by Jordan King
Between 2007 and 2011, Portuguese filmmaker Susana Nobre worked at a New Opportunities centre not far from her home city of Lisbon. New Opportunities is a programme run by the Portuguese government to combat a lack of education in the country, particularly amongst its working class. During her time as a Skills Recognition officer, Nobre worked towards making a film that would document her experiences and give a wider viewing audience an idea of what life is like for those enrolled in the programme. The result was 2013’s Active Life. Still absorbed in the countless stories she heard over her time with NO, Nobre followed up her film with a short – ‘Trials, Exorcisms’ – and now another feature, Jack’s Ride.
Documentarian in content and cop-show/Scorsese crime drama in form, Nobre’s docufiction hybrid Jack’s Ride follows Joaquim Calçada, a 63 year old nearly retired cab driver with more than a few stories to tell of his life as an immigrant in New York driving around the rich and famous. As Joaquim – with his Elvis quiff and self-crafted mythic persona – traverses the roads and backstreets of his home city to collect stamps to prove to the job centre that he is looking for work, we are entreated to 70 minutes of reminiscence on the relatively unremarkable life of a truly remarkable man.
Though the stories Calçada tells us of chauffeuring Jackie Kennedy and Muhammad Ali are standard cabbie name-dropping fodder, and though his underdog tale of taking his last $300 and making a fist of pursuing the American Dream is one that we have seen in various guises numerous times before, there is something admirable in the performer within Joaquim that bursts forth with even the smallest provocation from Nobre. During a particularly memorable few moments, we see Joaquim enter a full-on ‘mounted skulls and cowhide rugs’ American bar. As DoP Paulo Menezes frames Joaquim from below like the fifth face of Mt. Rushmore, chiselled and yet worn in equal measure, our guide through this elaborately made ‘This Is Your Life’ narrates;
‘For many immigrants, America means money. Dollars. But that’s not all. There are also unemployment lines waiting for a soup and plenty of dirty politics. And even worse. I wasn’t trying to be rich, but I wanted a chance to fight. Those daily achievements were my true freedom.
With the observational simplicity of a man with his feet firmly grounded in his working class background, and the performative dramatism of Sly Stallone’s star-making turn as underdog Rocky Balboa, we see Joaquim come alive. He represents not an unbelievable subject for a work of documentary film, but a wholly believable one, bravado and all. As we watch the sexagenarian would-be superstar survey the state of his nation whilst recreating scenes from his past, the jankiness of the film’s flow and the scattershot nature of Nobre’s collation of ideas and themes to explore in such a short time sort of falls away to reveal something akin to a diamond in the rough.
Seeing Joaquim travel the backroads and well-worn paths of his life in a film the director describes cannily describes as a “closed road movie” is a thing of infrequent but rare beauty, and though its whiplash-inducing changes of tack and style every five minutes stops Jack’s Ride from being the most smooth-going roadtrip, the company makes the journey worthwhile.
Jack’s Ride played as part of Berlinale