Sunday, July 26, 2009

Orozco The Embalmer

Tsurisaki Kiyotaka's Orozco The Embalmer (2001) is about a man who cared that the dead were buried with respect.

Working in El Cartucho, Columbia...

... a horrific inferno of poverty, drugs, violence and desperation...

... this kind-hearted, generous man was filmed over a period of three years, and we get a strong sense of his humanity. We also learn that he was once a cop.

Unfairly, the film has been criticized for not being particularly "well made". Although it is not beautifully photographed (should it be?) and is sometimes overexposed, it is a low budget documentary shot in very difficult conditions.

As an example of powerful filmmaking and storytelling, it is a complete success. In my book, that's "well made".

Its gaze is casual rather than sensational, and director Kiyotaka never forgets that it is about the living more than the dead.

El Cartucho is not just background; it is character.

Orozco is seen on the streets of the town engaging in conversation with neighbors and colleagues...

... and it is clear that he made a great impression on its people.

The embalming sequences are graphic and matter-of-fact. Although similar material has been filmed before, it is different here because we get to know the man behind the hands.

During these scenes, Orozco often comments on the cause of death and the specific frustrations of the job. He covers the costs of embalming in Columbia (from US$10 and up) and prices elsewhere.

Other embalmers are also interviewed, and they provide a welcome contrast to Orozco's methods.

A much younger man becomes apprentice to Orozco, and is seen observing him at work and assisting where possible.

Still, the embalmer often worked alone, and was forced to lift, turn, and dress the bodies of his charges. This difficult, back-breaking work eventually extracted a fatal payment from him.

The film's stark imagery even gave me the jitters at times. Watching blades slide into eyes, cotton wool pushed up nostrils, and bellies re-filled with viscera, assured me that I am not the "jaded fuck" Jim Rose (of Jim Rose's Circus Sideshow) once called me.

Although I have seen the act of a real human face being turned inside out several times on the screen...

... it is still shocking to me -- a literal revelation of what is hiding inside us (at least physically).

After The Reaper comes for Orozco, those who worked with him and chanced upon him are interviewed.

Their testimonies are harrowing and emotional.

Orozco The Embalmer is another release from Camera Obscura, the same company that recently released Vase de Noces (One Man and His Pig).

The DVD features an intro from the director, a short essay, and a moderate featurette.

In a market where specialist DVD companies are going to the wall, it is heartening to see releases such as this.

Tsurisaki Kiyotaka is to be applauded for introducing us to Orozco and a fascinating corner of the world.

In this portrait, we learn more about the life of death than five volumes of Faces of Death could teach us.

And Orozco, wherever he now is, is surely being applauded for his dedication to the dignity of the dead.

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