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:

"We're a group of high schoolers looking to make a difference in our community.

Kodiaks With a Purpose (KWAP) is the largest club at Heritage Woods Secondary, with 1 in 10 students being a member. KWAP's flagship event is our monthly trip to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood."

kwap in action

This is printed out under a large photo of a group of white teens wearing red jogging outfits (yes, it's them all right!) and the very same blue plastic gloves ready to give out things to the poor in East Vancouver. Those blue plastic gloves generate bad vibes. I've seen policemen put them on as they're preparing to bodily remove protesters from a sit-in protest. Anyway here, their goal seems to be to protect the bodies of the white, well off and well intentioned youth of Canada's prosperous classes from any bacteria, infections or other miasma that might be communicated through their contact with the less fortunate. It's sort of stomach-churning. Anyway Sepulveda films their intervention as it deserves to be filmed, as if they were invaders from outer space, completely foreign to the space and time they happen to have chanced on.

What about Sepulveda himself. What kind of relationship does he have with the people he's filming? Well he's clearly been around long enough so that they know him, call him by his first name, play act with him. A potential for violence is there, as demonstrated in the scene where Bear picks the camera up from its tripod and wrestles it to the ground, with the film-maker's protests audible on the sound track This is doubly effective, first because the spectator considers that he or she is the object of the violence, and doesn't feel quite so safe and comfortable sitting in the screening room chair watching this spectacle after that point. It's also effective because most of the cinematography is tightly controlled, framed from the tripod with little movement or jostling. So the abrupt picking up and pushing down of the point of view is a surprise that causes a bit of unease. After that, the film-maker is clearly interested in getting his characters to refer in one way or another to their past as a proud, independent people, as warriors. He has them sit around with human size cut-outs of photographic representations of 19th century Indian warrior-heroes. He has them bring the settlers' chariot into the park (Janet, one of the women protagonists, playing the horse), perform a mock burial, adopt poses as if dead on the field of battle. And from time to time the soundtrack fills with cries and rushing horses, echoes from a distant past. All of this stimulates discourse of the type “This is our country! We are warriors!” that can only be heard either ironically or tragically in contrast with the clearly damaged state of the characters in their present, real condition.

Why is the film-maker doing this? What is he trying to say? It's a question which hounds the spectator even more as there is no real direction or movement to the film's overall structure. Nothing really happens. Nobody really goes anywhere. And a lot of these scenes look more like they were made for a video art installation, to be viewed and reflected upon in a gallery setting rather than projected, in the dark, on a big, linear, unidirectional screen.

To get answers, internet once again rides to the rescue. Luckily floating around in cyberspace is a document entitled “Procedural residues after the shooting of Ballad of Oppenheimer Park” authored by Juan Manuel Sepúlveda Martínez, B.F.A., Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2007 and presented as a Project Submitted in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts at Simon Fraser University, dated Spring 2014. In his abstract, Sepulveda writes: “After a year in conversation with Indigenous people who spend the day drinking in Oppenheimer Park, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, I proposed to them employing the framework of the Hollywood Western to make a collaborative film. By introducing iconic elements of the Western in the form of props, I spent fifteen weeks in the park documenting a series of performances enacted by people who've been fighting the imposition of law and order since being ordered onto reservations. The result is 130 hours or problematic footage that raises questions about colonization, political agency, contemporary forms of control ethics, and historiography.”

Through the rest of the text, which has more philosophical baggage in its references than a sizeable university library, we understand that the project was to subvert iconic film references and images, hence the “western” sound effect sequences, hence the acted out battles and funerals. We also understand that Sepulveda has no time for classical “realistic” documentary. His interest is in working on the multiple coatings of meaning that can be organised in the image as presentation, an original, in this case hopefully collaborative, act of creation, not as a representation. And his politics of cinema, miles away from any well intentioned “do-gooding” documentary about some contemporary Indigenous hero, a school of film he clearly scorns, is based on the idea that his heroes, the alcohol hazed group of buddies he films in the park are representative of a “defiance into death” that is “not only a nihilistic gesture but a highly symbolic act that has historical roots and that reaffirms their insubordination against a political system whose forms of control are based in the conservation of life and the body of the individual. I am referring to Vancouver's unique system of drug and alcohol harm-reduction that exists hand-in-hand with the integrated network of social services such as subsidized housing, community court and welfare cheques.” Uh huh, one thinks. Is there not a bit of revolutionary romanticising going on here?

And to what extent were his buddies in the park party to this intention. He tells us that as part of the preparation of the film he organised some projection-discussions on iconic films. One of the women participants mentioned that she doesn't like documentary because earlier in her life she was filmed in one, and at the end of the process felt screwed. What about now? This introduces the question that always turns up in documentary: in the exchange that is film-making, what does each side get out of the experience? Is there a winner and a loser? Or is the exchange mutual and balanced? This is the “ethics” part of Sepulveda's problematic 130 hours of shoot. I'm not going to venture far onto this terrain because I simply don't have the information necessary to speculate. What Sepulveda got out of the experience is clear and identifiable: aside from a degree and likely ticket to a reasonable job, he has a film that's doing the rounds of the festival circuit with all the gratification and ego massaging that that involves. As for his characters, they have the experience of having participated in the subversion of Hollywood iconography, maybe enjoying a long-running relationship with a Mexican film student. They also got the chance to communicate a bit of their humanity.

Because the best part of Sepulveda's film is not the evocative soundtrack, is not the stilted re-enactments. It's just the parts where people are hanging around being themselves. It's the feeling that you and I have, we spectators, that we could be part of that group. That finally, lying around in the sun on the grass on some downtown Vancouver park isn't such a bad way to spend your time. The light is beautiful, the company is, well, companiable. Maybe that sort of invitation to share a moment, open a break in the limits of our lives so that we can peep into the satisfactions of being with these people, is a precious gift. One that the author didn't even seem to think about. But too bad for him.

Michael Hoare