Director: César Aréchiga
The Guadalajara Film Festival has curated a striking programme for the We Are One Festival currently being held online, where festivals around the world have contributed films and panel discussions. After Beyond the Mountain, comes 45 Days in Jarbar (sometimes called 45 Days in Harvar) where artist and director César Aréchiga teaches art to inmates of a high security prison in Mexico. The result is a slow but thoughtful film.
It begins with Aréchiga showing the prisoners, all clad in bright orange uniforms, how to make paper. They stir rags into simmering pots, before they trample out the muddy mixture with their bare feet. In the first few minutes, the camera doesn’t let us see any faces, and instead we see hands and feet involved in the method of creativity. Faces only appear when they have made canvases, stretched out on their frames, ready for paint.
Aréchiga never explains why he gets his pupils to make their own paper, but it surely increases the sense of investment in the finished product, for the men who otherwise have nothing but their clothes. The whole film is reluctant to give out any details at all: we don’t know the prisoners’ names until the last ten minutes, and apart from one we are never told what crimes these men have committed to bring them here. And it is never explained why these fifteen men were selected from the hundreds that are interned there.
If this were a film about art, we would see more of the men’s canvases. Too often we only see glimpses of the pictures that the men are painting – or in one case the statues that one man is sculpting – and we only realise later that Aréchiga is painting his own series of paintings, portraits of some of the prisoners. But more than a film about art, this 80-minute documentary is about the men themselves. We see them talking to each other, and to Aréchiga, who they take to immediately, and we see them play chess, and in one telling moment we see one man sprawled sleeping on a sofa.
The notes about the film suggest that Aréchiga has recreated his studio and living room (hence the sofa) in the jail, but this information is never disclosed in the film. The lack of details force the viewer to concentrate and to listen more closely to the men who chat about their situations. One man misses his kids, while another feels that he has disappointed his parents. One prisoner talks how his car and watch, signs of wealth, admitted him to the fanciest restaurants on the outside, but inside, with nothing, all men are equal.
The men seem decent types, and this seems to be the point of the film, that prisoners are human. If this were a BBC programme with the likes of Gareth Malone going to a prison to form a choir then there would be tears and emotional scenes. But in 45 Days in Jarbar, there is no redemptive moment, but instead a long take capturing the men at work, Aréchiga’s cigarette smoke curling out like a masterpiece.
The film may be obscure at times, but it is fascinating, and there is something dreamlike in watching these men work, not just on their paintings, but the on the creative process itself.
Runs here until 7 June 2020. Donations welcomed.