Watching orders to evacuate along the shores of North Carolina, Virginia, New York and New Jersey to avoid Hurricane Irene and its aftermath of flooding, power outages, and flying debris, I thought of some of the ramifications of displacement, a loss of place and, perhaps, the identity attached to it as we witnessed after Hurricane Katrina. Just prior to Katrina, for example, the population of New Orleans was nearly half a million. Five years later, according to the 2010 census, the population was still less than 340,000, an increase from the approximately 255,000 calculated in 2006. Approximately 1464 people died during the hurricane and its aftermath. The rest of the more than 200,000 people were evacuated, and only a small percentage of these displaced persons ever returned.
Three recent films interrogate displacement from various perspectives and levels of violence but move beyond natural disaster to human rights and environmental justice violations, sometimes at monumental levels. Yet they all highlight the power of place and the yearning for a return to a home, even one associated with pain, torture, rape, and death.
In Riki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s documentary, The Devil Comes on Horseback (2007), Marine turned military observer, Brian Steidl, snaps away with his telephoto lens as he watches Janjaweed raiders shoot children, rape women, massacre men and burn entire villages to the ground in Darfur, Sudan. Steidl serves as a witness to the horrific crimes on display, offering his photographic evidence as a powerful rationale for intervention when, as an observer, he could shoot only pictures instead of the cruel Janjaweed.
Steidl’s return to a Chad refugee camp highlights the further losses suffered by those who survive the unspeakable atrocities of the Janjaweed. Their homes and villages are gone. Their land is unfit for farming, not only because the Janjaweed have burned their crops, but also because oil production and transport have destroyed soil and watersheds. Their family members have been murdered or mutilated. And their only home is a crowded tent camp.
Claudia Llosa’s Milk of Sorrow (2009), a fictionalized account of the repercussions of the Peruvian Civil War, centers on a woman’s struggle to cope with her mother’s experiences with rape as a tool of war, a traumatic experience passed onto to her through her mother’s songs and, perhaps, breast milk. To protect herself from a similar sexual assault, Fausta (Magaly Solier) inserts a potato as a shield, gingerly cutting off growing vines.
Fausta’s displacement is two-fold. She must leave her village home when her mother dies, transporting her mother’s body to her uncle’s home in a Lima ghetto. To earn money to bury her mother, however, she also leaves her uncle’s home and the ghetto community to work as a maid in a walled compound where a concert pianist tosses a grand piano out a window and steals Fausta’s songs in exchange for the promise of pearls. The post-Civil War Peruvian setting clearly bifurcates both rural and urban and rich and poor, but it also illustrates the repercussions of the traumas of war, placing a rape of women, landscapes, and cultures on display in relation to both Colonial and Post-Colonial exploitation.
In Sebastian Silva’s The Maid (2009), a fictional narrative based on the filmmaker’s own experiences with his family’s live-in maid, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) suffers from headaches and an eventual temporary paralysis as a result of her more than 20 years working as a live-in-maid for a rich Santiago family patterned on Silva’s own and filmed in his family home. The film demonstrates Raquel’s loss of identity and family connections and her attempts to replace those losses with her employers and their children, so much so that she wards off her employers’ attempts to hire another maid to help her with her grueling tasks of cleaning, cooking, and child care.
Yet the entrance of another maid, Lucy (Mariana Loyola) amplifies the clear displacement suffered by Raquel on display in the film. Lucy enters Raquel’s home and is subjected to some of the same games that intimidated other maids hired to help Raquel. Lucy, however, reintroduces Raquel to the concept of family and home, first by becoming her friend and then by inviting her to her own rural family home for Christmas. After a long bus ride, Lucy and Raquel enjoy a holiday on a family farm that contrasts with the city mansion they leave behind and the distant relationship shared between Raquel and the family she serves. What stands out, however, is a phone call between Raquel and her mother during the Christmas celebration. For the first time on screen, Raquel asks her mother about her health and her siblings’ well-being, and when her mother seems not to answer, Raquel apologizes—for what we’re not sure—highlighting the losses felt by those displaced in quiet but powerful ways.