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j. bilhan © 2015
To Reconcile Our Hopelessness: A Film Review
May 3, 2021
Ya No Estoy Aquí by Fernando Frías de la Parra

"We all rail against class distinctions, but very few people seriously want to abolish them. Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret convention that nothing can seriously be changed," begins Slavoj Žižek, quoting George Orwell, at the start of a lecture about Žižek's book The Courage of Hopelessness [1]

At once, images of Fernando Frías de la Parra's Ya No Estoy Aquí resurface in my mind. In its finale, the protagonist Ulises [Juan Daniel García] dances in solitude upon the rooftops in Monterrey while in the distant streets below military vehicles speed down one street, and rioters move en-mass down another. This juxtaposition of the liberation of movement within the context of the brokenness of the dancer against a backdrop of civil conflict is what so greatly impressed me about this film. 

Like the trope of any 20-something artist who pretends to be a philosopher, of course I sought to hear Žižek for such a film review. Not because I needed an opinion to fill in the blanks of my writing, and certainly not because I’ve overcome my intimidation of his books, but because I've heard him speak in video about despair and hopelessness.


I remember finishing the film, sitting before a blackened television screen, having noticed how hopeless was the condition of civilization: the disintegration of the United States, Mexico's endless conflict, the eternity of most conflicts across the globe, the abject nihilism permeating society, ecological dissolve, etcetera. In listening to Žižek and in approaching the film within this context, I was merely attempting to understand how in my life, hopelessness has never been something unfortunate. Instead, I've always considered there to be a psychological power in realizing and cherishing the broken. 

The character arch in Ya No Estoy Aquí takes us from Ulises as a top dog in his community gang "Los Terkos" to a lost and drifting boy alone. And with this, I see the end of Ulises' story in the film to be one of strength and not of despair. The hopelessness of Ya No Estoy Aquí is in this: in the beginning, Ulises has be-longing, family, love, and joy within his community of Terkos; yet, the Terkos are a street gang in eternal conflict with established order. In the end, Ulises finds himself in limbo— at once incapable of living in the United States but unable to fully express himself in Monterrey for the danger of involvement with the violent "F" gang. 

Upon completing his spell across the border and back, he must pacify and alter his identity expressions to avoid trouble. Yet, here is where he first finds himself at peace. In his lowliness, Ulises can only seek redemption or squander life further which would lead only to his death. Again, Žižek states that "it is only when we despair and don't know anymore what to do, that change can be enacted. We have to go through some kind of zero point of hopelessness”. Ulises reaches that zero point when he decides to cut his hair—one of his primary stylistic expressions—and chance responds by allowing him to be deported back to Monterrey. 

As one of his references, Žižek mentions an interview with the philosopher Giorgio Agamben who claims that "thought is the courage of hopelessness” [2]. In reading the interview, I realize the paradox in my writing that in Ulises' pacification he is also strengthened. Agamben might retort with something about the success of the "biometric control" over Ulises enforced by the ambiguous authority Other.

In de la Parra's film, this authority is embodied in two ways: through the presence of police—the established order—and the gang F—the deviant order. For Ulises, we find that his Terko identity expression constantly jeopardizes his life. To stabilize, he must choose to identify with the established order, the deviant order, or pacify as to not express anything which challenges the existence of those orders. This axiom creates a constant underlying tension in the story which is understood quite well by the director.  In reality, it is for us to wonder if the pacification of unwanted expression in the inevitable path of austerity within the establishment powers throughout the world. 

Another of my positions mirrored in Žižek is that those who see the global refugee crises as a philanthropy issue—in the case of our film, migrations caused by the unending drug war in Mexico—frame their perspective incorrectly. Instead, faced with the hopelessness of such problems, we should ask ourselves "what are we doing wrong?" How have we come to this place in humanity where such dire problems persist with seemingly no resolve? In response, we should use the hopelessness of crisis to stimulate a public drive towards addressing the cause, not the effect, of the crisis.

The cause of crises in Mexico is the obvious result of the combination of drug prohibition, corruption, and meddling from the United States that has left the country in a shambolic condition. Unfortunately, Mexico's political leaders have either unwittingly or consciously made an effort to follow the catastrophic model set by the United States alcohol prohibition of the 1930s and its fallout [3]

The consequence is that between 2006 and 2013, an estimated 110,000 people bled victim to homicide throughout Mexico [4]. Now, in 2021, the real total is undoubtedly far greater. To add another layer [as if there weren't yet enough] deals like NAFTA and other trade agreements exploit the vulnerability of the country in question— Mexico—by offering imperial projects clothed as solidarity. 

As a result, big corporations effectively purchase the country and begin implementing imperial programs throughout the land. Those who lose out are the small-crop farmers, makers, artisans, cultural leaders, etcetera. With the vacuum of community agency, gangs evolve, the economy tanks, wealth gaps widen, and poverty worsens. To echo Giorgio Agamben and Naomi Klein, civil unrest is the internal motor of our active form of crisis capitalism—a form of capitalism that is nearly present throughout all economic models in the world today.

In discussing these ideas with a friend, he brought up the example of Jesus' water-to-wine experiment saying, "when you make life better rather than more restrictive, often times the response is one of growth. Anyway, people know this..." And he's right because we need to look no further than Portugal who has demonstrated recent successes with its drug decriminalization and safe-use programs. 

Regarding cultural discourse, Žižek mentions the figure of speech “ways of life” apropos migration and multiculturalism. In essence, a cultural way of life implies not only a people's aesthetics, foods, dances, and so on, but also their social hierarchies, inequalities, customs, "how you treat authorities, how you love” among other principles. Despite one county's willingness to host new people via migration or asylum, how willing is the host country to accept the fact that to adopt these people means to adopt all of their ways of life? 

This brings to question another crucial debate of today with the alleged "reeducation centers" in China or multiculturalism in general. This point is addressed in de la Parra's film where Ulises is still unable to find cultural association even within the Spanish-speaking community of immigrants in New York City. Here we witness that migration is an entirely separate species from cultural integration or assimilation. 

As for redemption, accepting "the consequences of the fact that there is today no clearly discernible alternative" to our state of crisis capitalism is what Žižek mentions. I gather his point to mean: the only way to reconcile the disasters of humanity today is to recognize that, collectively, we've destroyed everything. That to compromise with the conflicts of today is to act in cowardice. Only from that base position of hopelessness can we begin to imagine new futures of an amicable, global civilization. 

Those who can even consider compromising with the state of humanity today reap most of the benefit from a system that burdens the lives of those who act at its foundation [the working class, contract workers, the gig economy] or who are its victims [homeless, refugee, stateless]. For anyone to claim that the average living conditions of contemporary life are great and that the necessary changes to our geopolitical and economic systems are few, are people content with the sheer amounts of death, dismay, violence, hatred, and inequality—and further yet, the manifold mental illnesses—which are the fruits born from our disheartening systems. 

Coming back to the film, the tragedy of Ulises is a result of the fallout of capitalist imperialism and austere biocontrol policy; At 17 years old, Ulises is a child of the NAFTA era. While prohibition caused massive violence and organized crime, Mexico became militarized in effect leading to a state of permanent conflict. That civil war leads ordinary people to either fight or fly, resulting in youth militarization [absorption in gangs or police] or emigration. Perhaps there is a third option in assimilation into the status quo of Monterrey: labor as survival.

While the United States also struggles under the pressure of the causal mass migrations from Central and South America, there is a clandestine "elite" who profit from its politicization [political and intelligence-state actors, weapons manufacturers, drug cartels]. The absolute hopelessness in all of this, beyond both a philosophical discussion or a film review, is that crisis is the sustenance of crisis capitalism today. These manifold crises are a normalized residual effect of political corruption and imperial behavior. "Ya No Estoy Aquí" was able to capture all of this expertly and merely as the backdrop to a story of youth. 

As a conclusive thought in his lecture, Žižek says that the courage of hopelessness is not to "despair...but to get rid of the false solutions." Although writer Sean Ledwith's 2018 review of Žižek’s book [5] is excellent in its analysis, one point seems not to have aged well. In writing, he notes that political figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn gave hope to young leftists—which was true for a moment. In 2021, now that Corbyn has resigned and the Biden bubble has absorbed Sanders, these examples do little to strengthen the hopes of youth or the left moving forward. 

For someone of my mind, politics will always be a false solution. But again, as a twenty-something artist who pretends to be a philosopher, what could I possibly know about a properly functioning humanity? In closing, I ask that the reader forgive the scope of this review but it’s only that, as Giorgio Agamben says, "crossed paths are the whole pleasure of writing and thinking.” 

It is difficult to understand where human behavior will take us soon if we're not already set for extinction. The pleasantries of hope are certainly enjoyable, but at what point do we become spoiled in our sweet hopes? Our time may be better spent time realizing that humanity is cracking up and using that hopelessness as motivation for redemption, but we're quickly running out of time.

Notes:

[1] Wolfgang Schlag, 2017, "Slavoj Žižek - The Courage of Hopelessness" in Youtube

[2] Jordan Skinner, 2014, “Thought is the courage of hopelessness: an interview with philosopher Giorgio Agamben.” in Verso Books

[3] Zach Foster, 2013, “Prohibition Spawned Mexico’s Oldest Drug Cartel” in Independent Voter News

[4] Sabrina Dubbert, 2014, “Addressing the Root Causes of Emigration from Mexico” in The Borgen Project

[5] Sean Ledwith, 2018, “The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously" in Marx & Philosophy

To Reconcile Our Hopelessness: A Film Review
May 3, 2021