All Families Disappear

Jauja (2014)

Cinema Guild

For such an enigmatic movie, Jauja begins with the simplest of questions. “Father, why can’t I have a dog?” 15-year-old Ingeborg asks. “You will,” her father responds. For most parents, this would be a dodge. But the father means it. He does, in fact, plan to give his daughter a dog. “But not until we return home.” Home being an ocean away.

Soon after my wife was accepted into the US Foreign Service, she received her first of many assignments: two years in Montenegro, a tiny Balkan country a long way from our home in Washington, DC. But with breed restrictions, we couldn’t take our dog. We made the difficult decision to leave her with my parents in the countryside. We said goodbye one chilly October weekend, and while our daughter was barely a year old, our dog had been a constant in her life. She still asks to see her whenever we FaceTime the grandparents. 

All of which is to say that my daughter, too, has a dog waiting at home. But what of the interim? I recently rewatched Jauja, Lisandro Alonso’s 2014 film about Gunnar Dinesen, a 19th-century Danish engineer sent to colonize remote Patagonia. When his teenage daughter, Ingeborg, runs off with a young soldier, Dinesen pursues her into the desert. The film can be a perplexing experience. It’s presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio—complete with rounded corners—evocative of old photographs, of memory, and the long, unyielding shots can feel plodding and alienating.

But the deliberate pace also provides space to reflect, to get lost alongside Dinesen as he drifts further into an unknown land. Watching so far from home, I felt the protagonist and I asking the same questions about fatherhood, sharing the same anxieties about raising a child in ways that we, ourselves, were not raised. I felt his unhealthy desire to maintain control as his daughter’s growing independence is shaped by an unfamiliar environment. But most of all I shared his guilt. The guilt of taking a child away from her home, her family—of placing an ocean between a girl and her dog.

* * *

When we flew into Montenegro a year ago, stories began to appear about what GQ writer Julia Ioffe described as the “immaculate concussion”—an ongoing phenomenon in which US diplomats, stationed mostly in Cuba and China, report strange clicking sounds outside their homes, followed by symptoms synonymous with brain damage. A leading theory: that Russian spies are harassing Americans with a state-of-the-art microwave weapon. How could I protect my daughter from this? In addition to a pandemic, in addition to finding groceries labeled in a language I could not read, I also had to worry about invisible energy weapons? 

One year in, these stories have played zero role in our lives. I haven’t heard any piercing squeals,” as the sounds have been described. I haven’t been tailed by any blacked-out SUVs. But arriving with this background air of menace can set a tone. It can unfairly flavor a place, contribute to a sense of othering. You hear horror stories in the news. A two-year-old runs into oncoming traffic, a child falls from a third-story balcony; these are accidents that can happen anywhere, that have nothing to do with the place in which they occur. Still, you wonder: is my daughter safe here?

In Jauja, this menace takes the form of Zuluaga. Dinesen and his daughter are guarded by a cadre of Danish troops. They are safe, so long as they remain in the camp. But there is a group of Indigenous bandits in the area, led by a man named Zuluaga. This development has little to do with the plot. Instead, it introduces a numbing sense of dread, underlining for Dinesen that he has arrived in a foreign land with foreign dangers.

There’s also a more immediate threat: a lieutenant in charge of protecting the camp has eyes for the teenage Ingeborg. The age gap is considerable, and we’re first introduced to the lascivious lieutenant as he masturbates in what is presumably a communal pool next to the ocean. Not a man fit for a daughter. Dinesen warns Ingeborg to stay away, and she’s offended by the idea that she would have ever considered otherwise.

But this lieutenant also reveals new information about Zuluaga, and it turns out that the mysterious bandit leader represents more than an abstract potential for violence. The most disconcerting thing about Zuluaga is that he was one of them, a Dane on temporary assignment. A Dane going Native, as it were. This is inconceivable to Dinesen, a man who holds himself so distant from his surroundings. With his rolled-up pant legs, bowler hat, and copper scarf flapping against his spyglass, Dinesen is introduced as a Danish dandy. “We don’t belong here,” he tells his daughter early in the film. Neither did Zuluaga, of course. So how was he drawn so completely into the desert?

And then Dinesen wakes one night to find his daughter gone.

* * *

To be clear, my wife and I aren’t concerned about our daughter’s exposure to other cultures. This is one of the great benefits of raising children in the Foreign Service—trying new foods, meeting new people, understanding different outlooks. Dinesen’s fear is part of a strong anticolonial thread that runs through the film. Ingeborg’s creepy suitor, for instance, is loathsome in more ways than one. “We consider all of them coconut-heads,” he tells Dinesen, describing the local tribes. “We have to exterminate them. We have to kill them all.” Dinesen is clearly put off by this genocidal language, but his unease at the idea of his daughter being seduced by this distant landscape is its own kind of white supremacy. To him, she is above this place, above its people.

What are our concerns, then? Before we knew exactly where we’d be sent, my wife and I spent an inordinate amount of time researching air quality around the world. We worried about night terrors, a potential side effect of malaria pills. We worried that the car seat wouldn’t click into a foreign taxi for the drive from the airport. Of course, to have these concerns at all is to start from a place of privilege—most families do not have the luxury of chasing air quality standards around the globe—so maybe we’re not so different from Dinesen, after all.

But the thing we now worry about most is whether our daughter has enough friends. There are other children at the embassy, but few her age. We spend most mornings at a nearby playground, but the language barrier can be difficult. She knows dobar dan (hello) and hvala (thank you), but these are words parents foist upon children, not ones they naturally use amongst themselves. She tries to break the ice with our inside jokes—“froggy smile,” “country chipmunk,” “hair up in a bun!”—but I can see that some kids consider her strange. They lend her a toy truck, but leave her to play on her own, so she looks up and asks if I’ll carry her to the slide.

And I worry that being raised across multiple countries could leave her unmoored, left without a national identity. A child without a country, another kind of loneliness. She will miss out on big family Thanksgivings, sweet tea, summer baseball games, Sunday Night Football (thank god, actually), Halloween, Saturday morning cartoons, all of the intangible things that will define her generation’s idea of Americanness. She’ll likely have only a passing relationship with her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Third Culture Kids,  they’re called, children raised in a place other than their parents’ homeland, and they can cling to national identity more than their parents since that’s the only way they’ll retain one. 

So maybe Ingeborg will end up even more of a Dane than her father. But is this such a good thing? Maybe she will transcend nationalism altogether, become a true global citizen. In which case Dinesen’s actual fear, or perhaps my own, is that she will leave him behind. That she could identify with a place, or a culture, that he only ever appreciated as a novelty. That her worldliness could expose his open-mindedness—my own—as shallow, self-serving, and beneath her.

Bearing such an unfair burden, it’s no wonder Ingeborg runs into the desert, even in such dangerous terrain. When Dinesen finally catches up to the young couple, he finds the boyfriend dying beneath a tree, Ingeborg nowhere in sight. Violence, a renewed sense of dread. “Where is she?” Dinesen asks. “Where the hell is she?” Except isn’t this what all children do, burdened or not? They learn, they grow, then they leave.

* * *

With our daughter’s dog 5000 miles away, we took her to a petting zoo in the mountains north of the city. It was a small, family-run place that specialized in rescuing exotic animals, which, through one misadventure or another, had ended up in the Montenegrin countryside. There was a llama, a camel, a pair of emus, and every few steps we’d find a bright plume sticking out of the brush, shed by the resident peacock. There were also two wolves kept in a steel enclosure toward the back edge of the farm. Our guide told us that these wolves had been kept as illegal pets by a man back in the city, and that they’d gotten loose one day and were found roaming a residential neighborhood much like our own. This didn’t mean much to our daughter, but for my wife and I—a new worry, my God: renegade pet wolves.

Dinesen comes across a wild wolfhound soon after finding the murdered soldier. He’s lost his rifle and his horse, and at first he regards the dog as a potential threat he’s defenseless against. This dog has come up before, and it’s suggested that it’s the same one that belonged to Zuluaga before he vanished. A kindred creature abandoned in the desert, the dog becomes a guide, leading Dinesen deeper into the interior, and it’s here that Jauja takes a turn. The deliberately paced Western begins to adopt mystic qualities, an otherworldliness accentuated by the uncanny environment. The parched grassland turns to bare rock. The sky becomes a duller blue. Dinesen falls asleep in one landscape and seems to wake in another. The dog first leads Dinesen to a toy soldier, a gift given to Ingeborg by her lover. They trek further, and the dog eventually leads Dinesen to a cave where an old woman lives. She has wild blond hair, speaks Danish, and it’s soon clear that this old woman is, somehow, his daughter.

This is a vision of some kind. Summoned by the desert or the hallucinations of a Dinesen dying of dehydration. An impossible vision, both a blessing and a curse—to see your child in old age. Their conversation is stilted, as filial conversations often are, but we learn that Ingeborg, this version of Ingeborg, is a widow. Not by the young soldier, but by an unknown man poisoned by a snake. She lives alone in the cave with her dogs. This is a nightmare scenario for Dinesen, that his decision to drag his daughter across the Atlantic should end with her as a Patagonian hermit. They spend a few moments together. “Where did she run away from?” Ingeborg asks of her younger self. “From nowhere,” Dinesen says. “She doesn’t have a home. Neither do I. We travel from place to place.” With his eyes cast down toward the floor, Dinesen’s hope in this moment is for forgiveness for the choices he made for them both.

But if Dinesen’s is a tone of remorse, the old woman’s is one of acceptance. Her life is not a tragedy; it is simply her life. He is oblivious to the fact that this cave is her home, a choice she made for herself and not a symbol of his own failing. Her bed is lined with fur blankets. Books rest on a table next to an oil lamp. She drinks fresh spring water that will one day cost $2.29 per bottle. She is comfortable. He is oblivious, even now, to her perspective, and the fact that his entire quest to retrieve her from the wild has been, in fact, an effort to undo the first decision she ever made for herself. As they talk, there is no mention of Patagonia or South America or the young soldier or Zuluaga. It becomes clear that Dinesen was never worried about the seductive power of this specific place. His fear had nothing to do with a foreign land or a foreign culture. He is simply afraid. To be a father is to be afraid.

I was part of a different family, once. Leaving for college one weekend, my stoic father ran behind the house to cry. He’d had a family before, as well. As had his father, his grandfather, and the fathers before them. A line of unreciprocated grief as children went marching into their own lives. It’s futile to fight against the natural order of things. “All families disappear eventually,” Ingeborg tells her father. “The desert swallows them up.”

* * *

And still, what about the dog? For its last ten minutes, Jauja makes a truly audacious jump in both place and time. We move from 19th-century Patagonia to a palatial estate in modern-day Denmark. A teenage girl played by Viilbjørk Malling Agger, the same actress who plays young Ingeborg, wakes in an ornate, aristocratic bedroom. The house and grounds are meticulously kept, the silverware polished and the lawn trimmed precisely along the drive. A pair of oil paintings, an ancient white man in each, hang in the dining room. The girl wanders from room to room, but her parents are oddly absent, the house strangely quiet. It’s as if she lives alone, the unfledged Lady of some great Danish Dynasty.

Alone except for a pack of dogs and a man who watches over them. They all resemble the wolfhound from the desert, and one in particular is injured. “It’s a hot spot,” the houndman says. “When he doesn’t understand something, he scratches himself furiously.” The girl asks what it is that the dog doesn’t understand. “He doesn’t understand why you go away for so long.”

Ingeborg asked for a dog. Five generations later, she has an entire pack. We can see the critique of colonialism resurfacing here—for all the time spent worrying about a European girl going Native in South America, their descendants will continue to thrive in Denmark, their legacy never at threat.

But the dog always represented more than mere creature comforts. Ingeborg wanted one that “follows me everywhere,” and that is precisely how Dinesen spends the entire film. With so much out of his hands, the dog becomes an externalization of the father’s regret, his desperation to appease the child he may have failed. When he comes across the dog in the desert, they’re both dirty, both exhausted, both wrung out from the weight of their devotion. But a parent cannot be all things. Perhaps this would be easier to see if they were still in Denmark, if we were still in America, as our daughters learned to navigate a place we all understood. As they learned to meet their own needs. Or perhaps it would be the same; some parents never accept their limited roles. Either way, Dinesen falls into the trap. He tries to become too much and gets lost along the way.

In the present day, the girl takes her injured dog for a walk in the woods by her estate. She finds a toy soldier on the ground. A toy of interest to a child, a soldier of interest to a young woman. The dog drifts from her sight, and she goes to investigate when she hears a distant bark. She finds a pond, the surface rippling without end from a single point, but there is no other sign that her dog was ever there or will ever emerge.

I am not the same person I was before my daughter was born. I worry about plane crashes and traffic accidents and disease. About contaminated soil and falls from the bed. About heat stroke and rising oceans and clogged arteries and simply never waking up. I worry about death. I try to anticipate. We will travel home one day and I will continue to think about these things. Exhausting thoughts that rob too many hours. I don’t always recognize myself.

I am the dog, trying to be all that I cannot give, and losing myself to time.