Lost Identities and Downward Destinies in a New Political Cinema

In 2005, media audiences in Australia were in thrall to the devastating true-life story of Cornelia Rau, a person who truly slipped through the cracks of the usual social grids that define and maintain citizenship in the Western world. Having suffered from several mental disorders, Rau was a woman taken to wandering and travelling alone. After she discharged herself from a hospital in 2004, thereby getting herself classified as a "missing patient", she went on a trip that caught the attention of the Queensland police. Giving herself different names and biographies – and thus reclassifying herself as an "unknown person" in the eyes of law and state – Rau found herself now a "suspected unlawful non-citizen". She was picked up and placed in Brisbane Women's Correctional Centre for a period of six months. Pointing out that she had done nothing wrong, she was repeatedly told that it was "her responsibility to identify herself". She was then transferred to Baxter Immigration Reception and Processing Centre – in everyday-speak, a detention centre.

Although a newspaper report on the unknown person finally alerted Rau's family, the case exposed how easily anyone could lose her or his identity, and how dramatically they might slide down the social ladder if and when that happened. Especially if they cannot say who they are, if they cannot even recall their own, legal name.

It can seem like a pure nightmare spun directly from the imagination of social-political theory, such as the theory of bio-politics according to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, or indeed from the fiction of Franz Kafka: the State reaches down to an individual and demands "tell me who you are, name and place yourself" – and if you fail that test in that moment, you're out.

Rau's story brought about, in the public imagination, an intersection of two trajectories: on the one hand, the sudden downward mobility of the ordinary citizen suddenly lost (for whatever reason) and deprived of an identity; and, on the other hand, the plight of the mostly anonymous non-citizens or displaced people held in detention centres – centres which functioned as unlovely transit lounges for refugees, those self-exiles who were about to be sent back to their own country to face almost certain imprisonment, or far worse. Australian journalists, novelists and filmmakers struggled, usually without much success, to tell the story or evoke the biography of even one or two of these non-citizens held in the detention camps – before they disappeared from the behind-barbed-wire-fence glimpse that we got of them on the TV news and in some documentaries. Yet this is an eminently cinematic subject: part of the terror of the real-life Cornelia Rau story is how close a lawful citizen (with everyday problems like we all have) came to being completely swallowed up by this ever-hovering anonymity, this invisibility, this erasure of self.

Two years before the Cornelia Rau case, in 2003, Aki Kaurismäki's Finnish production The Man Without a Past (2002) was released in Australia. Like every Kaurismäki film, it is droll, stylised, oddly charming in its strange punk-sentimentality. It, too, tells the tale of a man, known only by the initial M (played by Markku Peltola), who loses all memory of his identity after he is beaten up in the street by a trio of louts, and then travels downward on the social ladder.

The more that M seeks to reintegrate himself into the most basic societal functions – like getting a job or a bank account – the more he finds himself victimised and excluded. But, simultaneously, M discovers and receives the kindness of underprivileged non-citizens like himself, and becomes part of a benign community of the homeless.

This is a vision of the bum or ragpicker life that seems more inspired by a love of Jean Renoir's films of the 1930s (such as Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932) than any pressing news headlines around the world. But, seeing it in my country, in that particular social time and place, the film indeed packed an unexpected political wallop. It became an allegory of the socially dispossessed and displaced.1 By this route, The Man Without a Past came to be taken as a parable of what was popularly known at the time in Australia as the "refugee crisis" –

man without_past_1
a crisis of vilified people who have no way of entering or re-entering the structures of normality. However, I wish to depart from the recourse to allegory – political, bio-political or otherwise – since this has fast become the dominant mode of discussing films (from the world over) concerning the themes of exile, diaspora, the refugee condition or economic precarity. Allegorical interpretation tends to confine us, whether we like it or not, to the levels of plot and character in fiction (cinematic or novelistic), which we retell with an alert social conscience – underlining and making explicit what the film itself may leave implicit, for good communicative and artistic reasons. Something properly cinematic about cinema is eluding us in such discussions.

So let me start over by evoking the opening of a film from 2009 that not many people in Australia have had a chance to see; I myself saw it virtually by accident. It is an Austrian-Italian co-production called La Pivellina ("the little one"), directed by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel (who is also the film's cinematographer). Here is how La Pivellina begins: with a woman, perhaps 55 to 60 years old, walking, walking, walking through a few unglamorous little patches of a Roman suburb, calling for 'Hercules, Hercules'. One particular detail about this woman is strange and striking: she has bright red hair, although everything else about her is mundane and perfectly stereotypical – and the detail, working against the type, sets us subtly on edge. She does not find Hercules (whoever that is); instead, she encounters a very small, very young girl on a swing. The woman quickly intuits, or guesses, that the child has been abandoned. She asks the child her name, and the latter replies, haltingly, "Aia".

The woman, Patti, takes the child – whose name may or may not really be Aia – back to her home, which turns out to be a caravan in a trailer park. In the entire course of the film, no parent or guardian figure of any kind will return to collect the child, and no definite confirmation of the child's name, identity or place of residence is ever forthcoming. The child will stay, indefinitely, past the end of the film, in the caravan park – it is her new home, whether she likes it or not. In this opening scene, the older woman tries, with some desperation, to form a makeshift family bond with the child, by asserting roughly: "I'm Aunt Patti, don't you know?"

There is a lot going on in this opening passage of La Pivellina that we will only understand later, even a long time later, in the film – and this deferred or contested understanding on our part is extremely important. The woman has red hair because she is part of a circus act – a rather tawdry, mainly two-person circus act that pops up in various suburban park locations. (The actors themselves are, in fact, circus performers). The caravan park is revealed as a kind of community, with many relations – some close, some fraught – between its residents. Hercules turns out to be a dog, something we realise when (at last) he shows up for his food. The problem of names, naming, calling and identifying by name, becomes obsessive in the movie: there is much speculation about the real name that Aia may be some distortion of, or short for. While Patti wonders whether she, in fact, may know this absent mother, her friends in the caravan park say to her mock-dramatic things meant to shake her out of her sudden maternal or nurturing fantasy, things like: "I am the law, and I say you took her" – because that is, indeed, how it will look in the eyes of the law. 

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