I was greatly disappointed by this film. The trailer intrigued me and reviews like the following post from Netflix made me jump to rent it.
This film provides an opportunity to witness the road to the presidency of an unlikely candidate in Bolivia. The filmmaker’s access to Evo Morales and some of his supporters and allies provides a window into a political process that is both organic and extremely organized and hierarchal. The power of community organization seems to outshine education, money, even ideology. The film also shows us the lives of women and men who live off of coca production, whose business has become more profitable as a result of the US crackdown on cocaine production. This relative profitability is also a powerful political tool to rally farmers behind this candidate.
The problem is that Cocalero is actually quite different from this description, in my opinion. Yes, the film does show Evo Morales, the first fully indigenous president elected in Bolivia, during his first successful presidential campaign. But we don’t get any insights into the man really, nor do I think the political process in that country is shown in any detail. Most of the film is either Morales in down moments like getting haircuts, playing ball, swimming in the river, etc. or scenes of rural coca workers in the field or his party’s political events with little to no context. So for this viewer, I was often lost. Why is he speaking to this group? What group is this? What are the politics here? It’s really a shame, because the story of Evo Morales is an interesting one, and he’s tightly connected to figures like Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. I’d like to know more.
Often contemporary documentary filmmakers like to remove any outside authoritative voice from their films: no narrator or textual description. Subjects are left to shape the narrative of the film, which is the case with Landes’ movie. I think it stems from a fear that is a byproduct of postmodern criticism, which has tried to swing an intellectual pendulum away from ethnocentrism, male-oriented narratives, Western ideology, and the director-as-character phenomenon (think Michael Moore). Personally, I think it often leads to failure. In Cocalero, for instance, the filmmaker perhaps tries to hint at criticisms of Morales by briefly (very briefly) showing a Catholic priest talking about unionist tactics, a scene of Morales ditching an event in the indigenous community, and another at a voting instruction class at the union. But the scenes felt thrown in. I kept wondering what Landes was trying to say. Why are these here?
Well, I’ve got another film about Bolivian politics in the aughts on order, Our Brand is Crisis. I have high hopes.