Credit: First Look
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film

Gwetto — Michaël Andrianaly [First Look ’24 Review]

March 19, 2024

“400,000 FMG isn’t a wage,” one Malagasy car wash customer admits to documentarian Michaël Andrianaly’s camera in regard to the workers at the wash. At least, not a living wage. The exchange rate is approximately 1 FMG to 0.0002995 USD, and that makes 400,000 FMG somewhere around 18 USD. Whether the salary comes daily, weekly, or, god forbid, bi-weekly, we are not privy. Not that it makes all that much of a difference. Even 18 USD a day is only $6,570 a year, assuming one works all 365 days — and that’s no living wage by any stretch, even if one is permitted (or forced out of a lack of other options) to sleep at their place of work. Which is exactly what the four men at the center of Gwetto — Jelco, Justin, Rabetsy, and Mamy — do: they share a dinky one-room shanty, where they also work with three other individuals.

The four workers are ethnic minorities from all over the island of Madagascar. At least two of them hail from Ambositra, a city in the center-south of the country and about a 13-hour drive from their new home in Tamatave, the island’s economic capital. The ethnic biases of others regularly mean that they are mistaken for thieves, a faulty assumption that, corroborated to others with their poverty, festers like an infected wound on the young men. Andrianaly doesn’t hide his own biases (or agenda) with the documentary, and, on at least one occasion, Gwetto preserves his voice posing a question to an interview subject, including matter-of-factly asking a customer whether or not he thinks of the men as thieves.

Which is to say, don’t expect the hands-off observational approach of someone like Wang Bing here. The micro-team of filmmakers does keep up the facade of an observational documentary style though, and that requires some prudence to discern appropriately. In any five minutes of Gwetto’s 52-minute runtime, the camera shows a more carefully motivated direction than anything in the three-and-a -half hours of Wang’s Youth (Spring). One image of the small wash building at night, with the men all huddled together in front of the window with a single source of light hitting their shoulders, astonishes with its simple beauty. Andrianaly clearly has a talent for discovering spatially compelling images and maximizes his use of negative space to create an notable emptiness, a longing for something more, or a sense of lacking in the lives of Jelco, Justin, Rabetsy, and Mamy.

The short doc finishes filled with hope in a guitar-led serenade at the beach. One of the men recalls a story about a woman he met that concludes with the line: “I told her, the earth belongs only to God.” The camera then pans to glimpse the natural beauty of the beach, and the scene never completely sours with excessive aggrandizement or religiosity as it easily could have. Still, there’s something a bit irritatingly didactic, even pretentious, to the beach guitar. Even without words from Andrianaly behind the camera, it comes across as the most imposed moment in the film. The strangeness of the beach gives the moment of leisure — which all people everywhere, poor or otherwise, are entitled to — a sense of artificiality. Then again, a few beers amongst friends would have cost money, so perhaps it’s the only option for a brief escape in their world of capitalist wage slavery.