Reality Effects in London

Over on ‘Open Spaces‘, Patty Zimmerman recently wrote about the vitality of cinema studies south the Rio Grande. She talks about attending a conference in Mexico and how she ‘heard brilliant analyses of films I didn’t know about. I listened to debates that never migrate al norte. I met passionate scholars mining the theoretical complexities of Mexican and Latin American cinemas beyond the confines of national identity formation. It was exhilarating. I loved being thrown into a place where I didn’t have any of the usual coordinates.’

Here in London we have been fortunate over the last few days to enjoy the same thing on a smaller scale at a conference attended by scholars from Brazil and Argentina, brilliantly devised and organised by Jens Anderman at Birkbeck, in the second of a series of three events in the three countries under the general title of Reality Effects, which included screenings of three recent films which all challenge the conventions of documentary.

From Rio de Janeiro, José Carlos Avellar’s keynote established two of the key ideas that guided us through the ensuing debates: that in documentary, reality is the co-author of the film, and it isn’t the character alone who acts, but the camera. The papers that followed (I hope I can be forgiven for not mentioning everyone by name) developed in different directions to consider topics ranging from first person documentary — several speakers mentioned both Andres Di Tella’s La T.V. y yo (2002) and Santiago (2007) by João Moreira Salles, both of them first-person films about the film-maker’s family history — to the shifting relations between documentary and fiction—going both ways.

If the linking theme was ‘the return of the real’, then it became clear that this was neither a return to innocence nor the same postmodernist turn described by Hal Foster in his 1996 book of that name, but a new kind of realism about realism, a critical realism more akin to Brecht which is widely manifest in many forms in a whole range of recent films, both documentary and fiction, from the two countries under discussion. But of course this isn’t limited to Latin America. Film culture is international, despite taking national forms, and these preoccupations are found in many other cinemas on different continents—only not usually in mainstream genre cinema which continues to be dominated by escapist fantasies.

The three films we saw represented three very different takes on the kind of critical realism under discussion, one from Argentina, Martín Rejtman’s Copacabana (2006), and two from Brazil, Andrea Tonacci’s Serras da Desordem (Mountains of Disorder, 2006) andViajo Porque Preciso, Volto Porque Te Amo (I travel because I have to, I come back because I love you, 2009), by Karim Aïnouz and Marcelo Gomes.

There are two things which all three have in common. The first is a rhythm and sense of time that derives from sheer fascination with watching, which allows them to escape both semantic and discursive domination. These films are not dominated either by the spoken voice or by an argument that frames them. This is a cinema of the patient and attentive eye, the eye which as Jean Renoir once put it (in another context) sometimes draws attention to things, ands sometimes lets things draw attention to themselves. The second thing is the fact that precisely on this account, you’re not likely to see them on television.

In the film by Rejtman, all he does is to film scenes of the Bolivian community in Buenos Aires which he then presents in a kind of reverse order—starting with the annual fiesta of Nuestra Señora de Copacabana, then the dance troupes rehearsing, the workshops where the costumes are made, and finally, the bus journey which brings the immigrants from the border when they first arrive. The camera hangs back, there is no direct engagement with individuals (except one off-screen voice showing the camera his photo album of his homeland). This is a minimalist kind of documentary observationalism which is both formalist in construction and through the denial of a story line and eschewal of any kind of discursive information, enigmatic in effect. Perhaps a little too minimalist. Variety‘s comment: ‘shorn of any crutches like graphics or narration, demands observant viewers’.

The film by Aïnouz and Gomes is a reworking of travel footage which they shot several years before on a trip to the Sertão in North East Brazil, which is here given a fictional first person narration (with some additional material woven in). The speaker is a 30-something geologist engaged in surveying the territory for a planned canal, who has a sad love story to recount. A fictional autobiography which invites us to see a real place through other eyes, both analytical and metaphorical at the same time. This reminded me strongly of two films, Patrick Keiller’s London (1994) and Ignacio Agüero’s Sueños de hielo (1993), which also both attach fictional narration on the soundtrack to impeccably documentary footage, and I was able to ask Karim if he had come across either: he had not. But the film has already suffered the same problem as those two, being classified by film festivals and journalists as a ‘false’ or ‘quasi-documentary’ — Cineplayers calls it ‘Um quase-documentário com protagonista de corpo ausente’, which could also apply to the other two — when it’s something much more intriguing: a film which is fiction and documentary at the same time.

Something similar is true, but in quite another vein, in the case of Tonacci’s Serras da Desordem, in which events of ten years earlier are re-enacted by the protagonists of those events. The story is that of Carapiru, an Indian who survived a massacre of his tribe, spent years wandering alone in the rainforest, is then adopted by a friendly family of campesinos, and finally removed by the authorities to be returned to his tribe on a reservation, but not before fortune has smiled and he is re-united with his son, who also survived the massacre. A long and unhurried film, Tonacci richly fulfils Fredric Jameson’s thesis in ‘The Existence of Italy’, which Jens recalled in his introduction to the conference, that realism involves two contradictory claims, because it must both conceal and reveal the construction of the real.

(It does so, by the way, in a way that strongly recalls that other Brazilian documentary that Jens reminded us Jameson also discusses in this connection, Eduardo Coutinho’s Cabra Marcado Para Morrer (1985).)

To begin with, Tonacci’s film positions us as external observers who cannot understand the language being spoken by the Indian tribe whose daily life we are watching — there are no subtitles; but unlike the distant and uninvolved camera of both the other two films, here the camera is observing closely, forever picking out detail, and then, after the irruption of the massacre, becomes the constant companion of the protagonist. This allows us to enter his world by a simple reversal, by imagining Carapiru’s incomprehension of the Portuguese he hears being spoken around him (which for English-speaking viewers is subtitled). But this is only one of a complex series of filmic tropes, using diverse material (montage sequences, television news footage, observational filming etc.) which, in the inimitable language of Variety again, ‘packs a strong moral wallop’ — except that it isn’t just moral: this is a deeply political film, because it will change the way you think about quite fundamental social concerns.

These are just some preliminary observations. I shall doubtless write more soon about documentary in Latin America because I’m off tomorrow to Atlantida in Uruguay, for the documentary festival, Atlantidoc

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