“We Are Alive” is a spiritual companion piece to documentarian Carmen Castillo’s 2007 “Calle Santa Fe,” not only because of its focus on her personal connection (and commitment) to global insurgency, but also because of its crude aesthetics and empty preachiness. Motivated by the 2010 death of Trotskyite philosopher and activist colleague and friend Daniel Bensaid (who helped organize the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris), the film will appeal only to likeminded true-believers abroad, facing virtually non-existent commercial prospects in the States following a special New York Film Fest screening the night before hitting homevid in France.
Essentially a quest to rekindle her guerrilla spirit in a 21st-century world she feels has lost much of its revolutionary zeal, Castillo’s journey takes her to a variety of global locales, where she talks with people similarly dedicated to socialist upheaval. Her inert formal devices, however, are almost as enervating as her interest in intellectual investigation is superficial.
“We Are Alive” is crafted like a non-fiction diary, replete with plentiful navel-gazing and devoid of context. Amidst ho-hum landscape panoramas set to narrated passages from Bensaid’s writing, Castillo travels from the streets of her native Paris – where she has resided since fleeing her native Chile in 1974 after the Pinochet regime murdered her husband – to Marseille and then to rural outposts in Brazil and Bolivia, where the poor and disenfranchised are banding together to fight back against oppressors.
Alas, who those tyrants actually are, what unjust systems they’ve established and why they must be overthrown are all vital details Castillo sees fit to ignore. Diligently eschewing context at every turn, the writer-director simply celebrates the camaraderie and passion of her interviewees, though without anything approaching a concrete idea about their circumstances or causes, the material fails to elicit empathy for their plights.
In fact, it’s impossible to feel almost anything about those spotlighted by “We Are Alive,” considering that they’re presented as mere abstract symbolic mouthpieces for anti-capitalist platitudes about exploitation, inequality and the need (per the film’s title) to have their existence recognized, and validated, by society. The oft-mentioned “struggle” in which these disparate people are engaged is left indistinct, and the goals they seek remain, throughout, frustratingly ill-defined.
Castillo’s chats with her fellow die-hard activists go one for minutes at an end, presumably in order to capture the speakers’ staunch loyalty to their calling and comrades. When coupled with the absence of basic information about the strikes and mutinies being discussed, however, her lack of editorial restraint turns the doc into a tiresome slog.
The fundamental problem with “We Are Alive” isn’t that it strives to romanticize Marxist ideals and/or any movement even tangentially related to, or inspired by, Paris’ 1968 student revolts; rather, it’s that it does so without concurrently making a legitimate case for their virtuousness. Whether speaking with a group of Mexicans fighting against unnamed “multinationals” for control of their water supply, or with French refinery unionists engaged in some sort of strike, the film depicts its radicals in the most dreamy, noble light possible.
It’s a perspective that, like Bensaid’s philosophizing and Castillo’s musings on her own efforts to reignite her revolutionary spark, exists in a vacuum that renders it meaningless. Taking as a given the peerless integrity of its anti-capitalist ethos, Castillo’s documentary is content to revel in its chorus of likeminded voices — and thus operates as little more than a shallow sermon to the choir.
Film Review: 'We Are Alive'
Reviewed at New York Film Festival, Sept. 29, 2015. Running time: 100 MIN. (Original title: “On est vivants”)
(Documentary — France-Belgium) A Happiness Distribution (in France) release of a a Les Film d’Ici, Iota Prod. production, in co-production with Film Factory, with the participation of CNC, Centre du Cinema de la Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles, Cine Plus. Produced by Serge Lalou. Executive producer, Mathieu Cabanes. Co-producer, Isabelle Truc.
Directed, written by Carmen Castillo. Camera (color/black-and-white, widescreen, HD), Ned Burgess; editor, Eva Fegeiles-Aimé; music, Jacques Davidovici; production manager, Mathieu Cabanes; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Jean-Jacques Quinet; re-recording mixer, Jean-Jacques Quinet.
(French, Spanish, Portuguese dialogue)