I had a chance to view The Strawberry Tree (El Arbol de las Fresas) last night and still have mixed feelings about it today despite thinking on it all night.
Here’s a quick sentence from the synopsis found at the USC Cinematic Arts site:
Testing the boundaries between anthropology, documentary and reverie, the film is a mesmerizing cinematic poem that portrays with rigorous restraint the final sigh of one of Cuba’s last fishing villages.
I’m glad I read this before going for multiple reasons. First it gave me an idea about how to view it, i.e. as an anthropologist with room for this “poetic” license. Second, it gave me an understanding of what I was about to see, which was great since we aren’t given much guidance during the film. Lastly there is some fantastic historical information that shows the importance of the location, this too is sadly not included in the film itself.
It starts off really strongly, placing us in the midst of a conversation between four people (who we later see more of as the film progresses). They joke about the storm and how easily their homes feel to it. In this quick scene we see a wonderful snapshot of the vivid personalities existing in the rather bleak setting we come to know through the rest of the film.
After this part we are given a view of daily life in the area through observation and interviews. Kids play around, adults are making food, repairing nets, killing goats, etc. The candid conversations between the filmmaker and the people are beautiful and honest. What appeals to me most about them is the inclusion of references to the filmmaker, Simone. It shows the relationship that was formed over the process of making the film and is a great example of why anthropologists should include their presence in the fieldwork in their final products.
There isn’t a solid narrative, which doesn’t necessarily detract from the movie as a whole, but during the last section I was left with too many questions. We follow this village throughout their daily lives and as the day draws to a close we see people dancing. After this there is a shot of someone leaving a home, getting into a car and driving away. Fade to black. Another nighttime shot of the same scene we just saw. Fade to black. Morning.
Then we are treated to a prolonged look at the fisherman from underwater. By prolonged I mean awkwardly long. Many people around me started talking to each other, asking what was happening, what should they be looking for. We are watching fish long after we see the process of catching them.
This was followed by a shot of what looked like a dried up riverbed, with two dogs racing around occasionally and some lightning in the distance. This too was overly long. We sat there, waiting for some purpose and then the film ends.
Like Forest of Bliss I kept looking for a story, or some semblance of purpose in this last portion. What were the filmmaker’s intentions? The fact that a general idea didn’t pop into my head immediately is troubling. Sure, it could be representing the anxious waiting for the storm to come, but I only feel that way because I read the synopsis.
I wished that we had gotten to see some discussion of the aftermath at the end. Even if it cut back to the interviews we saw in the first shot I would have felt the film was more complete.
The lack of focus I felt was literal and metaphorical. As I’ve discussed above, I was left with too many questions as I walked out. In the literal sense I have to say there were way too many out-of-focus shots. This is a minor thing, and I know the issues of keeping focus with a moving subject, but there were times that I feel like the focus could have easily been fixed (like the one-on-one talks).
Overall I liked this look at the town that seems to have been pretty bleak at the start, and then wiped out by a storm. I only wish the end had done the first part justice.