Berlinale 2021 review: Dirty Feathers (Carlos Alfonso Corral)

The disease that afflicts our society is not limited to its visible symptoms: poverty, inequity, insecurity, anomie, generalized corruption, administrative inefficiency, disbelief and distrust of institutions. It also has to do with something we don’t like to talk about: the lack of lasting social ties, deep solidarity, recognition of the other, and assumption of diversity. All of which points to the lack of human connection, that we have not been able to build, despite centuries of living together, and that we do not dare to think about because thinking about it critically would force us to become aware of the defectiveness of design and weakness of the structure of our coexistence.

This is precisely one of the central axes in Dirty Feathers, the first feature documentary of Mexican director Carlos Alfonso Corral, as it addresses the lack of human connection and its fatal effects, exemplified by the reflective capture of the daily lives of homeless individuals with different ethnicities living in El Paso, Texas, a borderland town colliding with Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Following them and giving them an unfiltered yet not exploitative stage to expose their lives, choosing a debugged black-and-white cinematography to maintain the subjects’ emotions, pure and little by little, like an intricate puzzle, will recount the precariousness and exclusion they live in.

Here, the stigma these homeless have is such that they are indeed ‘invisible’. Hardly anyone even wants to know that they exist, confining them to marginalization, treating them unfairly, ignoring their pleas for help. Still, that painful experience is only a small part of the risk of being homeless. One thing a homeless person learns right away is that the person will constantly live under the threat of violence and even death, especially here, for it clusters around minorities, so it’s more than obvious that it is a result of the status and role differences encountered by the genders and by different ethnic groups.

But while living in the streets has so many dangers, where people’s physical and psychological balance is threatened day after day, Corral’s focus on these stories is not only imbued with pain, despair or helplessness when facing such an extreme situation. As in the three stories involving the lives of Brandon and his pregnant wife Reagan, former convict and long-suffering Nathan, and the light, full of peace, care and selfless serenity that’s Ashley, he underlines that in every single thing they do there is always the dream of achieving a different life, enjoying small joys and sharing similar experiences with each other, creating a bond that is best encapsulated by Ashley: “This is family… No one else will take care of us, that’s why we have each other…

The questions raised and the critical gaze posed in Dirty Feathers essentially aim to make people think about and raise awareness about these new challenges of an emerging society. Although modest, this contribution is intended as a way of thinking differently. Dirty Feathers will demonstrate that the precarious living conditions generate multiple difficulties for individuals. Yet despite this and the stigma cast upon them by a society which has lost its human connection, the film does not boil down to painting a gloomy picture of their situation, as it highlights the unsuspected resources at their disposal and underlines their ability to rebound against adversity.