political: plainly-shot discussions of the state of the fishing industry, reliance on welfare, religious divisions, education, the role of women, the lack of opportunities for the young, etc. A few others recorded weddings, parties and musical performances, while one―the delightful The Children of Fogo Island (1967)―allowed Low to indulge his more poetic impulses. Funded by the National Film Board of Canada and the Memorial University of Newfoundland, what emerges most strongly from these films is a collaborative ethos and a sense of community; they were primarily made for local audiences, and maintain a focus on the issues that mattered to those audiences. In the end, the residents won their battle to avoid resettlement, their cause aided by the films they collaborated in making. Today, a little over 2,000 live on the island. The fishing industry has declined, but tourism provides a new source of income, encouraged by some swanky new architecture.
Not having been to Fogo, I can’t report on the current state of the community or speculate as to its future, but it’s safe to say that no visitor today will encounter the extreme desolation depicted in Yulene Olaizola’s mesmerising pseudo-documentary. In this film, the community is on the verge of dying out; houses are dilapidated and abandoned; most residents appear to have left; a man announces the departure in a few days of the last ferry―presumably the last ever ferry. Norm, the main character, is faced with the agonizing decision of whether to leave his lifetime home or stay behind with no hope of a future. No information concerning the cause of this desperate situation is given; it could be the end point of a gradual, localized decline, or it could be apocalyptic in nature. The clothes, buildings, furniture etc. on view might as well indicate the 1960s or 70s as the present or future. It’s a fictional scenario, but doesn’t announce itself as such; the absence of a plot, the natural lighting, mostly static shots and observational study of the lives of ordinary people are features that together suggest a documentary. Norm is played by Norman Foley, a real islander; his friends Ron Broders and Joseph Dwyer also play versions of themselves (and what beautiful performances the three of them give).
Yulene Olaizola is, as was Colin Low, an outsider, though from a different country: Mexico. In her film, there are no overtly political discussions; the only visible community is that of one in irreversible decay. The film was funded by an artist-in-residency program run by the Fogo Island Arts Corporation, a body that didn’t exist in the days of the Fogo Process. The corporation strives to meet the cultural needs of the island, but Olaizola is also aiming at international art-house audiences (though there’s little evidence of commercial calculation in such a determinedly non-mainstream work), who may not know very much about the real Fogo, and so may not realize that they’re watching fiction and not a documentary. Whereas the majority of the 60s shorts are specific and functional, Fogo is elusive, puzzling, elliptical. It is both rooted in place (the contemplative attention to landscape; the use of residents as non-professional performers; the imagining of the terrible fate narrowly avoided by the island, and which might loom again) and general (the scarcity of detail regarding the scenario turns Fogo into an exemplar of similarly remote communities, and its decline emblematic of wider civilizational anxiety in the face of economic and environmental catastrophe). Its low-key naturalism might appear to be in the service of verisimilitude, but in fact the Fogo that appears on screen is the result of a distorting process of selection; in an interview, the director explained how she avoided shooting the modern Fogo―its houses, its roads, its vehicles―in order to realize her vision of a broken-down, all but deserted community.
Why are the characters so attached to their tiny island? The question isn’t answered. Olaizola and her remarkable cinematographer, Diego García, contrive to make Fogo an astonishingly beautiful film, but they don’t make Fogo seem a particularly beautiful place, at least not in a way that commonly wins the approval of tourist boards. Filmed in winter, there is just enough snow to impress the cold on the viewer, but not nearly enough for the kind of gleaming, picturesque snow-scape the camera loves so much. We see little other than a bleak, boggy, windy tundra―hardly an inviting terrain. There may well be more conventionally pretty scenes to be found on Fogo, but if there are, Olaizola has chosen to ignore them. Instead, it is in the midst of the bleakness that she shows a sensuous appreciation for nature: the wind blowing through the long grass, the pressing of boots and paws into wet mossy ground, a breathtaking low shot of the wind blowing little wispy trails of sand-like snow across frozen water. Perhaps the ability to find and cherish natural beauty where it is not immediately apparent, where all around at first sight appears barren and featureless, is one of the things that binds Norm and his friends to their birthplace, which will strike many as inhospitable. ‘We’re staying here,’ says Ron to his two dogs, Thunder and Patch, in the darkness of the kennel, his voice expressing at once defiance, solace and uncertainty. A single beam of light sunlight illuminates him, to which he turns his head: religious lighting, it might seem, except that there is no intervening heavenly power here, just the indifferent sun.
The hopeless intensity of the bond these men feel to their island is evident in Norm’s meeting with his older friend Joe, which mixes wry comedy and an aching sense of loss in two exquisite scenes. The first scene is mostly comic, as Joe’s awkward attempts to trade a scavenged tin of spaghetti for a beer are rebuffed until Norm agrees to give him a beer for free. Underlying the humour, however, is the scarcity of food and drink: the tinned spaghetti is the only one Joe has, the potatoes Norm is peeling are mostly rotten, the beer is home brewed. In the next scene, as the two men drink together and lament, the comedy largely retreats (exception: Joe’s reference to the weather-beaten Norm as ‘a young fella’) and the despair engendered by their situation comes to the fore, especially in close-ups of their careworn faces. The friends derive some pleasure from reminiscences of happier times, but talk of the good old days also brings pain (Joe: ‘Oh, my son. They’ll break your heart, my son’). Norm considers whether to stay or go, but Joe is so wedded to Fogo that for him leaving is not an option. The older man starts to sing in a hoarse, cracked voice (sample lyrics: ‘You can’t take a man from the soil that he knows/Tear off his roots and expect him to grow’*), but fluffs his lines, swears, and mumbles that he can’t remember anything anymore: memory, song and language fragmenting and disappearing along with the community of which they are part.
Norm takes two walks around the island, during the course of which Olaizola and García linger on the landscape. The first is an apparently brief stroll Norm takes after Joe’s visit; after walking for a bit, he stands in the snow with a troubled face before returning via the same route we saw him follow earlier. Does he need the air to ponder the situation and reach a decision? Is he taking a last look before he’s forced to leave? Or does the walk (which ends with him heading back home) illustrate the impossibility of his leaving? By the time he takes his second walk, we know that he has decided to stay. After discussing his decision with Ron, the two men decide to set off for an isolated, rudimentary cabin, with Ron’s dogs in tow. We do not see them return. Around half the film is taken up with this expedition, the purpose of which is unclear. Do they have some notion of holding out or hiding in the heart of the island, retreating still further from society while the one they have known all their lives crumbles and vanishes? Is there even something of a death-embrace to it? The last ferry has, after all, left by now.** The two men spend the night in the cabin talking about the past while they finish off a small bottle of whiskey―as with the home brew, alcohol is prized for its scarcity and consoling powers. ‘Good to the last drop,’ says Ron, and follows it with ‘So’s life,’ which may or may not be ominous.
One curious anomaly about our first sight of the cabin is that there is no snow visible on the ground in front of it, whereas the ground we saw over the course of Norm’s and Ron’s journey has a light, patchy, but extensive cover of snow. Nor is there any snow on the clothes the two men wear. Does this indicate that they have been travelling for such a long time that the snow has melted? This is not very likely on such a small and cold island (25km long and 14km wide), especially as they are not seen carrying any provisions. Could one tiny patch be entirely free of snow in contrast to the rest? It’s possible, I suppose, although it would have to be a very small patch, because when Ron goes off to find water, there is snow on the banks (and yet again, not too small, because the establishing shot of the cabin shows quite a wide area). Perhaps their arrival comes after a different, later journey (though they are wearing the same clothes). Of course, it is quite possible that the absence of snow around the cabin is simply the unavoidable result of the weather during shooting, but while that might account for the anomaly, it does not dispose of it. Furthermore, the shot of the cabin is preceded by an instance of one of the most striking formal features of Fogo: its use of fades-to-black to transition between scenes. The shot prior to our first view of the cabin is of the men and dogs crossing the snowy tundra; the fade that follows lasts about 15 seconds from the moment the screen begins to darken to the next shot. This ellipsis not only opens up the possibility of considerable time having elapsed between Norm and Ron setting off on their journey and them arriving at the cabin (and so opens up the possibility of there being two separate journeys), it also undermines the surface realism of the documentary style. Rather than seek a narrative solution for the anomaly, or shrug it off as a continuity error, or mark of budget constraints, the absence of snow on the ground might be regarded as a deliberate, playful disruption, resistant to explanation―prominent enough to arouse curiosity and provoke a few questions, but no so glaringly unsubtle as to knock the film off balance.***
I counted seven fades-to-black over the course of the film, in addition to the opening, which is of a black screen. These fades range in duration from around 4 or 5 seconds to around 20 seconds. Some, but not all, mark the transition from an evening to the next day. Sometimes the screen fades quite slowly, as it does before the arrival at the cabin, while at other times it turns black quickly. The two longest and slowest fades occur after the shot of Ron with his dogs in the kennel, and at the very end of the film. In the latter instance, there’s a cut from Norm looking ahead into the distance to a gorgeous shot of the dawn sky, with a pillar or sword of pink light seen between purple-grey clouds; this shot is held for about a minute before the screen begins to darken. The power of the image is heightened by its gradual fading into black, the cinematic technique decreasing the light even as the natural phenomenon it records is increasing it. On one level, the paradox is perhaps Norm’s subjective experience of an astounding beauty, both familiar and revelatory, soon to be denied him. More generally, it provides a haunting visualization of time’s dissolution of all things, a dissolution which, crucially, does not operate on all things with equal speed, for the natural world so wonderfully captured by Olaizola and García―the landscape, the sea, the sky―will endure far longer than any mere human who lives within it.
*It is worth noting in passing the very male-centric focus of this film. We only see five people on screen, four of whom are men: Norm and his friends, and the unnamed man who announces the departure of the last ferry. The only woman to feature is Ron’s elderly mother, and we only glimpse her wordlessly gazing out of the window. It is Ron’s concern for her welfare that prevents him from leaving Fogo; when it is revealed that her view is of no more than some kind of cliff or rocky outcrop resembling a large natural wall, the idea of confinement or even entombment extents to both mother and son. It’s a powerful shot, and makes one regret the absence of any further consideration of societal collapse on the island’s women. By contrast, the women who appear in Colin Low’s 1960s documentaries are given the opportunity to express themselves with a strong voice.
**Unfortunately, I was not able to make out what may be a key line said by Norm in response to Ron’s stated wish not to see his mother die in their house: ‘Fuck it, let’s go to… [inaudible]’.
***Another unexplained anomaly occurs earlier in the film. A man knocks at the door of a very tumbledown-looking house and announces the departure of the last ferry in two days; there is then a cut to an interior shot of Norm seated at a table by the window, seemingly pondering the announcement; the next shot returns to the first man walking away from the tumbledown house. From this sequence, it would be natural to assume that the house we see is Norm’s home, and that while the man stands outside announcing the ferry’s departure time, Norm is at that moment seated inside the same building considering what he has just heard. However, after a further few shots of Norm at his table, there is then an exterior shot of a house that, while resembling the first house to such a degree that an initial glance might take them to be one and the same, is actually a different building. The first house we saw from the front, while the second we see from behind. The architectural style is the same: a simple, two-story wooden structure, but the color of the wood is subtly different, as are the shape and location. So which is Norm’s house, the first or the second? If the first, why cut away directly from Norm at home to this house which has nothing to with him? If the second, that would mean that Norm did not hear the news about the ferry while he was at the table; the man conveying the news was at another house altogether. Olaizola is creating minute fissures in both the fictional and documentary surfaces of her film, undermining the viewer’s complacency about both. Another example: before Joe breaks into an abandoned house to retrieve his tin of spaghetti, we see him look around before he applies a crowbar to the door, as if to ensure that no-one is watching. If the film really were a documentary, as it pretends to be, then this action would be completely unnecessary, as the real Joseph Dwyer would have no need to be furtive about an act he knows is being recorded.