Art critique

The sci-fi short “Jibaro” is not a critique of post-colonialism

From what I’ve read, the most popular episodes of the third season of Love, Death + Robots – Netflix’s remarkable series of animated, standalone sci-fi shorts – seems to be bad trip and Jibarō. The first is led by David Fincher and is the most obviously plot-driven of the bunch. It’s a gruesome, tense, gripping story about a crew of sailors who have to deal with a sea monster on their ship, and it’s easy to see why people love it. The second is a bizarre story about a deaf knight confronting a creature resembling a gold-studded woman in a lake.

The call of Jibarō is not immediately obvious, nor is its meaning. Asked about this, the Spanish director Alberto Mielgo has generally kept things vague:

I wanted to be a bit abstract in a way, and I also wanted people to have their own conclusions. Because nothing is really explained, it’s basically visuals trying to tell you as accurate[ly] as possible what is going on with the characters. I like it because everyone is going to have different versions of the movie. You may have to watch it twice. You could watch it three times. Who knows? Nothing is overstated on his face.

– Alberto Mielgo Screening

While Mielgo clearly intended to do something open, other interviews he gave hints that the underlying message is about toxic relationships:

The first thing that came to mind was the visual of a singing mermaid. And then, I wanted to create a situation around that. The whole story is about a toxic mother relationship.

– Alberto Mielgo Gamer

The dynamic between the characters, he explainsis rather dark:

In this case, there is no improvement. In fact, it’s the opposite. They both end up being the worst versions of themselves. And there is no lesson they learn. They both lose.

– Alberto Mielgo Canopy

Even equipped with this knowledge, it is still difficult to ‘explain’ Jibarō. Like other episodes of Love, Death + Robotsit is characterized by a surprising, sometimes disconcerting commitment, with various languages ​​– those of cinema and animation, of course, but also and much more subtly those of dance and mythology.

Despite this, the readings of Jibarō seem relatively simple so far. Almost everyone seems to have interpreted Mielgo’s work as a critique of colonialism/imperialism, sometimes more specifically of Spanish imperialism in South America. For instance, Raphael Bautista from Nylon Manila argues that the episode “tells a harrowing story of abuse, colonialism and greed”. Paul Tassi from To bes believes that the mermaid is “a kind of metaphor for the rape and plunder of native lands by invaders”. For Austin Allison from ColliderJibarō explores the fundamental evils of colonialism in a strangely poignant way.

What do you think of this reading? A work as subtle and mutable as Jibarō naturally lends itself to various interpretations, which can very well coexist. And yet this argument does not hold.

There’s one scene in particular – the protagonist’s looting of the mermaid’s gold – that hints at colonial plunder, and one of the knights seems to look like a conquistador. The problem is that the siren in Jibarō is clearly predatory in nature. Her POV shots between the ferns, the way she keeps her head under water up to her eyes, her nocturnal stalking of the terrorized knight, her razor-sharp teeth and snake-like fluttering tongue, her “devouring” gestures when ‘she kisses the protagonist – everything about her (except perhaps her eroticism) makes one think of a dangerous carnivore.

Equally important, the knight of Jibarō is inevitably characterized by a handicap that seems difficult to reconcile with a representation of colonial invaders (European empires generally had more means than their adversaries, not less). Trying to explain this as a metaphor for how the imperialists failed to hear the voices of the people they trampled on is even more problematic – those empires weren’t unable to hear the people they trampled. invaded, instead they chose not to listenwhich is very, very different.

Although there are elements and moments in Jibarō that echo colonial history, to see that the central subject would require embracing a depiction of Indigenous peoples as predators who lured a disabled and significantly less dangerous invader. What bothers me most about this pervasive approach to Jibarō is that so few seem to have questioned the cultural context of the text. Mielgo is Spanish, and his short harkens back to classic tropes of Spanish culture that really aren’t hard to see if you look them up.

For example, what are we going to do with the knights? The “imperialist” reading would make them conjure up a European military force entering a foreign land (is that really foreign though?), and the fact that one of the knights is wearing conquistador armor seems to back that up. In Spain, however, knights are more easily associated with knightly literature.

Chivalric literature – not to be confused with the modern fantasy about knights fighting dragons – is a European genre that flourished in the Renaissance, centered on the fantastical adventures of heroic paladins, and is best represented by epic poems such as Torquato Tasso. Jerusalem Delivered and Ludovic Ariosto furious orlando. It is constitutive of Spanish culture because its most central and fundamental text, that of Cervantes Don quichotteis a colossal and subversive reinvention of this entire body of literature.

The mermaid in Jibarō is a classic trope in chivalric literature, which very frequently features monsters or wizards guarding treasure. Women witches were not uncommon, and the mermaid of Mielgo is very precisely linked to this tradition. Far from embodying a natural, untouched land, invaded by a “civilized” outsider, its identity seems rather artificial and baroque – Jibaro is physically composed of gold plates, jewels and a mask (much like the knights whose identity is represented by their golden armor and ornaments). It represents treasurenot natureand that aligns him perfectly with the tales of chivalric literature – as does his predatory behavior.

Mielgo’s short ends with the knight falling under the spell of the mermaid and drowning in the lake alongside his comrades, which is a reversal of the classic chivalrous narrative (the knight usually wins and brings the treasure home ). Besides the ambiguous morality of the deaf knight and the mermaid, what we have here is basically a story of knightly revisionism – a genre that has not ceased to resonate in Spanish literature and culture since Don quichotte.

I don’t want to fall into the same trap as the readings I review and try to “fix” Jibarō in one parable or message. Mielgo deliberately does not comment on Cervantes here. On the contrary, his short film, like his characters, wants to be “dancing”. It revolves on and through and around a variety of tropes, the main one being that of toxic relationships and how they are both frightening and seductive. But the textual bed in which the deaf knight and the mermaid sleep together is less that of the Spanish colonialism than that of Spanish mythology. The correspondences with the latter are much more precise.

That doesn’t mean someone can’t watch Jibarō and see in it a critique of colonialism. But the terrible irony is that the competition of all the critics on this reading has the effect of erasing the marked cultural specificity of this episode. It’s ironic, because the whole point of postcolonial discourse is to give a place and a representation to those cultures that are usually denied to them. This is the opposite of what is happening here.

When approaching texts by artists from a culture other than one’s own, it should be normal to ask what culture it is and if it can have a relationship with the text. If a critic not only fails to ask these fundamental questions, but then insists on a reading whose whole point is that other cultures should be valued rather than erased – then the lesson smacks of hypocrisy.

In the real version of Jibarōthe real mermaid is called the dominant cultureand critics who so far have addressed this episode of Love, Death + Robots also have their place in the story. They are the knights from the opening scene, marching in the same direction, mesmerized by this song and unable to hear anything else.