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Embodying Neglect: The Subversive Forms of Paz Encina and Camilo Restrepo

Hamaca Paraguaya (Paz Encina, 2006)

EssayPart of Issue #14: In Absentia

Latin American cinema has always been understood as a refraction of the region’s history. To register, frame, cut and recontextualize is to establish a dialogue with the intricacies of a turbulent setting, one that seems to be in a never-ending state of constant motion and ceaseless inner tension. The evolution of Latin America’s cinematic ecosystem is as varied as the myriad of cultures that comprise this corner of the world, but when seen from a distance, common threads emerge from the scarred landscape.

There’s a cadence to how things flow here, an eclectic rhythm that soon becomes recognizable and seems cyclical in nature: oppositional powers oscillate from one end of the political spectrum to other, the hopes of many fluctuating without encountering more than cosmetic change. The preoccupations, narratives and cosmovisions of millions rarely make it beyond a footnote on what tends to constitute “the official story”, leaving them scattered amid a sea of uncertainty and neglect. Latin American cinema, since its early stages, has shone a light on the wide array of structural shortcomings that hamper the region. The decision on how to engage with the weight of expectations inherent to such a fickle context rapidly became an inescapable debate for anyone who grabbed a camera.

Early modernist exercises adopted aesthetic signifiers from colonizing nations, such as Mario Peixoto’s Limite and Juan Bustillo Oro’s Dos Monjes, and a confrontational grassroots ethos was drawn from the Third Cinema movement, through the films of Pino Solanas and Glauber Rocha. These approaches were followed by the contemporary revival of ethnographic approximations to non-fiction and epistolary essays, in the works of filmmakers such as Pablo Escoto and Agustina Comedi, respectively. In all these perspectives, there has never been an encompassing answer to the question of how to approach the region’s exiled subjects cinematically. The ever-present spectre of abjection lurks behind most creative expressions, but the way it manifests itself is moulded by the specific context it’s framed in. Nevertheless, shared themes eventually evolve towards analogous aesthetic universes.

A brief glance at the erratic timeline of Latin American cinema (and art in general) from the last 30 years would probably yield the concept of memory as one of the medium’s main driving forces. The seemingly endless violence and oppression felt throughout the region during the second part of the 20th Century marks an important shift in people’s relationship with moving images. This was the era of military dictatorships, of loved ones disappearing to be never seen again, of puppet governments exerting their power over those that have always been on the margins. A portrait, a single frame, or even a blurry reflection: these visions were enough to provide the link to that which was furiously erased. Like in the perceptive self-reflection that guides the essay films of Argentine director Nicolás Prividera, reverberations are felt profoundly through time and space as something immovable and inescapable.

In film, the haunting presences of the disappeared and forgotten are placed in the forefront as an attempt to rekindle their memories. The dissection of traumatic events—intimate investigations for the missing pieces of a remembrance otherwise lost to time, and expressionistic snapshots trying to capture what words can’t—provide different versions of the same primal need for closure. Contemporary Latin American cinema, or at least its most exciting proponents, can be seen as a collection of creative utterances emerging from the realms of the corporeal. What’s experienced on screen goes beyond the classic intellectual exercises of yore and confronts academic interest with a sense of urgency that exudes from every frame. As historical neglect continues to gnaw from the inside out, film becomes less an opportunity to portray and spotlight, and more a means for embodiment.

The whole oeuvre of Paraguayan director Paz Encina, for example, revolves around the depiction of systemic violence and marginalization. She came to international attention by way of her rigorous 78-minute feature length debut, Hamaca Paraguaya (2006), and has continued reworking her aesthetic in her more poetic follow-ups Ejercicios de Memoria (2016) and EAMI (2022). Despite her stylistic evolution, the throughline in her works remains the ripple-effects of oppression, and how these unassumingly distort the ecosystems (literally and figuratively) her subjects inhabit.

The most literal representation of this idea can be seen in EAMI, which at its core, concerns the Ayoreo Totobiegosode indigenous community, and how they experience the harrowing withering away of the land they call home. Encina uses visual metaphors and cross-cutting as her way towards an effective visualization of the dying Earth, but her most insightful decision lies in her expressionistic relationship with sound, where the ominous drones of machinery violently overwhelm any recognizable detail of what was once a vivid soundscape of the natural world.

As with her other two films, the juxtaposition of aural and visual layers creates a sense of discomfort via outright subversion. In EAMI, brief snippets of how the Chaco region should sound are rapidly distorted beyond recognition. Encina subtracts the one element that provides familiarity, and the film is consumed by its absence. The same can be said about how Ejercicios de Memoria shakes up the preconceptions inherent to the testimonial documentary. The spoken memories of the children of Agustín Goiburú, a disappeared communal leader who opposed Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship, are not intended to complement archival footage or submerge one in the intricacies of a dark period in Paraguayan history. As Encina frames these memories, they’re closer to expressionist vignettes, aiming to make palpable how open wounds transform perception of the everyday, a topic that was also central to Hamaca Paraguaya.

In her feature-length debut, Encina’s deploys a minimalist set-up to effectively ensnare one in the understated apocalypse as experienced by her protagonists. Permanently on screen, the old couple at the heart of the film share musings in Guaraní, composed almost entirely of lyrical mentions of barking dogs, the expected rain and the crumbling hammock they lie in. The historical setting of 1935 and the subtle mentions of transformed surroundings make clear the political implications within Hamaca Paraguaya, but Encina’s virtue resides in the playing around with such a presumption, using the tension and imminent violence as an incorporeal entity looming beyond the frame’s reach, quietly exerting its power in the configuration of this miniature world.

Like Encina’s lyrical forays into the core of collective memory, the work of Colombian director Camilo Restrepo also seeks to reframe traditional signifiers in Latin American cinema, albeit with a totally different aesthetic range. The threads at the heart of Encina’s film are interwoven in such a way that the visual and aural elements exist in a complementary tension, different layers of perception represent colliding timelines of a complex national history blending into each other in a search for new meanings. Restrepo’s films, on the other hand, have little to no regard for the pre-assigned significance of any text in and of itself. In his idiosyncratic filmic universe, meaning can only come out of friction and sensory overload.

Restrepo’s sensibility is best represented by his tryptic of mercurial short films that take his native country’s variegated social fabric as their focus. All three are kaleidoscopic essays where text is compressed into pure cinematic texture, and then given a new life through hectic recontextualization and inspired contiguity. Tropic Pocket (2011), Como crece la sombra cuando el sol declina (2014) and La Impresión de una guerra (2015) reject the assumption of moving images as trustworthy registers, creating palpable and spontaneous impressions fully constructed from vignettes of a scattered national reality based on contradictory notions and a fluctuating sense of self.

The series of annotations at the end of Tropic Pocket are in many ways a perfect encapsulation of what Restrepo has achieved in his early career. White text on a black background discloses the source of the images that were part of a film: fragments from a fictional documentary made by Christian missionaries, brief vignettes of Colombian soldiers recording themselves, a Chevrolet TV advertisement filmed in and around a jungle setting, and still images from a small village in Colombia’s Choco Area, a region often forgotten by institutional powers. By themselves, each one of these elements shows a limited view of a complex location, but once sped-up and intertwined, as the film does, they all become part of the same abstracted essence, a sort of audio-visual scrapbook guided by a discordant collage of gunshots, jungle soundscapes and reggaetón.

As Tropic Pocket before it, Cómo crece la sombra cuando el sol declina also seeks to create its own kind of audiovisual representation, but unlike many arthouse directors looking to establish a signature style, Restrepo lets the environment in question guide his aesthetic impulses. The urban jugglers and street performers at the heart of the film live on the edge of a society continually making an active effort to forgo their existence. Locked doors, faces turning away, windows closing as they ask for spare coins: said shots comprise the daily experiences of these groups, but Restrepo’s thematic import is not necessarily one of victimhood in the traditional “pornomiseria” of Latin American documentary. What he creates is a poetic evocation that finds rhythm and beauty in daily motions. The cinematic object occasionally bursts into colour, the film wears out and burns as an embodiment of contextualizing frailty.

Finally, La Impresión de una guerra is a dissection of one of the most contentious subjects in Latin American cinema: the depictions of warfare and violence. An anonymous prisoner appears through the intrinsic power of his voice—only his silhouette is shown as a visual representation—but his words recontextualize the diverse textures that Restrepo puts on screen. Subsequently, the iconography around community leader Pastora Mirá creates a tangible visual presence, yet her voice can only be constructed by the materialization of her legacy. There’s a correspondence and a tension between these two figures and the way they inhabit Restrepo’s film, and it is precisely this relationship that personifies the fragmented reality of war.

Both Encina and Restrepo are just two names from an eclectic batch of contemporary South American filmmakers like Kiro Russo, César González and Adirley Queirós, all of whom eschew the formal traditions and expectations that have been built around them. They do so by challenging both their inherited aesthetic predispositions and the homogenizing parameters of the festival landscape. Their works bespeak the contrasting realities that encompass Latin America from a nuanced and nascent register: these filmmakers produce undetermined cinematic forms that mutate as they reflect on the repercussions of their places of absence.