Calle 13: Sin Mapa

The Possibility of an Island:
A Meandering Review of the new Calle 13 documentary, Sin Mapa.

First off, I have to admit that Calle 13 is one of my favorite Reggaeton acts, up there with Tego Calderon. I don’t love every song of Calle 13 but when they hit they are lyrically smart and political complimented by music that is complicated and beautiful-- that doesn't sound the same like so much Reggaeton does. This is my disclaimer to say I started watching this documentary wanting to like it. And I do, I am really glad they made it, but I do have some critiques weaved in here.

Calle 13 is a popular, award winning Puerto Rican Reggaeton group made up of two half-brothers Rene (Residente) and Eduardo (Visitante). Rene is the rapper while Eduardo makes the beats, but you wouldn't necessarily know that from their videos or this documentary. The "face" of Calle 13 is definitely Rene. There is some explanation of Eduardo's absence from much of the film, they say he is shy (and he is noticeably soft-spoken when he does show up) and sometimes he is unable to make it on the travels.

And this documentary is all about traveling. It follows Calle 13 (we'll just say it is them, even though is is often just Rene, the filmmaker and some of Rene's friends) throughout Latin American--to the Latin Grammys, to talk shows, to MTV, to a shoe store, to their concerts, but most of the focus is on a selection of trips that Calle 13 took to learn about, to engage with indigenous peoples and oppressions throughout Latin America. Calle 13 talks about their unique position of being famous and this having a loud voice in the world and about trying to take a responsibility and use that voice to highlight peoples and histories and contemporary struggles. And they have been doing this all along-- one of their first hits in Puerto Rico was a song "Querido F.B.I." (see link below) that called out the USA for assassinating a leader for Puerto Rican independence. They also, among other political tracks (and tracks about drugs and girls) have a more recent track that dealt with police brutality issues in Puerto Rico.

The earnestness of trying to take on, acknowledge or combat, injustices that are not “yours” and insisting that social justice is a matter for all people. Insisting that they are yours. Yes, a sort of an injury to one is an injury to all philosophy combined with a fuck the conquerors (Spanish, Americans, media, military, corporations) rhetoric. I like it.

The film starts in Peru, the country where they shot their beautiful video “Pal Norte” (link below)-- a song which addresses issues of racism, identity and economic struggles-- and this does some work to frame the direction in which the film will go.

From there it just keeps going all over the place, with few to no transitions. But after awhile, as a viewer you just learn to let go and watch bit after bit, trusting that they will add up to a whole. And they do-- there is a common thread throughout. An attempt to document the history of Latin America—the fucked up of the Spanish Conquest to current injustices. There is anger at privileged peoples who don't care and there is an attempt to make sense of their own increasing privilege and fame.

In one of the early portions of the film, Calle 13 talk about a how a talk show they were on mocked gays with a cross dressing dancer dancing to one of their songs. And while they didn't seem to call out the homophobia while they were on the show the film does include them discussing the incident. How they didn't know that was going to happen and how they find it wrong. While not particularly profound, they do say that making fun of gays is dumb. In this I thought about how Calle 13 is better than Mos Def, or Talib or Busta Ryhmes are on this issue. For, in the excellent hip-hop doc Beyond Beats and Rhymes, those “conscious rappers” refused to talk about homophobia in hip-hop and literally walked out of the room.

The complications of trying to make a radical movie are all here-- there is at times an uncomfortable romanticization of poverty and indigenous--they can sound a little cliche and naive in their earnestness--among other things. But it's still rad that they set out to make this. Calle 13 is wildly popular in Puerto Rico and throughout the Spanish speaking Americas and to have them traveling though indigenous and oppressed communities throughout Latin America and talking about the histories and oppressions that shape the lives of the people is powerful. While a little too collage like, without a consistent narrative and often without clarity, this video is still educational and at times beautifully shot.

Rene comes across as a well intentioned big kid. Who spend much of the video with his shirt off, who both plays and pouts, and who seems well aware that this video is as much about him and fame as it is about the peoples the group meets with. I am pretty sure that one of his tattoos is a Basquiat painting and that seems appropriate.

The film is an interesting move for Calle 13. I believe them when they say they want to use their fame to educate themselves and their audience. They are figuring out how to use their pedestal. Also, like when the radio show "This American Life" decided to do TV shows, I think the the visual adds a worthwhile layer to the sound that they are famous for.

When, towards the end of the film, they visit the ancient ruins of Manchu Pichu, I thought about how people must have something to build, to work on. And in part because they don't have to, I am happy Calle 13 chooses to do the work--the music, the educating--they do.

Check out the 2 min preview here:
sin mapa preview

The FBI video:
Querido F.B.I.

My favorite Calle 13 video:
Pal Norte

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