Directed by Yuri Makino, 2003.
University Film and Video Association Conference,
University of South Carolina, August 2003.
Llama Walks, by Yuri Makino, is an intriguing personal documentary that explores the function of ritual within Makino's family. Rituals keep us connected with society and provide a place for us within a larger cultural structure. We invest rituals with powers beyond those of ordinary days, and we preserve rituals through photographs and stories. We go out of our way (our ordinary lives) to honor time together, as we remember the past and move into the future.
Makino is at the center of her family, with four generations still living, on the occasion of the several birthdays-of a one-hundred-year-old grandmother, of a seventy-two-year-old mother, of a newborn baby. Also present on these days are the many sisters and daughters who come in between. It is the ritual of the birthday we are invited to explore here. All are specific and carefully detailed occasions. With Makino behind the camera, we join her family, but this is no ordinary documentary.
From the start, the film sets up a different kind of narrative structure; one as poetic as it is reality-based. We are at the beach. A figure leading two llamas slowly approaches the camera. Dressed in baggy clothes, the figure is either a man or a woman; we cannot tell. We do not have a sense of time; it is day, but when? We hear a woman's voice-over story about a ring that has passed from one generation to the next on the occasion of a particular birthday. The ambiguity of our beach wanderer suggests a time and place far away. Is this some nomadic wanderer coming toward us? Some solitary wise one coming to share long-lost secrets? Who is this stranger? We slowly discover that this inscrutable, timeless figure is Mother, out walking her pet llamas. Mother, and Makino's relationship to her, become the centerpieces of the film. In this world, it is the women of the family who tend to the rituals that bind them together.
Early in the film, we are greeting family members who have come home for Thanksgiving. This ritual of holiday togetherness and family sharing begins at the airport and then progresses to the dining room. The table is full and the family is all there. The host of the family rushes through his welcome and his list of things to be thankful for, and just when it is time to begin the meal, a pregnancy is announced, adding to the list of blessings. The ever-present camera records the responses of Mother and of the mother-to-be, as the women of the family shift the focus of the film toward the future.
Her delicacy as an editor allows Makino to weave the generations of women together using deceptively simple voice-over transitions. A question is asked: "What are you going to do when you're older?" We have maintained our focus on the future, but shifted the subject to Mother. Another question: "How do you feel about seeing your mom?" Again we have shifted generations to focus on Mother's mom, on the occasion of her one-hundredth birthday. Makino expands the focus of the film with surprising editorial efficiency. The family of women is in Switzerland celebrating grandmother. The elders of the family are treated like children. The sisters plan for the future.
Mother's birthday is celebrated with the quirky ritual of walking llamas on the beach. As a character, Mother is fascinating because of what we see and do not see; she is never in the kitchen, she never tells her daughters what to do. She is a nomadic Mother, with her backpack always ready. There is a timelessness about her, which she acknowledges on her seventy-second birthday: "I can't believe it. …