Menu Carbón

– Review by Jonathan Zackor

I have fond memories of sitting together with my grandparents at the breakfast table. Our pleasant and carefree chatter is accompanied by the sounds of nature finding their way inside through the open window, and the morning greetings and pop music bubbling from the radio. This image, clear as day, often sits in my head when I experience stressful situations throughout my daily work life. At the same time that it brings back cherished childhood memories, it also makes for wishful, whimsical thinking: once that I am old, I have all the time of the rest of my life to sit back. Perhaps at a similar breakfast table, surrounded by loved ones, without the ever-imminent pressure and rush to get things done. It is a happy place filled with sunshine and peace. There is space for rest, and the serenity one hopes to find in old age, after a lifetime of working.

Carbón, the documentary by Swiss-Italian filmmaker Davide Tisato, paints a picture of the lives of two Cuban over seventy-year-olds. For their age, one could hope that the two have the opportunity to live in peace. However, reality looks quite different for the two friends… and co-workers. Their daily life is summarized through the phrase “You give so much of yourself every day.”

Set against the sublime image of a never-ending cloud of smoke, the story between Ismaël and Nivardo is a special one. Hard physical labour in and around the charcoal pit rules over day and night. Boundaries between work and rest are forever blurred. Yet, out of these suffocating circumstances, companionship and kindness emerges between the two. They are working alone, together. With only the radio-set as an additional company. The life-line informs about the current situation in Cuba, only occasionally catching some musical beats. Ismaël and Nivardo stick up for each other, constantly pushing to the limit, shielding each other. Almost rudely, each commands the other to take rests.

Their ‘grandchild’, the charcoal pit, sometimes behaves all night long. Coated in smoke, it radiates a mysterious energy, almost like the object of desire in a magician’s show. And yet full of threat. What happens if it is left alone? When and where does a ‘work in progress’ end?