The Ballad of Oppenheimer Park
Juan Manuel Sepulveda
Documentary film is subject to the same processes of complexification, ramification, specialisation, and institutionalisation as all other aspects of human activity these days. It is now an art form and an industry in itself, as witnessed by the expanding catalogues of documentary festivals and ever more minute territorial demarcations within university film departments. Perhaps it's in that light that we can discuss The Ballad of Oppenheimer Park a rather strange film-object projected at the Cinéma du Réel festival in Paris.
Oppenheimer Park seems to be from the film – sorry, I've never been to Vancouver – a rectangle of flat grass and park benches located in the city's east side. As such it's the centre of a lower class area of small houses and government apartments, heavily populated by aboriginals who have left the reservation and who live in the big city, some of whom (the ones we see in the film at any rate) have clear problems of substance abuse.
The first thing we see in the film is a night shot of a burning wagon, of the kind used by 19th century settlers going west. This is accompanied by a soundtrack suggestive of galloping horses and vast spaces. This lasts about a minute. Then we see a shot of the park, empty bench, grass, looking as if it could use a clean up. In the meantime titles have informed us that this park is located on an old Indian cemetery, that it is the centre of an area that could be the largest Indian reserve in the country. Close up of a man sleeping. The man is lying with two women. After a while one of them reads to him from a kid's Monster book. The man's nickname is “Bear” because, as is soon visible, he's the most physically imposing guy around. Another man, named Harley, attracts the camera's focus as he plays the harmonica and later sings into a karaoke mike.
Gradually we are introduced to other members of what constitutes a group or regulars, a bunch of guys and gals who hang around during the summer months the film represents, drinking at the picnic tables, cussing and arguing on the park benches and doing drugs together. And occasionally they do things that look staged and set up. This goes on for about 65 minutes, mostly in a warm, sun-filled afternoon glow. Then in the last ten minutes, the light gets a lot colder, Bear has been to “rehab” which doesn't sound like an experience you'd want to go through from the way he tells it, and we see Bear, then Harley head off into a cold, purple, early morning across some railway tracks on their way to who knows where. The film ends.
Several questions come to mind during the viewing experience.
How do the “Indians” in the film relate to the “non-Indians”? And how are the “non-Indians” represented? Well there are a couple of guys who certainly seem to be group familiars. One rather heavy set sixty-something individual plonks himself down at the picnic table for a minute opposite Bear, but he's quickly driven off. We sense a history of animosity. Another guy who sticks around longer looks like your ordinary working-class Joe, probably also alcoholic. Other than that, authority. An off camera woman's voice tells them when they bring a coffin in for a mock burial, that digging up the park grass is definitely illegal. A couple of police officers, young, blond, fit and wearing sunglasses, are seen, but not heard, engaging in a conversation with one of the park regulars. Their conversation is ironically anticipated by the working class guy. I can tell we're going to get some heavy pĥilosophising, he says. The chief must be saying “our policy is now reconciliation with the native peoples”. And he leaves frame to get closer to what is being said. And then a bunch of youngsters dressed in red jogging outfits emblazoned with large white capital letters “KWAP” dance around and hand things out from a box wearing blue, plastic gloves. “What the hell is kwap?” I said to myself during the screening. No indication is given during the film so I googled it. This is what their website says: