In “Guest,” Jose Luis Guerin seizes the opportunity afforded by a year of festival travel to explore the often dirty reality of life on a city’s edges, away from all cameras but his own. The result is an ambitious, intriguing exploration of global poverty that’s both rangy and intimate; a highly personal and political study that shows disenfranchisement is the same everywhere while emphasizing the uniqueness of those who experience it. Aficionados who prefer Guerin’s more poetic side will find little to enjoy here, but the docu will provoke strong reactions, some uncomfortable, at the multiple fests for which it’s headed.
(English, French, Portuguese, Mandarin dialogue)
Guerin visited more than 40 cities in one year to promote his films “In the City of Sylvia” and “Women We Don’t Know,” beginning in September 2007. The docu is a video diary, with entries ranging from a few seconds to as long as 15 minutes.
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The approach seems to have been to arrive at a festival and then tumble out of the limo, vidcam in hand, to head off and explore a city’s underbelly. But this is apparently illusion; many of the cities were later revisited for further shooting, though that doesn’t make the film any less an example of biting the festival hand that feeds you.
Much of “Guest” takes place outdoors, in public spaces, and focuses on street life in all its varied splendor, from street protests against immigration law; religious meetings led by fevered, apocalyptic street preachers (“You say you love God,” one of them admonishes his public, “but you buy DVD players!”); and one powerful sequence featuring a group of girls dancing, lost in a trance.
Sometimes touching, sometimes humorous, this is a far wordier film than we’re used to from Guerin. He finds no end of strangers prepared to reveal themselves to his camera, but his decision not to edit their sometimes incoherent ramblings will annoy some.
Others will question the helmer’s preoccupation with those at the bottom of the social pile, and his romantic belief that the dispossessed must be speaking the truth. But Guerin does elicit some remarkable stories from his often elderly subjects, and assured editing guarantees we leave these people with the sense of having learned something from them.
His encounters are punctuated with transition shots from trains or planes, where the aerial silence contrasts starkly with the human bustle below. Guerin also films in his hotel rooms, where there is often a black-and-white movie flickering on the TV — and sly reminders of the types of film he favors (one of the films is “Portrait of Jennie,” which as a point of connection with “In the City of Sylvia”).
Images of Guerin himself in the docu — and any voiceover — are almost entirely absent, with glimpses provided only in a street portrait or as a photo on a girl’s mobile phone, observing rather than participating — before, presumably, hopping back into his limo and heading for another festival.
A couple of other cineastes are filmed en route: the effervescent, provocative Chantal Akerman and a garrulous Jonas Mekas, who explains that “everything is chance, and nothing is really chance.” This might be a motto for “Guest”: One the pic’s guiding principles is that there is order behind the apparent randomness of events, and it is the artist’s job to find it.
Underneath it all, the docu returns to four simple universals: religion, poverty, food and apocalpyse. Until the final scenes, this is largely a film about men, but Guerin devotes a lengthy final sequence to a group of women in Peru going about their daily lives in conditions of an extreme poverty in which, by this stage, the aud has had its face well and truly rubbed.
The range of languages includes English, French, Portuguese and Mandarin.