Black Brown White: Globalization & Us

Erwin Wagenhofer’s road movie through a fragmented Europe; in western capitalism, contradictions are everywhere

On The Town | Valerie Crawford-Pfannhauser | March 2011

Erwin Wagenhofer is often described as a critic of globalization. In his widely acclaimed documentaries We Feed The World and Let’s Make Money, the Austrian filmmaker exposed some of the uncomfortable social realities and economic implications of our global system – where our food comes from and where our money goes. And those solutions, if we are to have them, are up to us.

"The system is all of us," the filmmaker said in a recent interview. "I build myself into the titles. If we take democracy seriously, then it is we who make the rules, we who choose our representatives who act on our behalf."

Black Brown White, which opened in Vienna Feb. 18, is Wagenhofer’s first feature film, weaving together some of the social concerns from his earlier documentaries, with a compelling narrative and well developed characterisation in an  homage to the road-movie, an epic journey of social realism and self discovery.

The result is a refreshingly intelligent and thought-provoking film that delivers a powerful punch on all levels, with strong and well-observed performances, a strongly visual vocabulary and soul-searching music by the Spanish flamenco guitarist Niño Josele that supports the questioning and restlessness of the film.

Black Brown White takes us inside the world of Peter – an Austrian long distance heavy goods truck driver, known to all as ‘Don Pedro,’ played by the talented and versatile Fritz Karl. Wagenhofer avoids stereo-types, and Don Pedro is not beer bellied or obtuse, rather, he is in good shape, speaks several languages, has great physical and mental agility and as we later discover, he actually comes from a well-educated family of medical doctors.

Wagenhofer presents Don Pedro as a modern-day lonesome cowboy, his home is his truck and he is constantly in motion.  Interestingly enough, Wagenhofer himself has a truck-driving license and Fritz Karl was willing to acquire one to get this role. Whilst working on We Feed The Worldin 2004, Wagenhofer also travelled from Spain to Vienna with a trucker from Burgenland and learnt first-hand about the everyday routines and challenges long distance drivers face. In Black Brown White, we are shown both private and public encounters including how Don Pedro handles fatigue, attempts to keep himself clean and deals with the interactions at the borders with police and customs.

Don Pedro runs a risky but highly profitable business with his office-based partner, the wheel-chair bound Jimmy (Karl Markovics). In one of the vast black Scania heavy goods truck, emblazoned with the company’s slogan "Just in Time" along its side, Don Pedro takes a cargo of Ukranian garlic to Morocco. The garlic is then repackaged, children put labels on the boxes, and it moves on to be sold as a product of Spain. Part of this calculated operation is also smuggling refugees into Europe and crammed behind the truck’s hold area is a small space where people are stowed away.

Problems start when Don Pedro meets Jackie, a strong and intelligent young woman from Ghana (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and her son Theo (Theo Caleb Chapman). Jackie has paid to be smuggled to Geneva where she wants to track down the United Nations official who is Theo’s father and confront him with his son – and his  responsibility to help with the boy’s education and future. She insists on sitting up front in the truck, which poses a risk. Don Pedro has to stop to pick up a cargo of tomatoes in Almeria, and Theo gets lost in one of the endless plastic greenhouses. To escape the clutches of Guiterrez, a shrewd Spanish Commissar, played masterfully by Francesc Garrido, Don Pedro pretends to be Theo’s father. Guiterrez plays an agonising game of cat and mouse game with Don Pedro and the tension is palpable.

Black Brown White shows the paradoxes inherent in western economic and social systems, including the illegal immigrants tolerated by the police, who farm the tomatoes in Spain for the markets that want tomatoes all year round, and the houses that stand empty because they have been built on speculation for markets that never materialized. When Don Pedro, Jackie and Theo stop overnight in one of the white painted modern houses amongst hundreds of others that stand completely empty, she asks why. "Welcome to Europe," is his cynical and resigned retort.

When Jackie and Don Pedro finally reach out to each other, the moment is credible, moving and tender, especially as we are not shown the graphic detail of an clichéd love scene. Suggestion is a device Wagenhofer employs throughout the narrative, and we never see the illegal immigrants stowed away in the truck, or the squalor of the conditions they endure. He chooses not to tell the story in polarised terms of good and evil, wrong and right but creates a ‘Kino in Kopf,’ encouraging the audience to imagine for themselves. As the film title suggests – in between black and white are shades of brown and no matter the color of our skin, we all share common interests and problems.

Through the recurring help of ‘Doc,’ a member of Doctors Without Borders, sensitively played by Wotan Wilke Moehring, Don Pedro helps ensure Jackie and Theo have a chance of a better future, and we see him capable of showing humanity in an inhumane business. At one point Don Pedro says he is not a criminal but the system is criminal.

Black Brown White is shot in Cinemascope format, by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, and we are given memorable and stunning images of the mighty rocks and dusty trails of Andalucia that adds to the ‘Western’ feel of the film as well as reinforcing the loneliness and desolation of the protagonists. The imagery is a powerful and provocative element in the film – as with the sea of plastic and cardboard that are the primitive dwellings of the illegal immigrants; it takes just a few moment for the eyes to adjust, and until we realize the squalor and depredation of what we are actually seeing.

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