Women’s Reminiscences of Displaced Childhood in Chilean Postdictatorship Documentary
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines recent homecoming films as documents informed by experiences of exile in the context of postdictatorial Chile. It analyzes three first-person documentaries by second-generation women directors who were born or grew up in exile: En algún lugar del cielo (Somewhere in Heaven) (Alejandra Carmona, 2003); El edificio de los chilenos (The Chilean Building) (Macarena Aguiló, co-directed by Susana Foxley, 2010); and El eco de las canciones (The Echo of Songs) (Antonia Rossi, 2010). Using the notion of “traveling memories,” the chapter considers these women directors' cinematic construction of childhood memories, which are deeply entangled with the experience of growing up in an environment marked by political displacement. It shows that these directors' memories of displaced childhood are of a deeply affective nature and are often conveyed through the deployment of abundant archival materials (family pictures, home movies, letters, and drawings), the significant use of the traveling shot, as well as the elaboration of sophisticated reenactment sequences.
In Lucía Salinas’s 1990 film Canto a la vida (Song to Life), a documentary dealing with several women’s return to Chile after having been exiled, the narrator asks: “Can the years we never lived be recalled?”1 By doing so, the director, an exile herself, poses a fundamental question: How can a past that was not experienced directly, a past from which one has been expelled, be re-appropriated? This question, articulated at the threshold of Chile’s first civilian government after seventeen years of the brutal military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet (1973–1990), would be reformulated more than a decade later by a new generation of documentarians. These directors set out to explore the (im)possibilities of recalling a past that was only indirectly experienced, or perhaps not fully understood or remembered, because they were so young. In this postdictatorship generation, women have played a prominent part (see Mouesca 2005, 131–36), continuing the leading role assumed by the female relatives of victims and human rights activists in the memory struggles concerning the country’s violent past and its legacies.
In fact, women filmmakers have long been involved in creative and distinctive ways in Chile’s political struggles, as evident in the pioneering work of Marilú Mallet, Valeria Sarmiento, and Angelina Vázquez, who were only beginning their careers when they were forced into exile by the 1973 coup d’état. As Zuzana M. (p.140) Pick (1993) suggests, from the 1970s onward the public struggles of Latin American women have clearly nurtured the audio-visual production of female directors who have created “formally innovative approaches to documentary and fiction … [to give] a new form to the daily struggles of women [and] their will to speak up against oppression and break the silence that has marginalized them” (68). During the 1980s in Chile, a significant contingent of female documentarians, video artists, and photographers actively engaged in the struggle against dictatorship.
This chapter, through a discussion of En algún lugar del cielo (Somewhere in Heaven) (Alejandra Carmona, 2003), El edificio de los chilenos (The Chilean Building) (Macarena Aguiló, co-directed by Susana Foxley, 2010), and El eco de las canciones (The Echo of Songs) (Antonia Rossi, 2010), focuses on first-person documentaries by women who were born or grew up in exile. It focuses on these directors’ cinematic construction of childhood memories, which are deeply entangled with the experience of growing up in an environment marked by political displacement. These directors’ memories of displaced childhood are of a deeply affective nature and are often conveyed through the deployment of abundant archival materials (family pictures, home movies, letters, and drawings), the significant use of the traveling shot, as well as the elaboration of sophisticated reenactment sequences. The latter are mobilized not just as illustrative or evidentiary material but, as Bill Nichols (2008) has argued in his study of reenactment, as “an artistic interpretation” of the past that aims to fulfill, above all, an “affective function” (88).
In these works memories of the recent past assume a deeply sensuous quality, as they largely draw upon what Laura U. Marks calls “sense memories” (see Marks 2000, esp. 110–14, 194–242). Concerned with “the fabric of everyday experience that tends to elude verbal or visual records” (130), these directors turn to their sensorial memories of childhood, notably by privileging haptic images. Marks describes haptic images as those that invite the spectator to linger on the screen’s surface before she realizes, if at all, what she is looking at (162–63). She also argues that despite their medium-specific differences, video and film (both of which are used by the documentaries under analysis in this chapter) share prohaptic features such as “changes in focus, graininess (achieved differently in each medium), and effects of under- and overexposure” (172). The works analyzed here seek to recreate aesthetically and in varying degrees the fragmented and irruptive nature of memories through different mechanisms in a collage-like style that combines heterogeneous materials including Super 8 or 16mm, video footage, home movies, family pictures, letters, drawings or animations, and reenacted sequences. The directors use the juxtaposition of these different elements, together with the traveling shot, to create deeply haptic sequences that make one feel “as though one were touching a film with one’s eyes” (Marks 2000, xi).
The directors Alejandra Carmona, Macarena Aguiló, and Antonia Rossi are part of what could be called a “literal” second generation in that they are the children of individuals “directly affected” by state repression. However, their backgrounds differ in important ways. Carmona was eight years old when she and her mother fled to East Germany. Her journalist father was one of the leaders of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR), a revolutionary left-wing movement that was violently persecuted under Pinochet’s dictatorship. He stayed in the country and went underground but was subsequently murdered in 1977 by agents of the regime. Aguiló’s father was also an MIR leader, and in an attempt to find him the secret police kidnapped the director when she was still a small child. This made her one of the youngest victims of state repression and, as Aguiló relates in her documentary, she retains only some “vague memories” of that experience. After being set free, she was sent to Paris at age four and, after multiple displacements (including time in Belgium), grew up in Cuba. Both of her parents survived. Rossi was born in Italy in 1978 after her parents had already gone into exile, and she went to Chile ten years later. The significant differences in the life histories of these directors have shaped their personal documentary responses to the military coup in different ways. Yet their productions also share a number of features, notably: the disclosure of a familial bond with the past through the use of a first-person narrator (Rossi creates a fictional character, while Carmona and Aguiló perform the role of narrator themselves); an intricate connection between the personal and the collective; temporal digressions and disruptions, with past and present often merging with each other; and the experience of uprootedness during childhood.
These affective documentaries position themselves as deeply personal, subjective, and domestic narratives while remaining intricately woven with Chile’s contemporary history. In this respect, they share many of the traits seen in the earlier works of exilic Chilean directors who began filming their homecomings in the 1980s, such as the seminal returns of Raúl Ruiz in Lettre d’un cinéaste ou Le retour d’un amateur de bibliothèques (Letter from a Filmmaker or The Return of a Library Lover) (1983) and Angelina Vázquez in Fragmentos de un diario inacabado/Otteita Keskenjääneestä Päiväkirjasta (Fragments from an Unfinished Diary) (1983). Elsewhere, I have termed these works “desexilio documentaries” (Ramírez Soto 2014). The concept of desexilio is an influential neologism created by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti (1984, 39–42), which means literally to return from exile, but the term strongly implies also that such an experience never ceases. I argue that although largely overlooked, these earlier homecoming documentaries anticipate recurring characteristics in a number of postdictatorship productions, (p.142) such as the use of a first-person narrator and the foregrounding of performativity, as well as a fragmented construction and the cinematic exploration of the texture of the past. Furthermore, I believe it is possible to see the documentaries of Carmona, Aguiló, and Rossi as recent examples of “desexilio documentaries,” in that they also foreground exile as an experience that never truly comes to an end. However, these more recent productions differ significantly from earlier cinematic returns, as they are infused with the generational bafflement of their younger directors and present less-straightforward homecoming journeys. These younger documentarians make explicit the gap between their own experiences and those of their parents, inscribing in their works—not only verbally but also aesthetically—a sense of confusion and perplexity. In these documentaries, as in the literary works of child survivors of the Holocaust, one can clearly see “both the child’s helplessness and the adult’s attempt to render that helplessness, retrospectively, in language” (Suleiman 2002, 292).
It is helpful here to draw on the ideas of Ana Amado and her discussion of the artistic memory practices of the sons and daughters of Argentine victims of the Dirty War. She describes these as artistic works that (often privileging the use of images) are “conceived as homage to and actualization of the genealogical bond [… but] present, however, a desire for distance and generational affirmation rather than an unconditional affective or ideological support” (Amado 2009, 157). Similarly, the productions of the Chilean directors discussed here create sophisticated mise-en-scènes that aim to actualize the parental bond (especially when severed or lost), while at the same time seeking to inscribe a distance from the epic discourses of their parents’ generation. Most evidently, as seen in the cases of Carmona and Aguiló, they do so by including emotional onscreen testimonies that offer contested visions of the past from—to paraphrase Amado’s terms—the perspective of, on the one hand, the parents and, on the other, the sons and daughters (145–203).
These children’s homecomings seem less straightforward than those of the preceding generation, who, even when their actual journeys were interrupted or never completed, nonetheless inscribed in their films their desire to return from exile to their homeland, Chile. Yet where is home for these daughters of exile? Germany, Italy, France, Cuba? Chile? For Rossi, it seems as though it is an idea, or perhaps a set of reverberations from Chile felt in Italy; for Carmona, home appears to be the rigid communist Germany where she grew up as a rebel teenager; and for Aguiló, a community center in Cuba.
Traveling Women, Traveling Memories
Since the three documentaries discussed here deal with memories of uprootedness, I use the notion of “traveling memories” to consider their directors’ concrete (p.143) experiences of exile. Such a concept points to the distinctive use of traveling shots in these documentaries and acknowledges the transcultural dimension of these women’s memories. Astrid Erll’s definition of “traveling memory” articulates the itinerant aspects of memory, which she conceives of “as the incessant wandering of carriers, media, contents, forms, and practices of memory, their continual ‘travels’ and ongoing transformations through time and space, across social, linguistic and political borders” (Erll 2011, 11). I draw on this mobile understanding of memory to emphasize how these directors deal with and create memories that circulate and are in permanent motion. These documentaries can be considered itinerant in various ways; they foreground the fact that accounts of the recent past vary remarkably (and are reworked) from generation to generation, which is perhaps most strikingly evident in Rossi’s experimental work that compiles a wide range of materials, including home movies, archival images from previous documentaries, and excerpts of old animation films, as well as animations created specifically for her production. These works also reverberate within, or reference, other Chilean documentaries. For example, while the seminal contemporaneous homecoming documentary Calle Santa Fe (Santa Fe Street) (Carmen Castillo, 2007) includes images from The Chilean Building when it was a work in progress, Aguiló’s documentary, in turn, incorporates footage from Éramos una vez (Once We Were) (1979) by exilic director Leonardo de la Barra. They also “travel” from one country to another; these productions have circulated in international film festivals as well as alternative circuits abroad. Nonetheless—and this is crucial—they remain historically and politically grounded, creating memories that are at once strongly local and transnational.
I argue that in these documentaries affect and movement are intricately woven together. In these women’s literal and metaphorical journeys to the “home” country and to its past, the fact that motion produces emotion and “that, correlatively, emotion contains a movement” (Bruno 2007, 6) becomes explicit in the traveling shot, which leads me to the more specific and material sense in which I use the idea of traveling, that of the moving image itself. These younger exiled directors’ displacements are often inscribed in what Hamid Naficy has called “transitional and transnational sites” such as cars, trains, or boats (Naficy 2001, 154). Naficy theorizes such temporal and spatial figures of journeying as “thirdspace chronotopes,” defined as a “slipzone” between homeland and exile, characteristic of the exilic condition (212). These “thirdspace chronotopes” are significantly “not just visual but also, and more important, synaesthetic, involving the entire human sensorium and memory” (153). It is perhaps in the form of the traveling shot that these “thirdspace chronotopes” materialize most clearly in these documentaries.
The uses of the tracking shot and its connection to the elaboration of complex temporalities that seek to collapse or blend past and present have a long tradition (p.144) in the depiction of historical atrocities, which can been traced back to Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog) (Alain Resnais, 1955) (see Hirsch 2004, 48–62). Like the exilic filmmakers who began returning to Chile more than two decades ago, the three directors under discussion here also draw upon this strategy to inscribe their (dis)encounters with the homeland or their adoptive countries as well as to reveal the presentness of the past, as will be seen shortly. In the following section, I examine specific sequences from the documentaries in question that articulate these directors’ affective journeys, focusing on how they audiovisually convey a childlike imagery.
Staging the Past
In Somewhere in Heaven, Alejandra Carmona returns to Chile from her exile in Berlin, motivated by the desire to reconstruct the figure of her father. She makes explicit her act of return both discursively and formally, using several “thirdspace chronotopes” to inscribe her dislocation: she includes geographical displacements in various cars, as well as images of airports and railways stations (figure 9.1). The director acknowledges verbally the (im)possibility of accessing a past that was not directly experienced: “I begin to collect other people’s images and memories that I make my own with the eagerness to get closer to my father.” The director’s return to Chile makes evident what Marianne Hirsch has suggested in her important discussion of postmemory in relation to the memories of the children of Holocaust survivors: Carmona’s desire seems to be “not just to feel and know, but also to re-member, to re-build, to re-incarnate, to re-place, and to repair” (Hirsch 1997, 243).
The very opening shot is a reenactment sequence that immerses the spectator in the director’s “memory of pain,” as she calls it. It begins with a long take with a handheld camera that moves in slow motion inside the dark entrance of a building, presumably that of the flat in Berlin where Carmona lived as a child. The camera is positioned at the eye-level of a child, suggesting that this is the viewpoint of the director when she was twelve years old. The camera’s shaky movement, presented in slow motion, seeks to mimic the child’s state of anguish that anticipated the news of her father’s death, a premonitory anguish that is also emphasized by the director’s commentary. Carmona returns to this initial reenacted scene later in the documentary to illustrate her mother’s own offscreen account of this tragic moment and how she delivered the news to her daughter. However, immediately after the mother recalls the very moment when she delivered the terrible news to Carmona—with the mother shown briefly rendering her emotional testimony in a conventional “talking head”—the quite simple illustrative reenactment that has been accompanying her account up until that point changes radically. What had (p.145)
been a literal recreation of the girl’s viewpoint (arriving at her flat) is displaced by a highly stylized reenactment of the affective impact that such a shattering event provoked in the director. Through a dissolve from her mother’s interview, the spectator is now placed in a long, dim, basement-like tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, out of focus, there is a figure who is barely distinguishable. The camera moves rapidly toward the back of the tunnel through a tracking shot that ends, after an imperceptible cut, in an extreme close-up of the director’s eye (as one can now distinguish, the figure was hers), and this dissolves into a photograph of her father, who is smiling. The sequence is accompanied by a soundtrack that builds up tension, particularly through the use of a ticking clock that fuses with that of heartbeats (Her father’s? Hers?). Through a combination of blurry images, use of fast and slow camera movements, and rapid changes of focus, the director accomplishes in a few seconds a deeply affective sequence.
Macarena Aguiló’s The Chilean Building deals with the memories of children of MIR militants as they recall their experiences of growing up in the “Project Home” in the late 1970s in Cuba. This project was a community center that sheltered around sixty children who were left in the care of twenty “social parents,” while their own biological parents returned to Chile to fight underground against the military dictatorship. Aguiló was one of these children, and she begins her documentary with newsreel footage taken from a local television broadcast in which she was interviewed as one of the youngest victims of repression. The director, (p.146) however, emphasizes a distance from this “official” discourse by shooting, from the intimacy of her home, the television monitor that shows her being interviewed onscreen. She chooses to evoke her twenty days in captivity by inscribing both visually and verbally her perceptions of the time: a slow panning shot of autumn leaves in Santiago from the present day is paired with memories she has of that autumn in the city: the dry air, the unbearable heat under her woollen clothes. And, rather than dwelling on that episode, she goes on to narrate the story of the “Chilean building”—as the “Project Home” was also known in Cuba.
Shortly after this opening sequence, the director narrates in voiceover an encounter with her mother in exile in Paris before Aguiló went to live in Cuba. While doing so she crafts an exceptional reenactment sequence that is profoundly haptic in quality and features both fictional elements and nonfictional archive materials. Paris is seen through the window of a train, a city that Aguiló filmed especially for the documentary in 16mm with a Bolex camera,2 formally conveying the texture of those brief moments shared with her mother during her childhood (evoking even the taste of these memories through the visualization of colorful cupcakes as seen through a shop window, for example).
Soon after a series of brief shots taken from the train, in which Aguiló inscribes her temporal and spatial dislocation, the director exposes the generational gap between herself and her parents while developing a poignant critique of their privileging of revolutionary ideals—a choice that led to her childhood separation from them. The spectator is positioned now within a domestic space, looking onto an exterior urban landscape, as images filmed with a handheld 16mm camera pointing out from a window of a building in Paris (apparently her flat) are shown. The director’s voiceover locates the spectator: “I went to school and she [her mother] worked. I went along to her meetings, where they smoked a lot, and sometimes I would understand something.” The images of the city landscape as seen through the window are juxtaposed with the voiceover of a man talking about military tactics and revolutionary strategies: “What is the ‘Popular War Strategy’? It doesn’t mean we have to be shooting all the time …” His voice is interrupted by that of the director’s, recorded when she was five years old: “And me? Oh! I want to pee!” Here, Aguiló conveys her confusion as a child and her limited understanding of the world of adults, making evident the difficulties of relating to their past political experiences while also questioning the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction.
This sequence produces a powerful temporal collapse; while the recording of the girl’s voice dates back to the director’s childhood years, the recording of the man’s voice is recent. In fact, the voice belongs to Andrés Pascal, one of the historical leaders of the MIR, and dates from a speech he made at a gathering in 2004, which was held to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the (p.147) legendary leader of the party, Miguel Enríquez.2 Through the inclusion of Pascal’s speech, the voices of the parents and their fellow militants are thus replaced “with the voice of the authority of the political group, with hierarchy, the party’s order,” as Catalina Donoso (2012) asserts in her own reading of Aguiló’s documentary (27). This is a remarkable sequence in which the use of fictional and nonfictional sources as well as the temporal collapse produced by their encounter poignantly highlight that “memory is the work [oeuvre] of fiction” (Rancière 2006, 158, translation in the original).
Emphasizing even further the point made by Rancière, Antonia Rossi’s The Echo of Songs, located indeed on the brink of fiction, re-collects and interweaves in a poetic and unruly way documentary and fictional images, as well as animated sequences (some of which, as mentioned above, were made for the film, while others are lifted from old animated productions such as, tellingly, David Fleischer’s 1939 film Gulliver’s Travels). These images are woven together by the commentary of a fictive female narrator who speaks in the first person. Rossi’s fictive character is constructed from numerous testimonies gathered from second-generation accounts of people who, like her, grew up or were born in exile, listening to their parents’ songs and stories. The questions she posed to her interviewees were concerned with affect, as she was interested in capturing the perceptions, dreams, and smells they recalled, moving her interviewees away from the realm of reason.3 The construction of a fictional character through different testimonial accounts was similarly sought at the visual level, as evidenced by extracts from home movies collected from various families, to which the director added other archival materials, such as footage of the 1980s protests against the dictatorship, captured by independent cameramen. The testimonies she gathered, together with the home movies she re-collected from those families, merge with Rossi’s own personal material and are edited together in such a way that the image track creates a sense of the complex ways personal memories interweave with history. Through the editing of this recovered material, the director is able to construct both beautifully and wittily the process of growing up (from childbirth via the inclusion of home movies taken in hospital rooms to footage of graduation parties), effectively constructing an allegory of the displaced individual.
One might say that Rossi stages the reverberations of a history heard only through other people’s voices. Her narrator embodies the collective experience of exile; the fact that she is nameless adds to such an allegorical function. Unlike the documentaries of Aguiló and Carmona discussed above, Rossi’s aim is not to re-construct into a coherent narrative the scattered glimpses of childhood she has gathered. Aguiló and Carmona both seem to seek a certain wholeness in their documentaries, as each provides some kind of closure: Aguiló returns to her parents, as a gift, the letters they sent to her during her childhood, which she had (p.148) typed up; Carmona visits her father’s grave with her own young daughter. Rossi, however, seeks to clearly expose the fragments she re-collected as remnants, as she is interested in foregrounding their status as images discarded by history.4 The director is indeed concerned in very complex ways with a formal reflection on the “prosthetic” character of memories, a notion theorized by Alison Landsberg (2004). That is, she engages in a cinematic exploration of the fact that (as Lands-berg argues, along similar lines as Erll) memories circulate and are not necessarily grounded in lived experience; rather, different people in different contexts may also incorporate them, these other people’s memories becoming therefore a constitutive part of their own identity in the present. Rossi stages through the material operations at stake in her work the fact that, as Landsberg asserts, “Cultural memories no longer have exclusive owners; they do not ‘naturally’ belong to anyone” (18).
For example, Rossi returns twice to an extreme and shaky close-up of the intense gaze of a girl, who may or may not be Rossi’s older sister (figure 9.2). The girl in the home movie footage looks directly into the handheld camera, while the narrator says, on the first occasion: “Even today, I see the sign in her eyes of the time I didn’t exist. The trip. The conviction. The sternness. All of our parents’ reasons.” The narrator continues: “Like a plague, we, as well as thousands of children, were born and raised on that same piece of borrowed land.” The narrator/Rossi’s “borrowed piece of land” is Italy (she hints at her family’s trajectory from Santiago to Rome at the very beginning of her documentary through a map drawn by hand); yet this “borrowed land” could be any of the countries in which exiled children from Chile were born or raised. In fact, this commentary is accompanied by a montage of home-movie footage of children of different ages filmed in various locations: they are seen playing on the grass or in the snow, sitting on top of a car wearing short-sleeves or looking out from a balcony in winter clothes. So, whether the eyes of the girl are those of Rossi’s sister or not doesn’t really matter. Her eyes are the eyes of all those children forced to wander through the world. Rossi is not interested in singling out her own experience as the daughter of Chilean exiles as such but rather in creating a more radical polyphonic quilt in which many stories, her own and those of other children like herself, intertwine or merge.
Although Carmona, Aguiló, and Rossi are profoundly concerned with situating their own personal journeys in a wider cultural experience, it is Rossi in particular who engages most forcefully in the audio-visual exploration of the question that opened this chapter: How does one deal with a past that was not directly experienced? As such, I see her documentary as a sort of “hinge” that links the work of what I am calling here (in the absence of better terms) a “literal” second generation with the work of a “broader” second generation of directors—that is, with directors who may not present or reveal in their productions an explicit familial bond with a direct victim of state violence but who have nonetheless also engaged (p.149)
in deeply affective and sensuous ways of recalling the country’s turbulent recent past. This is perhaps clearer when comparing Rossi’s work with that of Tiziana Panizza (from this “broader” second generation), particularly with Panizza’s short film Remitente: Una carta visual (Postage: A Visual Letter) (2008) (see Ramírez Soto 2010, 57–62). Both directors enact the same gesture toward the past: they both literally and materially borrow other people’s images and make them their own (specifically, Super 8 home-movie footage in Panizza’s case, which she rescued from oblivion in a flea market). I read this move as a political and aesthetic gesture: by including other people’s domestic footage these two directors suggest that it is possible to incorporate other people’s memories. By doing so, they avow that memories are not necessarily anchored to a subject, that there is no possible exclusive “ownership” of the past. They emphasize through their audio-visual strategies that “authenticity is no longer considered a necessary element of memory. Where memories come from matters less than how they enable a person to live in the present” (Landsberg 2004, 42).
The three documentaries analyzed in this chapter reflect, to varying degrees, on the fact that the memories as well as the legacies of Chile’s dictatorial past extend well beyond those who have been “directly affected” by state terrorism, even beyond their children. They therefore help us move away from a restrictive view of postdictatorship nonfiction productions as responses that have emerged solely from those directly affected by state repression. Such a view is clearly inadequate when dealing with the broad scope of state violence, the radical transformation of Chilean society that occurred under the military dictatorship, and the heterogeneous documentary responses that have been prompted in the context of postdictatorial Chile.
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