Art and politics blend and wrestle in The Last Conquistador, an intelligent documentary by John J. Valdez and Cristina Ibarra that aired on KERA TV, the Dallas PBS affiliate tonight. The story revolves around a proposed monumental equestrian bronze for the Texas city of El Paso by John Houser, a very able, very aesthetically conservative sculptor. But the hero on horseback is Juan de Oñate, a Spaniard who ruled what is now New Mexico and parts of Texas late in the 16th century. And he was not a good guy. By one account, two of every three Native Americans under his dominion died. There are accounts of children sold into slavery and sadistic amputation punishments. He was so awful that the government in Mexico City eventually recalled, tried, and convicted him of crimes against his people.
The film does a fine job of examining the emotions and identity politics that arise while the project is debated by the community. Latinos, Anglos, and Native Americans find themselves at odds about what it means to celebrate and memorialize the past. Sometimes about what the past actually was. Further complicating the disputes are carefully observed indicators of social class: kids in a barrio playing with a discarded mattress on the remaining floor of a torn-down rowhouse, well-coiffed women writing checks at a sale of small replicas of the sculpture to help fund the project.
Throughout, there's an extraordinary evenness to the filmmakers' tone. They show the anger and the reasons, but they do not choose sides. I chose sides, but that was a viewer's response. Valdez and Ibarra just told the story.
A young city councilman looks into the lens at one point and asks what he should do -- he's part Spaniard and part Indian, as are almost all Mexicans. He is eventually convinced to change his position and oppose the sculpture.
Gradually, Houser comes to understand, that his intention to celebrate Oñate was too simple and that those who oppose his project have valid points. But he has worked for ten years on his sculpture. In an extraordinary scene, Houser visits his ophthalmologist -- he has glaucoma and is in danger of losing his sight. While we see the doctor examine him and snap digital images of his retina, we hear his voice admitting he had been blind to interpretations of his work from the point of view of a whole segment of the population. The word "blind" was his. We see the doctor gesture to a shadow on his retina.
I do not like what I have seen of his sculpture. It's too literal and unpoetic except for its enormous size. I gotta hand it to him on the scale of the thing. But the film convinced me to admire him as a decent man. And his child-like joy at seeing the bronze parts at the foundry was infectious. As an artist, I know a little of the feeling.
The best joke in the film comes from a Native American man who is helping sweep piles of dust off the flat roof of an adobe house: "I'm going to a Halloween party; my wife says I should go as a white man wannbe."
Despite protests and contentious meetings, the sculpture is installed. The city councilman loses his bid for reelection. Houser begins another monumental project -- this one celebrating pre-Columbian traders in the region.
I hope it goes well for him.