The following are two short documentaries filmed in the Cuban town of San Antonio de los Baños near Havana four years apart, by Erik Knudsen – the academic/documentary maker of Danish/Ghanaian origin, not to be confused with the Canadian actor of the same name. Both are short and not entirely conventional examples of the documentary genre, but oddly compelling viewing nonetheless.
Vainilla Chip (2009) is a short, only 17 minutes long, documentary. It follows a day in the life of elderly ice-cream maker Javier Rodriguez Casanova. The viewer watches him dawn to dusk, as he goes through his routine of making ice-cream and looking after his business, framed by the rituals he has developed around grieving his wife. There is no dialogue or voice-over in the film, yet there is something compulsive about watching Javier at work, his grief is etched in his face and his actions. Following a routine he has clearly followed for a long time, with an unspoken knowledge that if he didn’t his grief would consume him.
This is a film about grief and loss, and how life goes on despite it. There’s a metaphor there is you want it, but whether for Cuba or for the human condition in general is left up to the individual viewer.
The Yoruba Tree (2005) is only just over 5 minutes long and on the surface is almost as different from Vainilla Chip as it is possible to be.
Whereas Vainilla Chip is about how an individual’s story can apply to a much wider population, The Yoruba Tree is about how a big wide event, in this case the impact of slavery on Cuban culture, affects individuals. It also has a narration, which is spoken in a rather lyrical fashion, as though the narrator was reading a poem, or perhaps recounting a story that has been passed down through many generations. It seems at once like fiction and like oral history, guiding the viewer to understand the connection between past and present as embodied by the woman’s actions and the continuing presence of the tree.
What the two films have in common, other than their location, is their use of sound. The natural and human sounds of the locations are not removed or lowered in volume; instead they are fore grounded. In place of the voice of the human protagonist that we are following, instead we have the sounds of their location, placing the person within the context of their wider geographic location. It’s obviously part of the naturalistic style of the documentaries, but it also gives the viewer the impression that they are listening to the sounds they would be hearing if they were standing where the camera stands. It makes the films feel less mediated, more raw, but in a good way.