Based on what I have read, the most popular episodes in the third season of Love, Death +Robots – Netflix’s remarkable series of self-contained, animated short sci-fi films – appear to be Bad Travelling and Jibaro. The first is directed by David Fincher and is the most obviously plot-driven of the bunch. It’s a gruesome, tense, and compelling story about a crew of sailors who must deal with a sea monster on their ship, and it’s easy to see why people enjoy it. The second is a bizarre tale about a deaf knight confronting a gold-studded, woman-like creature in a lake.
The appeal of Jibaro is not immediately evident, nor for that matter is its meaning. When questioned about it, Spanish director Alberto Mielgo has generally kept things vague:
I wanted to be a little bit abstract in a way, and I wanted also people to have their own conclusions. Because nothing is really explained, it’s basically visuals trying to tell you as accurate[ly] as possible what’s going on with the characters. I like it because everybody’s going to have different versions of the film. You might need to watch it twice. You might watch it three times. Who knows? Nothing is too explained on its face.– Alberto Mielgo, Screenrant
While Mielgo clearly intended to direct something open-ended, in other interviews he has given clues that the underlying message is about toxic relationships:
The first thing that came to my mind was the visual of a siren singing. And then, I wanted to create a situation around that. The whole story is about a toxic mother relationship.– Alberto Mielgo, Gamerant
The dynamic between the characters, he explains, is rather bleak:
In this case, there is no improvement. Actually, it’s the opposite. They both end up being the worst versions of themselves. And there is no lesson that they learn. They both lose.– Alberto Mielgo, Awn
Even equipped with this knowledge, it’s still difficult to ‘explain’ Jibaro. Like other episodes in Love, Death +Robots, it is characterised by a surprising, sometimes disorienting engagement with a variety of languages – those of film and animation, naturally, but also and much more subtly those of dance and mythology.
In spite of this, readings of Jibaro so far appear to be relatively straightforward. Almost everyone seems to have interpreted Mielgo’s work as a critique of colonialism/imperialism, sometimes more particularly Spanish imperialism in South America. For example, Rafael Bautista of Nylon Manila argues that the episode “tells a poignant tale of abuse, colonialism, and greed.” Paul Tassi of Forbes believes the siren is “some sort of metaphor for the raping and pillaging of native lands by invaders.” For Austin Allison of Collider, “Jibaro explores the basic evils of colonialism in an eerily poignant way.”
What are we to make of this reading? A work as subtle and mutable as Jibaro naturally lends itself to a variety of interpretations, which may well coexist with each other. And yet this argument doesn’t hold together.
There is one scene in particular – the protagonist’s looting of the siren’s gold – which evokes colonial pillaging, and one of the knights appears to resemble a conquistador. The problem is that the siren in Jibaro is distinctly predatory in nature. Her POV shots from between ferns, the way she keeps her head underwater up to her eyes, her nocturnal stalking of the terrorized knight, her sharp teeth and flitting, snake-like tongue, her ‘devouring’ gestures when kissing the protagonist – everything about her (except perhaps her eroticism) is reminiscent of a dangerous carnivore.
As importantly, the knight in Jibaro is inescapably characterized by a disability that seems difficult to reconcile with a representation of colonial invaders (European empires usually had more means than their opponents, not less). Trying to explain this as a metaphor for the way imperialists did not hear the voices of the people they trampled is even more problematic – these empires were not unable to hear the people they invaded, instead, they chose not to listen, which is very, very different.
While there are some elements and moments in Jibaro that echo colonial history, to see that as the central topic would require embracing a representation of native peoples as predators who lured in a disabled and distinctly less dangerous invader. What bothers me the most about this ubiquitous approach to Jibaro is that so few appear to have questioned the cultural background of the text. Mielgo is Spanish, and his short film throws back classic tropes of Spanish culture that are really not difficult to see if one will look for them.
For example, what are we to make of the knights? The ‘imperialist’ reading would have them suggestive of a European military force entering a foreign (is it really foreign though?) land, and that one among the knights wears a conquistador armor seemingly supports that. In Spain, however, knights are most readily associated with chivalric literature.
Chivalric literature – not to be confused with the modern fantasy about knights fighting dragons – is a European genre that flourished in the Renaissance, centred on the fantastical adventures of heroic paladins, and is best represented by epic poems such as Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. It is constitutive to Spanish culture because its most central and foundational text, Cervantes’ Don Quijote, is a colossal and subversive re-imagining of that entire body of literature.
The siren in Jibaro is a classic trope of chivalric literature, which very frequently features either monsters or sorcerers guarding a treasure. Female sorcerers were by no means uncommon, and Mielgo’s siren is very precisely linked to that tradition. Far from embodying a natural, untouched land that is invaded by a ‘civilized’ outsider, her identity seems rather artificial and baroque – Jibaro is physically composed of golden plates, jewellery, and a mask (not unlike the knights whose identity is represented by their armor and gilded ornaments). She represents treasure, not nature, and this aligns her perfectly with tales of chivalric literature – as does her predatory behavior.
Mielgo’s short ends with the knight falling under the siren’s spell and drowning in the lake alongside his comrades, which is a reversal of the classic chivalric narrative (the knight usually wins and takes the treasure home). Alongside the ambiguous morality of both the deaf knight and the siren, what we have here is fundamentally a tale of chivalric revisionism – a genre that has endlessly echoed down Spanish literature and culture since Don Quijote.
I don’t want to fall into the same trap as the readings I am criticizing and try and ‘pin down’ Jibaro into a single parable or message. Mielgo is not deliberately making a comment on Cervantes here. Rather, his short film, like his characters, is meant to ‘dance’. It spins on and through and around a variety of tropes, the central one being that of toxic relationships and the way these are both frightening and alluring. But the textual bed in which the deaf knight and the siren sleep together is less that of Spanish colonialism than that of Spanish mythology. The correspondences to the latter are much more precise.
This is not to say that someone can’t watch Jibaro and see a critique of colonialism in it. But the terrible irony is that the concurrence of all the critics on this reading is having the effect of erasing this episode’s marked cultural distinctiveness. This is ironic because the whole point of postcolonial discourse is to give room and representation to those cultures which are usually denied them. This is the opposite of what is happening here.
When approaching texts by artists from a culture other than one’s own, it should be normal to ask which culture that is and whether it may have any relation to the text. If a critic not only fails to ask these basic questions but then insists on a reading whose whole point is that other cultures should be valued rather than erased – then the lesson smacks of hypocrisy.
In the real-life version of Jibaro, the true siren is called the dominant culture, and the critics that so far have approached this episode of Love, Death +Robots have their place in the narrative too. They are the knights in the opening scene, marching in the same direction, entranced by that song, and critically unable to hear anything else.