The Meaning of Home in Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo
by Caitlin Meredith
Her Head in Films
This is the age of displacement. We can see it as millions of Syrian refugees make their perilous trek to Europe in search of safety and as thousands of Puerto Ricans flee their beloved island for the mainland of the United States in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Undeniably, climate change will continue to exacerbate the situation, causing weather that destroys homes and dislocates more people. In light of all this displacement, how do we define and think about home? Released in 2012, Yuelene Olaizola's Fogo was a prescient film in its focus on forced migration and the loss of home. These themes make it profoundly resonant today. It's a fictional film, starring nonprofessional actors who live on Fogo Island, which is located off the coast of Newfoundland. For an unknown reason, the island is being evacuated and all the inhabitants must relocate somewhere else. Fogo focuses on three men--Norm, Joe, and Ron--who, along with their families, refuse to leave. The film is deeply invested in what it means to hold on to home and the way that home shapes our identities.
Olaizola's film makes Fogo Island a real place to us. The shots are long. Scenes are defined by stillness and dominated by ambient sounds that immerse us in Norm, Joe, and Ron's world. We hear the crunch of their boots as they walk in the snow. We hear the wind moaning and the water rippling. The diegetic sound (only occasionally interrupted by music) transports us to the wintry landscape. The shots of bare trees, frozen lakes, and abandoned houses are beautiful, almost painterly in their composition and balance. The camera is stationary, giving us time to absorb the landscape and to contemplate the role of nature in the men's lives.
There is a verisimilitude to the film, a sense that, though it's a fictional story, the nonprofessional actors are performing tasks they normally do every day. In an interview, Olaizola says that everything in the film was inspired by what she experienced while living on the island. We watch as the men go about their routines of chopping wood, walking dogs, and wandering in the vastness of nature. Olaizola's focus on the mundane also shows how these men are embedded in Fogo Island. We begin to understand why they cannot leave. They are so enmeshed in the environment--so attached to the land, the wind, and the water--that evacuating is, in some sense, death. It's a death of the soul, of the spirit. By refusing to leave, they are resisting this death.
The island itself seems to be dying, and this could possibly be the reason for the evacuation. The houses are disintegrating and uninhabitable. The yards are overgrown and unkempt. The desolate landscape is a wasteland, absent of people and radiating death. It seems as though Norm, Joe, and Ron are the last men on earth and, in a way, they are. They are certainly the last men on a decaying island where the past is gone and the future is impossible. To leave is to suffer a spiritual death, but to stay could mean a physical death. Which one is preferable? The men are willing to risk their lives to remain on the island. Home has a gravitational pull, without it we are flung out into the unknown, untethered, alone. For some, that is too much to bear.
An early scene illustrates what I mean. Norm is sitting with Joe, an elderly man who has lived on the island his entire life. Joe can't even talk about leaving. He says, "It breaks your heart at my age. I tell you, it will break your heart." Joe knows that leaving will irrevocably break him. He already mourns the way things have changed on the island and feels nostalgic for the past. You can sense in him that throbbing place of memory and aching that so many of us contain. He starts singing a song that articulates the anguish of losing a home: "But you can't take a man from the soil that he knows...tear up his roots and expect him to grow. And for God's sake don't say how much greener's the grass...'cause these uprooted people will weather too fast."
Does anyone ask how the Syrians or the Puerto Ricans or the countless other people who have been displaced by poverty, war, or global warming feel? Does anyone ask what they have lost or who they miss? Does anyone care about the toll the loss has taken on them? And, in the years to come, how many more people will lose their houses and their homelands? Through Olaizola's film, we are forced to contemplate what home means and what the loss of home can do to the human soul. While the men in the film are not forced off the island, their relationship to the island itself raises larger questions about the centrality of home in our lives and how essential it is to our identities.
Can we ever leave home behind? Once we do leave it behind, can we ever find it again? Is home an immaterial idea, a thing that lives inside us, or is it a real, tangible place with its own irreplicable textures, fragrances, and sounds? Fogo seems to suggest the latter, that home is not simply an idea, it is a physical space, it is the island where Norm, Joe, and Ron live and walk. For them, home is the snow, the air, the dilapidated houses where they subsist on what food they can find (a can of spaghetti in Joe's case). Fogo is them and they are Fogo, the two cannot be ripped apart like roots from the ground. The act of the ripping is a kind of violence and will create an unhealable wound. They cannot be separated from their home, they are one with the island, the only place where they feel like they belong.
There is so much at stake for Norm, Joe, and Ron and their families who refuse to leave Fogo. Staying is their only choice, the only way they can survive. And yet, as much as they love the land, Olaizola's film also reminds us of the indifference of nature. In some scenes, the camera shows a field or a lake, nature as it exists without human presence. Then, one or more of the men will appear in the frame and walk out of it, leaving the scene unchanged. Nature goes on without us and in spite of us. It does not register our absence. Home cannot miss us the way that we miss it.