The Hired Hand 

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002

Any survey of the recent Mexican film renaissance must include the latest effort from Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, whose debut feature, Amores Perros, last year served notice in U.S. theaters that something new was burgeoning south of the border. The only thing is, his new film is an eight-minute car commercial.

Much has been made of BMW’s glorified gimmick last year of hiring five cutting-edge directors, overseen by Fight Club director David Fincher and the film company Anonymous Content, to direct short (five- to eight-minute) films, showcasing the company‘s cars, for display on its Web site (www.bmwfilms.com). Under the series title “The Hire,” each features Croupier star Clive Owen as a mysterious driver extricating people from situations that involve driving fast in one of BMW’s latest showroom models. John Frankenheimer reprises his signature car chases from The French Connection II and Ronin after a smuggler swallows some diamonds. Guy Ritchie sends up the superstar image of an uncredited Madonna. Wong Kar-Wai follows a Victoria‘s Secret model around downtown Los Angeles at the behest of prospective cuckold Mickey Rourke. Ang Lee rescues some mysterious “golden child” from dark-suited agents of influence. And Iñarritu, in Powder Keg, the series’ fifth and final installment, manages to produce what may be the most radically left-wing political statement ever subsidized by a major U.S. advertiser.

Shot by longtime Oliver Stone cinematographer Bob Richardson in a jittery hand-held 16mm, in the washed-out Ektachrome greens and browns of Amores Perros, the film opens as men with machetes chop through farm crops, then open fire with machine guns on unarmed civilians. Suddenly we‘re roaring across the back roads of a nondescript Latin American locale in a silver BMW X5 3.0i SUV, where a photographer (Stellan Skarsgard) has caught one in the stomach, but not before he’s documented the atrocity on film. Subtitles inform us that “Times war photographer Harvey Jacobs was wounded after witnessing the massacre at Nuevo Colon. In a desperate effort, the United Nations sends a vehicle to get him out.” As the car eludes pickup trucks with rows of rack-mounted spotlights on the cabs and military choppers buzzing overhead, or braves an impromptu roadblock in its pursuit of a friendly border, Skarsgard, dipping in and out of consciousness, keeps up an existential monologue on a life lived in the service of media “impartiality.”

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“What are we doing to this country?” he muses as the passing tableau alternates between crying infants surrounded by squalor, and armed guards on rooftops. “Fifteen wars, man. Fifteen wars. I‘ve seen the shitholes. I’ve been there, seen the slaughterings, have been there taking my pictures. I‘ve had people on their knees in front of me, begging me to help them. You know what I do? Take their picture. I’ve never saved any lives in 15 wars -- not a one.” The film‘s coda has Owen delivering blood-smeared dog tags to Skarsgard’s mother, played by Lois Smith (Five Easy Pieces, The Pledge).

Although Nuevo Colon is in Colombia and a stray line of dialogue refers to the cumulative toll of drugs on the region, the film is very much a verite re-creation of the massacre at Aguas Blancas, in the Mexican Pacific coastal state of Guerrero, on June 28, 1995. There, 17 members of a Zapatista-style peasant activist group known as the OCSS (in English, the Campesino Organization of the Southern Sierra) were gunned down, by police lying in ambush, while on their way to a demonstration for agrarian reform in the market town of Coyuca de Benitez. In his state‘s defense, Governor Ruben Figueroa released an edited videotape supposedly showing the campesinos brandishing machetes, but an unaltered version broadcast on a Mexico City TV station showed the police executing unarmed peasants, which hastened the governor’s resignation.

In the director‘s commentary track, available on the BMW site, Iñarritu plays down the political overtones, proclaiming this a character study and a misplaced love story:

The killings at Aguas Blancas, which was a very sad event that happened years ago in my country, was the starting point that led me to create this little piece. It could have happened in any country of Eastern Europe, Africa or Latin America -- any country that has had this type of government in it. But I wasn’t interested in making a political statement through this piece. For me, my goal was to create and tell a love story of a human being and his mother . . . I think this story is not about war or politics or violence. I think this story is more about hope, and that even in such tough situations, you can be saved by love. It‘s about redemption.

For its part, BMW also takes a measured response to the actions chronicled, downplaying its role in subsidizing incendiary political declarations. “We weren’t trying to make any political statement,” says Karen Vonder Meulen, a BMW spokesperson, from the company‘s North American corporate headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. “We tried to do something revolutionary for the Internet in terms of entertainment, and in the interest of corporate branding. For Alejandro, as well as for the other directors, we let them do exactly what they wanted, with the stipulation that they feature a driver, and that the driver drive one of our cars.”

And how does she feel about Bavarian Motor Works inadvertently becoming the people’s car company and a global champion of armed struggle? I could hear her eyes rolling: “We had very little to do with the plot or content.”

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