by Dwight Casimere
I have to admit, the Columbia/France movie production ‘Crab Trap,’ the debut production of Columbian Director Oscar Ruiz Navia, was not on my radar as a subject for review at the Miami International Film Festival. The film, in its U.S. Premiere at the festival, was set to have its final of two screenings on the day I sat down on the outdoor terrace of the Royal Palm Hotel on South Beach, the festival’s temporary headquarters, to conduct a breakfast interview with Spanish producer Jose Nolla about the U.S. Premiere of his film ’25 Carat (25 Kilates) in the Cinema 360 Degrees category for emerging global directors, which had concluded the previous night. After a lengthy discussion of his film, Nolla took a deep breath and declared, “but the film you have to see tonight is ‘Crab Trap.’ That is an amazing film. It quietly draws you in, but there’s a lot of truth in it.”
I got into the mood with an early dinner at a South Beach restaurant that specialized in Columbian cuisine. It was then off to the Regal theatre for the final screening of ‘Crab Trap’ (El Vuelco Del Cangrejo), presented in Spanish with English subtitles.
The film focuses its subject on a rarely seen or filmed entity, the black population of the remote regions of Columbia. If this were the Chicago International Film Festival, this film would have been presented as part of the Black Perspectives Competition. In Miami’s film festival, it is presented as part of the Ibero-American Competition. The film was greeted by a capacity audience composed primarily of Spanish-speaking film enthusiasts.
The movie begins with the camera panning a serene setting in a remote jungle on Columbia’s Pacific coast. A lone man(Daniel, played with Christ-like stoicism by Rodrigo Velez. He, along with Jaime Andres Castano, who plays the ‘villain,’ Paisa, are the only professional actors, and the only whites in the cast ), walks aimlessly through the forest, pausing occasionally to catch his breath and to reflect on his journey. He takes a drink of water and looks longingly at a fading picture of himself and a young woman, perhaps his wife, which was obviously taken in happier times. We sense his loneliness and his depression.
The film quickly establishes its metaphorical theme centering on the conflict between the ‘outside’ Western world and civilization and its impact on the isolated, almost primitive, unspoiled world of those who inhabit the enchanted world at the edge of the rainforest. With its stunning use of remote locales, local residents as actors and its almost reluctant use of excessive dialogue, the film borders on documentary.
Back to the story. A local man appears to Daniel as if out of nowhere. The sight of the barefoot, smiling black man startles the stranger. Collecting himself, he asks the man to show him the way to the next town, La Barra. The man reluctantly agrees, but admonishes him. “You must keep up. I walk fast and if you fall behind, I’ll say goodbye.” The man dances off with a laugh and the stranger is left to find his own way to the village. After encountering a group of black youths playing soccer on the beach, the stranger is directed to his final destination, the house of a mystery man known only by the name ‘Cerebro,’ “The Brain” ( Arnobio Salazar Rivas. Carebro, by the way, is Rivas’s real nickname and he and director Navia based the character on himself).’ Cerebro is the villages self proclaimed leader and mystic. He is a man of few words whose slightest gestures and mutterings speak volumes. His origins are shrouded in mystery and the explanation he gives the stranger makes them even more obscure.
We quickly learn that Daniel wants him to secure a motorboat so that he can leave the island. Cerebro reluctantly agrees to supply him with one, but only for a price and after a great deal of emotional jousting and vetting. Daniel’s attention is distracted by the sudden appearance of Cerebro’s attractive niece, Jazmine. She is carrying a young child who we later suspect may have been fathered by Cerebro.
The appearance of the white stranger in the isolated village is a cause for some consternation among the black natives. They are already at odds with another white man, Paisa (Jaime Andres Castano) who arrived a few years hence claiming legal ownership of the local beach, which the black locals consider to be their birthright. Paisa has plans to build a resort and disco on the sight. He constantly makes his presence and his plan known by obnoxiously blaring loud rap music through a series of ever enlarging speaker systems that he somehow managers to smuggle onto the remote island from the outside world.
“We have been told to welcome the white man because he brings modernity and money, “ Cerebro ruefully tells Daniel. “But all we see is what he takes away from us. Certainly, there is nothing left for the blacks.” Daniel asks if he can help Cerebro build the house he is working on. “You can clean the beach,” Cerebro says with a note of disdain. When asked why he is building a house of straw and driftwood instead of concrete, Cerebro cautions. “The white man has come here many times before to build concrete houses. Each time, the sea destroys them. The sea is ruthless. It destroys everything.” The stranger goes about his work, moving a pile of boulders and driftwood off the beach, like Sisyphus and his mythical stone.
Navia’s camera drops us into the mystical world of this remote Columbian village like a stealth paratrooper on a night mission. His camera pans the unspoiled landscape, revealing it to us if it were the subject matter of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”
The crabs, which are the subject of the film’s title, are seen in rare, isolated shots. They are the silent witnesses to the island’s shifting social landscape and its collective suffering. They, like the villagers, are its victims, as evidenced by their dwindling numbers.
Crab Trap is a marvelous film that uses a small, little known world and its isolated problems to reveal a larger truth. It is rife with symbolism. The dialogue is sparse, but frightfully revealing. The story unfolds slowly, with languid images pregnant with meaning and saturated with truth. The washed-out appearance of Navia’s color palette enhances the dream-like quality of the film’s narrative.
Much of the film centers on the lonely stranger, Daniel, and his reluctant relationship with the precocious little Lucia (Karent Hinestroza). She insists on breaking through the lonely wall of hurt that Daniel surrounds himself in. Her annoyance has a purpose. It is as much an effort to break Daniel out of his self-imposed emotional exile, as it is to establish an emotional beachhead. She pricks his conscience like someone picking at a scab on an old wound. Later, as Daniel swims in the current, she goes through his personal things. It is a practice Daniel indulges in often. It is almost like a baptism for his wounded soul. At times, he sees his estranged wife’s face as he emerges above the surface of the water. Lucia finds her picture in Daniel’s backpack. She has discovered the source of his despair. The knowledge binds her to him completely.
Of the characters, Jazmine (a luminous Yisela Alvarez) is the most alluring. Trapped in a repressive relationship with her uncle, Cerebro, she is at once his ward, his housemaid and his concubine. She is also relegated to the role of village sex object. It is both the source of her shame and her liberation.
Cerebro uses his persistent insomnia as an excuse to satisfy his lustful cravings with her. After all, what’s a little incest between consenting relations? Jazmine finds emotional release in her dalliances, mostly, we later learn, with Paisa.
She bonds sexually with Daniel early in the film, but we later learn she is only trying him out for size. There’s already that relationship with Paisa that walks the thin line between love and hate. There’s a truly revealing scene involving she and Paisa when she pays a later afternoon visit to the shack where Paisa scales the fish that he smuggles onto the island. For some reason, he is the only person around who seems to get them on a regular basis, which everyone else makes do with rice alone. Earlier, he had given a fish to Jazmine as a peace offering, thus luring her into his lair.
The sexual innuendo is obvious as is the symbolism of the fish, which is a scarce commodity on the island. “Outsiders have over fished and stripped the sea,” Cerebro tells the stranger during a long journey by canoe up the river. “When I was young, there were carp, perch, yellow tail and sting rays and many, many crabs. Now, there nothing.” From time to time, we see what few crabs remain scuttling across the beach. The little girl leads the stranger on futile missions to trap them.
Mysteriously, there are no fish in the village. Local fishermen spends weeks on excursions into the ocean and its treacherous riptides, only to return home weeks later empty-handed. At night, the local inhabitants build bonfires on the beach and participate in a type of rain dance in hopes of their safe return.
Besides the persistent blaring of Paisa’s music, the other intrusion from the outside world on the otherwise tranquil island are the reports on the island’s only TV of the civil unrest in the cities beyond. The local populace is rising up against the President and his corrupt regime. There are reports of guerilla fighting in the mountains and villages.
In microcosm, there is growing unrest among the local black villagers against Paisa and his plans to turn their peaceful reserve into another Paradise Island. (Ironically, the motorboat desired by Daniel for his escape is named ‘The Paradise’).
The moment of conflict comes. Bad blood is precipitated when Paisa refuses to pay the black youths he has recruited to construct a wall restricting the beach from use by the local blacks. Already stung by disapproval from their elders, the young men are humiliated and vow revenge. The flames of unrest have been fanned and the firestorm is soon to follow!
Back to that toxic relationship between Jazmine and Paisa: She gives him dance lessons in his fish scaling shack that inevitably turn into a roll in the hay. In many ways, she is taunting Paisa and snubbing her nose at those around her. Her surreptitious visits are no secret to anyone. They become the focus of ‘locker room’ talk by the local teens over a shared bottle of moonshine after a beachside socker game. The stranger listens with amazement at the revelation, but soon gets a fly on the wall view for himself. Maybe Jazmine wants everyone to see? It may be her only avenue to emancipation.
Lucia is a fifty years of craftiness and wisdom compacted into a ten year old’s body. To no one’s surprise, by the end of the film, she becomes Daniel’s sole salvation and benefactor.
In the end, everyone gets what they want. The stranger gets his motorboat and his much-vaunted freedom. The native blacks, like the Lion in Oz, get their courage and their resolve back.
The last thing we hear as the screen fades to black and the credits roll is the sound of native machetes cutting through the wooden staves erected by Paisa to protect ‘his’ beach. It is certainly that, no more!
Crab Trap was certainly an audience favorite at the Miami International Film Festival from the tone of the comments I heard, both in English and Spanish, at the conclusion of the film.