Less Than Zero – The (in)human relationships of Belle & The Golden Dream

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*spoiler warning: do not read on if you still want to see these films & not know what happens*

The other week, I was able to catch two very interesting films at the Glasgow Film Theatre: The Golden Dream and Belle. The Golden Dream traces the stories of four teenagers who try to leave Guatemala for the United States. For the film, writer and director Diego Quemada-Díez interviewed over 600 immigrants over six years to build a script which reflected the dangers of the journey from South America to the United States. Belle, by contrast, started with the discovery of an 18th century painting that showed a Black woman next to a White woman, both of seemingly equal, aristocratic status (see below). Subsequent research managed to identify the woman, but revealed only fragments of her story. In fact, the script deliberately changes the women’s story as an inquiry into other possible histories. Very different in style and feel – one is a social realist film, the other a full-on costume drama – the films still revolve around the same subject: the status of the individual within economic relationships.

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Juan (Brandon López) posing as a cowboy for a photo at a local market place

In The Golden Dream, we get to know four young people who try to get from Guatemala to the United States: Juan, Sara, Samuel and Chauk. The film takes care to emphasise how the characters are driven as much by poverty as by curiosity, adventure and poetic imagination. Although all of them are aware that neither the journey to the States nor the States themselves are going to be an easy ride – Sara, for instance, tries to protect herself against potential rape by disguising herself as a boy, and Juan sews money into the insides of his jeans to hide it from robbers – they all nurture their own particular relationship to the country: Juan takes pride in his cowboy boots, even stealing a new pair when his get taken by corrupt police, and Chauk hopes to experience the magical beauty of snow. The film also shows the development of the personal relationships between the characters: the sadness of having to leave a close friend behind when Samuel drops out after the first violent encounter with border police, the change from animosity to friendship between Juan and Chauk, the interactions between Sara and the two enamoured boys, and the varied degrees of empathy of the people around the railway line with the ‘wealth seekers’.

It is clear that the teenagers’ journey cannot normally come to an end without dangers – even the director ended up in life-threatening situations during his research. Still, each time it comes as a shock when the lives and dreams of the characters are coldly and gruesomely obliterated one by one. In an instant, the characters’ status changes from person to body, number, animal, vagina, parasite. People become mere carriers whose money, phones, plastic bags, shoes, clothes, drugs, weapons, phone numbers etc are being extracted by the perversely interlocked systems of crime and governance. Of course, with the arrival in the States, the horror does not end. Maybe because of its portrayal of poetic moments and unexpected acts of kindness, The Golden Dream succeeds so well in portraying the utter inhumanity of the conditions of immigration from poor to rich countries. How can the actions of the people who throw food and water to the exhausted rail travellers weigh up the brutalities of rapists, kidnappers and racist sharpshooters? How can they make a difference in such the powerful machine of economics and securitisation? (Only this week, President Obama petitioned for billions of pounds to ‘improve’ border security and deportation, specifically of unaccompanied children.) How can they, or the beauty of their environments, compete with the combination of structural inequality and the allure of the American Dream that has been reproduced for centuries?

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Image source: Wikipedia (there is a short feature on this painting in relation to the film here)

Like The Golden Dream, the story of Belle tackles the topic of inequality. This time, the protagonist is not an immigrant, but of uncertain legal status – and extremely negative social status – as well. Belle fictionalises the life of a real person, Dido Belle Lindsay, who was born to a White British naval officer and an enslaved African woman. After the death of her mother, her father puts her in the care of his uncle and his wife, who are already raising her cousin. This uncle happens to be William Murray, a Scottish aristocrat and Lord Chief Justice. Belle turns this background into two interlocking themes: Dido’s growing up as a noblewoman in social and legal limbo, and the involvement of her guardian in key rulings on the legality of slavery. Regarding the latter, the film focuses on the Zong massacre trial, which was indeed overseen by William Murray. The crew of the Zong threw 142 Africans overboard when conditions on the overloaded slave ship worsened and threatened to endanger the remaining ‘healthy cargo’. Since the slaves were worth more dead than alive – their loss could be claimed back from the insurance – the ‘merchants’ argued that the killing was economically necessary. In the film, Dido is shielded from such public discourse, but becomes increasingly aware of it and of herself as a barely human commodity. This awareness and gradual acceptance of this status leads her to eventually supply information to the abolitionists.

Although the film sometimes verges a bit too much on the didactic and builds up to a classic girl-gets-boy ‘happy ending’, it manages to leave the audience with enough uncomfortable questions about times past and present. In fact, one suspects that the real Dido might have experienced much worse moments of ‘revelation’ that those selected for the film. Aside from obvious questions about racism and the production of ‘immigrants’, Belle appears to address another form of oppression. When Dido finally gets to marry the man she loves, the many discussions about the economics of marriage that took place throughout the film, distinctly undermine the romantic finale. One is left wondering if, after the abolition of slavery in most parts of the world, marriage should be the next thing to go. While most of us may not have the worries of aristocratic succession or economic dependence, marriage still remains an institution that legitimises and enforces conservative norms. True to the genre of period dramas, the film portrays the full set of anxieties around ‘legitimate’ relationships. Here, the slightly inverted history (in the film, Dido is richer than her cousin Elizabeth) allows for additional twistedness, whether in the form of a racist but impoverished aristocrat being forced to propose to Dido because of her wealth, or Dido’s realisation that she is actually better off as a social outcast. As a financially independent Black woman, Dido falls outside the social AND inheritance system. Not having to worry about either economic well being or status, she is thus free to marry – or not marry – whom she wants. Of course this is not entirely true, as her choice of partner is rather restricted, but in principle she is free not to participate in the marriage economy.

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Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with William Murray (Tom Wilkinson) in Belle

One could say that, in some sense, both films leave us with rather depressing outcomes. In Belle, despite her awareness of marriage as a form of oppression and social control, Dido chooses to marry after all. In The Golden Dream, we are left with the feeling that economic migrants, despite their awareness of the system, continue to risk their lives to be exploited in the United States. No amount of risky ‘data leaking’ (Dido supplying evidence to the abolitionists from her guardian’s papers), marriage proposal rejection, food donation, refugee hiding or poetic re-imagination seems to help. At the same time, the films seem to suggest that the option of by-passing the system by ‘opting out’ of marriage or immigration may be only marginally better for the characters and creates less opportunities to affect the system. If Dido had stayed unmarried, taken a lover and overseen the daily affairs of the estate, that would have merely confirmed another stereotype. If Sara, Juan and Chauk had stayed home, other people would have taken their place in that journey. So what kind of possibilities for intervention remain?

In Belle, the marriage between the legally ‘flawed’ Dido and the aspiring barrister John Davinier is clearly controversial. It becomes part of the on-going struggle against slavery and unequal humanity. Despite the marriage ending, the marriage can be read not as an end in itself, i.e. this is what we should be fighting for, but as a starting point for further change, i.e. equal rights and eventual abolition of marriage as an engine of inequality. The semi-fictional ruling in the Zong case, in which Murray declares that no humans should ever be treated as cargo, suggests that institutions are not indestructible. At the same time, it alerts us that the desire for change can often be abandoned once small victories have been achieved – in this case, one destructive system is merely replaced by another (e.g. slave labour by quasi-slave-labour; women and immigrants remainining ‘flawed citizens’, to paraphrase Ariella Azoulay). Likewise, The Golden Dream suggests that an improvement of immigrant rights or immigration conditions, while urgently necessary, should not be the end in itself either. As immigration issues, in political debates, too often serve as a deflection from the need to tackle the root of the problem, attention needs to be reorientated towards intervention in the wider, on-going production of social and economic inequality for economic gain. This production is shown, more so in Belle than in The Golden Dream, as something that does not only affect, but is affected by individuals. Despite their differing levels of optimism about the agency of the individual, both films appear as pleas to go further in one’s demands – in what we demand of life and in what we demand of the system we are co-producing – so that fewer lives remain worth less than zero.

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