January 27, 2012

Synesthesia:: Film: Biutiful (2010) // Local Vocab: "Top manta"

With all the talk last week about SOPA (no, not "soup", but the aborted U.S. Congressional act) and MegaUpload, you might forget that there are more old-fashioned ways to infringe on brand-names and copyrights that are still alive and well. That's why for today's entry I'm going to discuss the topic of "top manta" in Spain. Well, actually, I'm going to try out a new thing, where I blend two blog categories, "Local Vocab" and "Film," into one, so as to create a more mixed sensorial experience. To really understand the top manta system, it helps to see the powerful Spanish movie, Biutiful (2010), which among other things provides a profile of the practice with all of its social messiness.

Top manta: street vendors selling knock-off or illegal copies of goods
laid out on sheets. You'll see them all over Spain.

Alejandro González Iñárritu's film Biutiful takes place in present-day Barcelona, and stars Javier Bardem as Uxbal, a man of many roles (single father, liaison between illegal immigrants and corrupt cops, ghost whisperer) who lives among the city's seedier community and who, in addition to these routine challenges, is suddenly finding his life turned upside down by a series of personal crises. First of all, kudos to Iñárritu for accomplishing something which seems to be impossible for sentimental Americans: to describe Barcelona as a modern city with global influences and serious social problems. I couldn't agree more with Regina from The Spain Scoop when she says about the film
"It’s the Barcelona you don’t want to see. The part we try to ignore as we buy cheap sunglasses from the African guy on the street or a handbag from the Chinese shop. Why think about where something comes from when you’re saving $10, right?
The Barcelona of Biutiful is gritty, even ugly at times. (Lest you forget that historically Barcelona was once an industrial city, not a vacation jaunt.)

Three members of the Bardem acting dynasty: Javier (yes, we're on a first-name basis)
is from one of Spain's several acting family dynasties. Here you can see his mom,
Pilar Bardem Muñoz, whose been in hundreds of films herself, and Javier's brother
Carlos Bardem, who made an acting splash recently in Celda 211 (2009).

Here's a sensory confusion experiment: watch Biutiful and Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) back-to-back. The only continuity across them is Bardem. You'd almost never recognize that they use the same city for a backdrop. Heck, I don't think there's a better way than watching these two movies next to each to expose the silly clichés that Americans draw upon when they film in Europe. It's like American directors pack with them a cultural blindfold when they travel over here to shoot movies. (Woody Allen appears to be making a living off of cataloguing clichés on Europe's more famous capitals. At least his most recent movie, Midnight in Paris, features a self-consciously backward-looking, romantic and nostalgic American.)

Bardem as tortured hustler in Biutiful (left); Bardem as tortured latin lover
in Vicky Christina Barcelona (right) … Common threads? Crazy ex-girlfriends?

Interlude: I'm quite an avid film-goer. Indeed, starting this week my wife and I are gearing up for the Oscars season, trying to watch as many nominated films as illegally downloading the movies the delayed release of American movies here will allow us. So being myself something of a self-made film critic, after watching Biutiful last year I decided that these movies should be put in their own genre, which I have come to call "Precious" movies. Not precious in the sense of invaluable, though they are that too. But "Precious" as in the 2009 Oscar-winning film Precious… movies that are depressingly raw, where with each step forward things get worse and worse, where you are left thinking humanity is fundamentally flawed, you realize how spoiled or fortunate you are (because the protagonists are completely screwed), you think, Oedipus, you don't know how good you had it… and yet despite these gut-wrenching, slit-my-wrist plot twists, they are mesmerizing. Somehow, you can't look away. And somehow it's not exactly utterly depressing either. The tragedy of the film, yet the way in which the characters move forward despite it all is almost inspiring, or at least elegant in its realism. (Another candidate for this category: Lilya 4-Ever (2002).) Question to the audience: do you have any other film nominations for this genre?

Proposal for new category at the Academy Awards: "Best Almost But Didn't Quite Slit My Wrist Film".
Lead contenders: Precious / Lilya 4-Ever / Biutiful.

As with all "Precious films", Biutiful provides us a catalogue of social ills: illegal Chinese and Subsaharan immigrant labor problems, police corruption and brutality, repressed homosexuality, mental illness and drug addiction, child abuse and child labor… and I'm sure I've left something out. But one of the more systematic social ills featured in this movie is the system of top manta. The word "top manta" comes from combining "top", as in 'on top', with "manta" the Spanish word for blanket. I.e. putting items for sale on top of a blanket, which these vendors can scoop up in a flash and dash away dash away dash away all at the first sign of any approaching police. This is because it is illegal for them to sell on the sidewalk without a license, and because they are most likely selling things that are illegal: knockoff purses, CD or DVD copies, and such. And for that matter, many of the vendors themselves might be illegal immigrants, too.

What's the difference between being an expat or an immigrant? Choice? Opportunity?:
Here you can see the Senegalese street vendors shown in the movie Biutiful,
selling knockoff purses near Las Ramblas.

This practice of top manta is common throughout Spain, though only really happens in those areas with heavy tourist traffic. One of the things I've always wondered about when I see illegal street vendors is how they manage to sell their things out in the open, despite the fact that there are cops around. In Biutiful, the answer is that cop corruption, paying off the cops on the beat, allows these Subsaharan immigrants time to sell their top manta items around Las Ramblas without worry, or to be tipped off when the police are going to do a sting. The argument is, in other words, that "we" all know that these guys are doing this, but "we" look the other way until we (as in society) decide we need a scapegoat to point to for our social ills and immigrant woes. This social reality of the life of these immigrants as street vendors was recently the subject of a really interesting play in Madrid, "La manta no es mi sueño" (Street vending is not my dream). Americans will recognize in this social issue all the trappings of a similar discomfort that we feel in the U.S. about illegal immigrants working all kinds of jobs that we deem immoral or undesirable and yet at the same time socially condone through our purchases or hiring practices.

Whatever you might have to say about top manta, these guys, "un gorrilla,"
bother me much, much more. They're the guys (often not immigrants) who stand
around parking lots waiting to signal to drivers where to park, and then expect
a tip in exchange, even though the park space itself is free and public! It's a total racket! 

I'll confess I'm always impressed by the top manta vendors. In a way, they are the ultimate entrepreneurs with some serious odds against them. And they are easy targets for anti-piracy laws since they are right there physically selling the illegally copied DVDs. Not like the MegaUpload figures, whose sites account for much more piracy, and whose owners or creators live in a more ethereal world where it is easier to evade persecution prosecution. The issue of Spain and illegal downloads could be the subject of many more posts. Let me just wrap up here with a teaser. ("Let me 'splain. No... There's too much. Let me sum up.")... Spain has been grappling since 2010 with "la ley Sinde", a law named for the now former Minister of Culture, Ángeles González Sinde, intended to tighten up and strengthen sanctions on all the web piracy going on here. (If you didn't know, for the moment it is _not_ illegal for someone to download a pirated movie in Spain. It is only legal to upload and/or sell them.) This has been Spain's SOPA. And Spain's "Asociación de Internautas", supported by the unlikely likes of people such as Álex de la Iglesia (who split publicly with Spain's Film Academy over this very issue early last year), has been battling to protect Spaniards and their internet rights from the protectionists interventionist interests of Hollywood who complains it can't make a buck here...

But that is another story... What I'm really trying to say is that you should download a copy of see Buitiful. It's really good. And it will start to give you an idea of all the complicated ways that Spain is changing and grappling with its local identities in a globalized world.


Mother Theresa said...

Oh, I have yet to see that film, but after reading this, it's definitely going on my to see list. We don't really have the topmanta phenomenon here in Pamplona as such, but you do find guys selling obviously pirated cds in bars at night. I guess the weather isn't good enough up here for them to be out on the streets with their wares, so they find other venues. I think this whole issue could be solved with more reasonable prices for dvds and cds, as well as lowering prices at the cinema. In my case, if we want to go to the movies with the whole family we're out 35 euros. Not something we can do very often.

An Expat in Spain said...

Mother Theresa, I couldn't agree with you more about the steep prices. The SGAE (Sociedad General de Autores y Editores) surcharge on DVDs, books, and CDs in my opinion just drives people further to the pirated materials. (Proof in the pudding: It's cheaper to buy Spanish books on Amazon.com than Amazon.es.) I'm also still waiting for something like Netflix to take off here in Spain, and with the option for "versión original" on Hollywood films. The industry has really forced expats into the piracy world.

Interesting that you don't have topmanta there in 'Hemingway paradigm' ground-zero. I suppose the weather here is so pleasant one could sell pretty much anything placed on top of pretty much anything so long as they are sitting outside under the clear blue sky, the sun warming everyone's skin, with the fresh sea breeze blow through our hair... Am I making you jealous yet? ;-)

Reg of The Spain Scoop said...

Biutuful is great!And yes Theresa, tix to moves are SO expensive that some are left with not much choice but to do top manta or illegal download. How about lowering the price of movie tickets and popcorn? Great post Zach!

An Expat in Spain said...

Thanks Regina! Ahmen on lower prices... however, a long, long time ago I worked at a movie theatre. Lowering the price of popcorn is tricky for them, because they usually make zero money from ticket sales (due to high rental charges from Hollywood distributors). So they earn all their income on food sales. Thus the overpriced popcorn. I think the problem starts and ends with Hollywood. They need to start 'thinking outside the box-office' or risk losing their fan base.

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