"SOMETIMES I FEEL AS IF I NEVER LEFT THE TRUCK"
Definition: Lampshade Hanging (or, more informally, "Lampshading") is the writers' trick of dealing with any element of the story that threatens the audience's Willing Suspension Of Disbelief, whether a very implausible plot development, or a particularly blatant use of a trope, by calling attention to it and simply moving on.
Think Charlie Chaplin putting a lampshade on his head to avoid the coppers in 1917 silent film, The Adventurers.
Case in point.
Now imagine something even more implausible. What if Hello Kitty, yes, iconic, beloved, blank-faced, white-mittened Hello Kitty spoke Spanish, crossed a perilous desert, and was raped by coyotes. Seems like an otherworldly and outlandish plot point.
Except it's real life.
In filmmaker Daniel Burity's documentary, "¡Hola Kitty!" about undocumented immigrants he follows a woman working as a costumed Hello Kitty entertaining tourists in Time Square by blending pop animation and real-life footage. We never see our protagonist's face, a character worker who entered the United States both on foot and by being hidden in the back of a truck.
She is encased in a benign expressionless white mask, and for eight hours a day interacts with the world through a literal fuzzy filter and mesh eyes.
What Burity so aptly points out is when she wears the costume she obscures her "otherness," and "occupies two spaces at once." She is in America, but experiences it through an uncomfortable and cumbersome costume.
She is here, but she is not free.
We never see the performer's skin color, she could, in theory, have any arrangement of melanin pigment cells, but she is Mexican, and it is implied she is a person of color. That, I think, may be exactly the point. We don't really know what ethnicity she is, and so, we as the audience forget about it.
After meeting Burity at the 2018 Art of Brooklyn Film Festival, “Imagining Immigrants on Film and in Real Life” panel I asked him about his choice of subject.
Burity says, “Hello Kitty suffers no discrimination because people are color blind towards her. Even though some people might know the person in the costume is Hispanic they only see this icon of popular (Japanese) culture that was embraced by Americans. I also particularly liked that the character of Hello Kitty has no expression, almost like a blank canvas so my idea was to see her as a faceless immigrant.”
It's a personal revelation for me, subtly layered in the film by Burity's apt direction, that the United States has a long history of white-washing it's performers to make them socially palatable. Historically, "whiteness" is this country's barometer of visibility, a type of Colorism I am not the first to point out. Ralph Ellison wrote his novel, The Invisible Man way back in 1945.
The "Hello Kitty" head is worn not just by the female Times Square performer, but Burity uses it to protect the identity of an undocumented male restaurant worker mopping floors. Like Chaplin, hiding underneath the lampshade, the fourth wall is broken, and by obscuring their personhood, Burity is pointing a finger, so we, the audience, can finally see the people we treat as invisible.
In live action we see "Hello Kitty" take the escalator, in the metallic grime and sprawling tangibility of the Times Square subway. She is part of our world, so much so, I can imagine what's next on her evening itinerary. After all, she and I are both adopted New Yorkers, we’re five-borough neighbors. I'm guessing she takes the express 7 train way out to Flushing and treks with swollen feet in the urban humidity up a fourth floor walk-up with her character head cumbersome and heavy under her arm.
Would I have ever wondered about her journey if she wasn't wearing a giant bobblehead?
When you replace her identity with an expressionless mask, what we are left to fill in the blanks with is ourselves.
For some, empathy is a skill set that requires a road map.
In contrast to the live action footage of urban commutes, Burity splices in pop animation to narrate the story of the woman and her deadly journey across the Arizona desert into the United States. The animation choice is bold, visually interesting, and necessary.
Our costumed "Hello Kitty" performer is our erstwhile protagonist and she has anything but a mundane commute into the United States, even if the terrible events that transpire happen with uncomfortable frequency. Coyotes, are human smugglers that Burity literally animates as their anthropomorphic animal counterparts. They can kidnap, double-cross, murder, and in the case of "our" Hello, Kitty, rape. I'll never forget seeing our Hello Kitty assaulted because now we have finally claimed her and as I keep reminding myself, this is real life.
The border crossing sequence hit me right in the heart, but the pop animation of real life events gave me enough cognitive distance from the rape that I didn't start sobbing in the theater.
At one point, she remarks, "I feel like I'm famous," when she works as a character greeting tourists who never see her real face.
Both the filmmaker and I, were born in Brazil, and Daniel Burity's film reminded me of a performer iconic in the country we both hold passports too.
The Portuguese-born, Brazilian-raised performer Carmen Miranda was once the highest paid woman in Hollywood. In an ethic so many immigrants share - she worked. At all of 5'0" tall and 98 pounds, I mean she really worked. Carmen is as famous for her work ethic as she is for her Bahia inspired turbans and the joyful playfulness of her songs.
On August 5th, 1955, she famously died after filming an episode for the Jimmy Durante comedy show, then giving an impromptu encore performance to the film techs and cast after the show, and then taking some of the cast into her home to entertain. She ascended the stairs to her bedroom, and once inside, with small mirror in hand, (I imagine finally ready to remove her make-up for the night) she had a fatal heart attack. Carmen Miranda was forty-six.
I've watched her final performance on the Jimmy Durante show and there's no indication that she lost her breath and fell to her knees during rehearsal, refusing Durante's offer to find a replacement. If you turn a side eye to the Mad Men era chortling sexism, the comedy still holds up. Carmen's hysterical; it's a good episode.
Jimmy Durante speaks to her in gringo-accented Spanish, "buenos noches!" he greets her, "your hands are so white and soft it's like kissing an enchilada." During a skit that involves Carmen and her band hiding from Durante's landlord, the landlord asks Durante, "you were talking in your sleep in Spanish?!"
One, two, three references to cultures that have nothing to do with Miranda's own, and each time she answers back in rapid-fire Carioca accented...Portuguese.
These missed opportunities whiz by and Carmen never lets the audience in on the joke. She doesn't get to lampshade this one; I imagine because it's not her show, and it's not her "place." The mask doesn't budge, she plays her part gloriously.
We reward immigrants who hide in plain sight and make us laugh. We don't always take so kindly to those who have the audacity to live their lives in the open.
At one point in ¡Hola Kitty! Burity cuts to B-roll footage of Farmingville, New York. I asked Burity about referencing the 2004 PBS documentary, Farmingville (Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize winner) about the attempted murder of two Latinx immigrants. The film makers Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini lived and worked in Farmingville for almost a year.
Burity says, “the director (Sandoval) of the film Farmingville…talks about his experience suffering racism while making the film on Farmingville. Even though he was born and raised in the U.S. his skin color was enough for him to be discriminated.”
This is the same Long Island hamlet where in 2015, three locals beat a Guatemalan man after pulling him from his bike. Hate crimes in Eastern Long Island are not isolated incidents. In 2008, a seventeen-year old white teenager and his six friends killed Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue after getting drunk and looking to beat up a "Mexican." They stabbed Lucero in the chest. Lucero had lived in the area sixteen-years, almost the entirety of his killer's life. He was their neighbor.
Burity's ¡Hola Kitty! is plain-spoken, charming, and subversive. By showing us the mask, he is also letting us glimpse life inside it.
It's a long overdue welcome to a city that has been built by immigrants for three-hundred and fifty years.
Hola and hello again.