The ethical perils of first-world citizens (and particularly movie directors) descending on developing countries is a theme that has fired the imagination of many a filmmaker in recent years, and to such items as Even the Rain and In a Better World we can now add the more modesty pitched You All Are Captains. Reflexivity would seem to be the inevitable tool by which the globally minded director investigates his or her own involvement with a foreign culture and Spanish filmmaker Oliver Laxe goes full-on meta by casting himself in the role of a visiting moviemaker who travels to Morocco to shoot footage with disadvantaged children living in a shelter. Arrogant, unresponsive to the needs of the kids, “Oliver” neglects his educational mission in favor of using the children for his own somewhat mysterious cinematic ends. Self-critique is the watchword of the first half of Laxe’s docu-fiction hybrid, as the kids protest the filmmaker’s vaguely experimental, non-narrative project and his unwillingness to invest his work with any meaning for his unwitting subjects.
None of which should exactly prove revelatory. The film’s points about European directors using African children as material won’t surprise anyone who’s ever thought for more than a minute about the ethics of cross-cultural filmmaking. Nor does Laxe’s self-implication add much in the way of additional nuance. And yet, the film’s dual attitude toward the cinematic art, potentially a tool of empowerment for these underprivileged children as well as a means of exploitation, creates a more complex dynamic, one more meaningfully explored in the movie’s second act in which “Oliver” is dismissed from the project for his insensitive attitude.
In that later section of the film, the children are taken out of the city for a countryside jaunt in which they’re given the chance to find their own stories, an opportunity to reclaim the agency denied them by their autocratic overseer. As glimpsed through Ines Thomson’s richly textured black-and-white cinematography, the children are simply observed at play, roaming a field or engaging in war games, a lengthy and precisely observed sequence in which the kids move from being exploited as material to becoming their own “captains.” And yet, in the end it’s Laxe himself, as filmmaker, that gives these children the chance to achieve this agency (or at least the opportunity to have it captured on celluloid). But if this meta-complicatedness too often unspools by the numbers, then the spontaneous play of the children pushes You All Are Captains beyond easy reflexivity and into the stuff of lived existences directly captured.