Film Scratches: Navigating the System – The Ensemble of Rules (2015)
Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
The Ensemble of Rules, a feature film by Eliseo Ortiz about the process of becoming a naturalized US citizen, combines documentary footage and interviews with three immigrants living in Buffalo, New York with excerpts from educational videos, flash cards, and other materials developed by the government to guide applicants through the process.
Much of the footage centers on María de Buenos Aires, AKA La Gata, an utterly charming lady from Argentina who is in the process of moving from one floor to another within her senior housing center. (The young filmmakers are helping her to move.) La Gata was a professional singer, and she clearly loves being the subject of a documentary. The film shows her singing in a nightclub, and she has lost most of what once must have been a powerful voice, but retains her sense of stage presence, although the patrons of the Buffalo bar seem to have no context with which to interpret the style of a Buenos Aires cabaret singer who strolls through the crowd as she serenades them. Many of the Spanish speaking residents of her building are clearly fond of her.
An interview with Rafael Madou-Madou, an African immigrant who is more comfortable in French and Spanish than in English, is conducted in all three languages, and presented in a triple screen format. Madou-Madou feels that his lack of English skills are keeping Americans from understanding how educated he is and the fact that he is qualified to do much more than his current job, washing dishes in a restaurant. The fractured quality of the triple screening format, with subtitles translating only some of the dialog between all three languages, is a graphic representation of his complex cultural point of view.
Long sections of the film are comprised of US government educational videos about naturalization, which have a bizarre effect of presenting an unreal, idealized portrait of the process of applying for citizenship. The test involves understanding English as well as basic civics and US history, and after studying for the test, immigrants have a better grasp of these subjects than many Americans who are born here. An audio interview with Alma Jimenez describes her experience of going through the process, and her realization of how her identity is reduced by the government into a series of numbers.
Ortiz constructed his film (made while he was a graduate student) from material originally made for six video installations. One of them was shot in 3D. The 3D effect may not add much of value to these shots of corridors, and one of the bridge which connects Buffalo to Fort Erie, Ontario. The strongest 3D effect is in the last shot in the film: an American flag waving in the breeze, while thousands of pieces of paper fall in the extreme foreground. This is an extremely literal graphic representation of the idea that becoming an American involves a lot of paperwork, and the literalness of the approach likewise doesn’t add much to our understanding.
Has Ortiz successfully reshaped this installation material into the feature film format? Certain lengthy sections of the film, essentially static shots of the corners of rooms with no action and no sound, might have been fine in an art gallery but fit awkwardly into a theatrical film. Though overall, The Ensemble of Rules is engaging and informative. It conveys something of the absurdly reductive nature of the process of becoming an American and juxtaposes this with a rich and vibrant sense of the real lives of people who move here from other countries.