Banter through disability and dislocation
A decade ago, filmmaker Daniel Poler was living in his native Venezuela and pondering what it would mean to leave. He was a twenty-year-old film student, and his homeland tended towards misery. Poler chose to emigrate. His decision remains an open wound. “It’s like someone cut a part of me off,” he said.
His new film, “Tuesco”, is the portrait of a Venezuelan family who understands their exile, because they also live it. The title, which translates to “all screwed up,” is a nickname for Jonathan Benaim, the film’s protagonist and the middle child of the Benaim family. Twenty-eight-year-old Jonathan requires the use of a wheelchair; as a newborn in a hospital in Caracas, he suffered from a brain infection caused by an expired needle. He now lives with his mother, grandmother and sister in Panama.
Poler met the Benaims years ago and has always been drawn to Jonathan, who “has this incredible, unique charisma”, he said. The dynamics of the Benaim family – dark humor, outspokenness, love of Teflon – never ceased to delight him. “Growing up with them, I always thought, I wish I could document that,” he said. During the pandemic, he had his chance. What he captured in ‘Tuesco’ is the bare, graceful simplicity behind something we all share: the body, its limits and desires, alone and with others.
The film opens with the morning sun in the Benaim house. There are wind chimes and chirping birds. Jonathan’s grandmother, Shulamit, takes care of the schnauzer, Squash. His mother, Carolina, comes into his room and helps him up. They bathe and dress Jonathan, help him to the bathroom, get him into the car, roll him in the grass. At first glance, the family members appear to be planets orbiting Jonathan, and it seems like caring for him is an integral part of their universe. But soon it becomes clear that Jonathan is circling alongside them, joking and berating – that each of them needs the others as well. Flanked by the Panamanian skyline, the Benaim spend a day by the ocean, prepare a meal, celebrate Shabbat. Carolina administers acupuncture to children. Jonathan’s sister, Alexandra, takes him to a club for his first drink of alcohol, which causes him to wince, then vomit. “There are people with physical disabilities who are treated like they’re children or made of crystal,” Jonathan said, contrasting that reality with his own.
For all the unity that Poler displays, there are also absences. Roberto, Jonathan’s beloved brother and Poler’s childhood friend, is thousands of miles away working in Spain, as is his half-brother, Juan Andrés. Fernando, Jonathan’s father, now lives part-time in Venezuela, trying to sell their home amid economic disaster for even a fraction of what they once paid. Incidentally, Fernando and Carolina are divorced, but they remain close friends and still live with the children, another example of Benaim’s love that Poler admires so much – one that lasts, one that is ready to evolve.
Another notable absence is something that, for many people, is a separate experience from biological family: shame. Jonathan can do few things on his own that require physical movement and therefore countless things of daily life, such as bathing, require coordination and solidarity from his family. Instead of shame in those moments, there is comedy; there is attention. Even Jonathan’s first sexual experience – a visit to a sex worker – was orchestrated by his mother and uncle. He went home to the whole Benaim team gathered to congratulate him with a banner and a cake.
The beauty of the film lies in the fact that the family, whether biological or created, is a space in which we learn to know each other. Especially for people whose bodies are seen as non-normative – disabled or not – community is of paramount importance. “I see myself as my family sees me,” says Jonathan. “It’s what makes me who I am.”
In “Tuesco”, Jonathan jokes that he’s supposed to be the “man of the house” now that his brother and father are gone, but he can’t protect the women from anything, not physically, at least. Poler argues that there is no need for verticality here. They all protect each other. And one way to do that is to joke around. “That dark humor, the way his family treats Jonathan, is very Venezuelan,” Poler said. “In Latin America, we may share this heat, but, for Venezuelans, [it’s] because of our history, our ups and downs through tragedy. Indeed, throughout “Tuesco,” the family jokes about Jonathan’s body — “as a tool not for coping, but for integrating Jonathan into what we call normalcy,” Poler said. Often it is Jonathan himself who leads the joke.
About halfway through the film, Carolina and Alexandra leave Jonathan in the middle of the bath to take care of dinner details, and, as happens in all homes, one thing leads to another, and suddenly Jonathan is forgotten, shivering in the shower. . “He’s used to being left alone and sometimes forgotten like that,” Poler said. “He starts to sing. If you leave Jonathan alone long enough, he starts singing. ♦