I remember being 9 years old when I moved from my childhood home. To this day I can still close my eyes to reminisce on the sights, smells and sounds of my youth. I grew up in a small suburb in South Central L.A. near the border of Orange County’s working class district. Next to the cities of Downey and Norwalk, the area is pretty intermingled in terms of cultural integration. You had the White and Latino based households lining the neighborhood streets in an almost patterned fashion. Being raised by Mexican Grandparents, my upbringing was full of constant family get togethers, music or laughter blaring from every angle and a dinner table that was a place of almost sacred tradition. It’s always nice to think back to these simpler times. However, it can be just as cordial to have someone or something else do the recalling for you every now and then. This is where Ryan Casselman’s 2016 short film, “Our Barrio” comes into play.
Centering on Gabriela(tremendously portrayed by Yvette Angulo)and her struggle to find herself amidst the routine obstacles of adolescent life, the film takes form of a slice of life drama, all while providing an earnest representation of multi-generation Latino culture. By following her around throughout the course of the film, we as an audience are provided with a major breath of fresh air in regard to the script. This is mainly due to Casselman’s choice to avoid the usual stereotypes that accompany subject matters of this variety. This is a film that replaces the sensational with the actual. The exaggerated pitfalls of expectancy are tossed aside for, dare I say it, real life as it honestly happens. As a fly on the wall, we listen in on Gabriela’s conversations with friends, promises to family and frustrations with her own identity. This an average girl with above average dreams. The soul of an artist trapped inside the body of a woman who’s not only disconnected from the confidence in herself, but from the generational gap found within her home.
This last point is made clear through tribulations encountered via disagreements with her parents(Andrea Sevilla & Francisco Javier Gomez respectively), as well as the limited patience she tends to have for her younger brother, Mateo(Robby Perez). With a visit from her older brother, Diego(East Los High’s Rick Mancia), utilized as a centerpiece for the film’s progression, it is here we are able to learn who Gabriela truly is. A standout moment in the film is a conversation shared between the two while in Diego’s car. An aspiring rapper with goals of his own – Explained firsthand as he performs a few lines in a moment akin to Short Term 12 – seeing eye to eye, the two are fish out of water, full of ambition but not without hurdles. As life carries on after this wonderful example of family collectiveness, it is not until Gabriela’s newfound momentum is put to a tragic, screeching halt as the harsh grimace of reality dawns upon her once again. However, it is not these big shifts in narrative that define the success of this film. But rather, it is Ryan Casselman’s seamless ability to capture the “little things”, thus exemplifying how they can make any movie such a human experience.
In a 2002 interview with renowned animator Hayao Miyazaki, Roger Ebert pointed out the small, serene moments found in between the general action of his animated films:
EBERT: “Instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.”
Which was met with the swift reply of:
MIYAZAKI: “We have a word for that in Japanese. It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally. [claps his hands] The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. but if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time, you just get numb.”
Casselman’s film, upon a close watch, dictates that he has mastered this sense of “ma”. There will be small, but beautiful moments involving Gabriela stopping to people-watch fellow customers at a thrift shop. Characters will silently look out windows in interest of the actions taking place outside them. In a particularly lovely moment, Gabriela takes a second to sit with Mateo as he watches one of his favorite shows. The audience at this moment, is sitting with them, smiling as we see the two finally connecting as family who love one another regardless of commonality nor age. It is this thoughtfulness that puts this film in such a special position for me as a movie goer. What I mean by this is… Our Barrio is easily one of the most sincere and genuine films I’ve ever seen come out of the San Diego film community as a whole. I was simply blown away by how much attentiveness was given to these character’s realism. Why? Because it in turn leads to the audience sharing the emotion with them, as opposed to just witnessing it from afar.
Yes, perhaps it helps that the film is specifically shot in order to best display this on a visual level. One example of this being our main protagonist wandering her kitchen, searching for her absent family as a level of unease slowly reaches a boiling point. This is all while the other half of the screen showcases a television as it plays a portion of the 1944 Porky Pig cartoon, Swooner Crooner(don’t judge me as to how I know this… I grew up on them Tunes), which perfectly juxtaposes our heroine’s actuality with that of the fantasy she so wishes to escape. In addition to an impeccable set design and a perfectly selected soundtrack, the film best represents the culture in question without allowing it to fall into exploitative grounds(which during a Q & A session, Angulo had mentioned is far too common a result with Hollywood films of similar subject matter). Our Barrio is also unique in that it rightfully addresses racial tension, but without making it the primary antagonist nor the narrative’s overall theme. Though it acknowledges such impediments, it chooses to focus more so on the will to connect with one another, instead of on society’s many dividing conflicts. This is something that makes it such a positive and relevant celebration of both equality and individuality alike.
All in all, this is a tale that is as much about loss as it is about redemption. One that reveals just how fortunate your family is to have you. One that, as the film’s dialogue put ever so eloquently, has a heart of gold. I remember being 9 years old when I moved from my childhood home. To this day I can still close my eyes to reminisce on the sights, smells and sounds of my youth. Thanks to this film though, I didn’t have to close my eyes this time. They took me there, and I thank them endlessly for that.
– The Spork Guy