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September 2008 Archives

September 21, 2008

Bucharest, Memory Lost, 2008

bucharest_memory.gifLike Boris Lehman's autobiographical essay Looking for my Birthplace, Albert Solé's Bucharest, Memory Lost is a search for identity - the reconstruction of a past that has been lost in the shadows of turbulent history, exile, and parental silence. For Solé, the ambiguity of his nationality as a young boy - his parents having alternately referred to Paris, Budapest, and finally Bucharest as his birthplace - foregrounds a childhood lived in clandestiny as an unwitting participant within the Spanish resistance movement. The son of Jordi Solé Tura, an intellectual and partisan from Cal Pinyonaire who was radicalized by his first-hand experience with the intimidation and forced assimilation of Catalonians by Francoists, and Anny Bruset, the politically committed, French-born daughter of Communist party loyalists who fled Spain after the defeat of the Second Republic in 1939, Solé's childhood would be spent infiltrating porous borders between Eastern and Western Europe using a trail of disposable aliases, disguises, and false documentation in order to broadcast information critical of the repressive Franco regime (often exposing abuses documented from notes smuggled in false bottom canisters passed by political prisoners), as well as organize national strikes from an underground, independent Spanish radio station in Bucharest known as La Pirenaica (intentionally misnamed to give a false impression that the station was located in the Pyrenees). Calling attention to the capture and subsequent execution of Communist party leader, Julián Grimau despite pleas for leniency from the international community, Solé's father, Jordi would emerge as an important figure in the resistance in his role as La Pirenaica newscaster, Josep Oriol, before fleeing Bucharest after the death of Soviet aligned Gheorghiu-Dej and the emergence of the Securitate. Returning in exile to Paris, Solé's family would continue to work in the resistance until an internal rift over policy between those aligned with party leaders, Dolores Ibárruri Gómez (known as "La Pasionaria") and Santiago Carrillo, and the party's leading intellectuals, Jorge Semprún and Fernando Claudín (caused, in part, by their reservations over the party's alignment with the increasingly repressive government of the Soviet Union) would lead to Jordi's expulsion from the party - consequently bringing an end to the family's life in clandestiny - and pave the way for their relocation to Spain, and a renewed struggle for true democracy and representation.

But beyond an intimate account of Jordi Solé's remarkable evolution from impoverished baker's son, to revolutionary, to one of the key architects of the Spanish Constitution of 1978, to distinguished parliamentarian and cultural minister, the film also examines the disjunction between national history and personal memory. Paralleling his own faint memories of childhood with his father's struggle against the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease and his mother's subsequent hospitalization from a cerebral embolism, Solé frames his experience within the broader context of a cultural amnesia, where truth becomes increasingly relegated to the realm of myth, and the history of the resistance has been equally romanticized by revisionists (in one scene, the old site of La Pirenaica, having been converted to a Securitate office after the disbanding of the radio station, is now marketed as a neo-socialism historical site after the fall of Ceaucescu), exploited for political means (most notably, in politicians claiming the distinction as one of the "Fathers of the Constitution" even though only a handful of the convened group actually participated in its drafting), and taken for granted by a post Franco-era generation. Visually, Solé reflects this disjunction by incorporating secondary images into the personal interviews - archival newsreels, family photographs, footage from Alain Resnais's La Guerre est finie (from a script by Semprún), iconic paintings (in particular, Pablo Picasso's Guernica which provided an implicit expression of solidarity among members of the resistance), and graphics from comic book superhero, Captain Thunder (penned by popular comics writer and secret Communist party member, Victór Mora) - that figuratively fill the void of incomplete, fragmented memories. Juxtaposed against a neurologist's diagnosis that Jordi's illness has entered a depersonalization phase where he has difficulty recognizing himself and the stories of his life, Solé reflects on his father's condition as a both a personal and cultural tragedy - a memory gradually being erased by the ravages of time, and within it, the dilution of a nation's collective consciousness.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 21, 2008 | | Filed under 2008

September 13, 2008

No, or the Vain Glory of Command, 1990

no_vainglory.gifInasmuch as Manoel de Oliveira's films convey what Randal Johnson describes as a cinematic hybridity that illustrates the amorphous nature of representation, No, or the Vain Glory of Command also reflects a temporal hybridity, where time is presented as a conflation of seemingly arbitrary, but integrally connected history. Opening to a long take of a large ancient tree shot from a moving camera platform in the African wilderness, the correlation between enduring image and its representation through a constantly shifting point of view also serves as a contemporary metaphor for Portuguese history itself, where its consequences continue to be re-evaluated through the shifting perspective of an increasingly marginalized legacy. Shot in 1990 as a historical fiction on the waning days of Estado Novo and colonialism under the Salazar regime that crystallized with the Revolution of 1974, the film further incorporates a tertiary, non-fictional chronology, as the soldiers sent to Angola to suppress the insurgency and maintain control of the "overseas provinces" (even as the country faces its own domestic crisis resulting from dissatisfaction with the repressive government) revisit the decisive battles and pivotal events that would shape the course of Portuguese history.

Composed as a series of conversations between drafted history scholar, Lieutenant Cabrita (Luís Miguel Cintra) and members of his brigade, Manuel (Diogo Dória), Salvador (Miguel Guilherme), and Brito (Luís Lucas), and interwoven with re-enactments from watershed events, from the assassination of the great Lusitanian warrior, Viriato (also played by Cintra) that would alter the dynamics of the battle between the Lusitanians and the Romans for the domination of the Iberian peninsula, to the defeat in the Battle of Toro (and subsequent accidental death of Prince Afonso from a horse riding accident that would end the dream of a unified Iberian Empire under one crown, to the disastrous Battle of Alcácer-Kebir that would result in King Sebastian's (Mateus Lorena) disappearance in northern Africa that would setback Portuguese exploration (and consequently, its empire building). It is interesting to note that by juxtaposing history-based fiction with historical non-fiction, Oliveira illustrates the process of mythologization, where history becomes refracted and idealized in times of crisis and upheaval. However, rather than engendering a romanticism for the past glory, Oliveira dismantles the myth of conquest, reframing history as an elusive (and delusive) quest for fleeting victories and unsustainable empires. This mythologization is prefigured in the idiosyncratic inclusion of sea-faring explorers arriving at a Garden of Eden-like paradise populated by nymphs and cherubs, suggesting the intersection between history and myth, and culminates in the symbolic image of King Sebastian emerging from the fog clutching the blade of his sword - a figment of Cabrita's subconscious - that reinforces the human cost of war in the vain pursuit of empires. It is this image of bloodied hands - a symbolism that is also implied in the legend of the Mangled Man who, despite severed hands, continued to hold the kingdom's flag during the Battle of Toro - that is evoked in a physician's dated entry of April 25, 1974 that concludes the film: the implication of the Salazar regime as the end of another failed empire within the sweep of history, bound together by collective sacrifice, inhumanity, delusion, and tragedy.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 13, 2008 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2008

September 5, 2008

Hear My Cry, 1991

hearmycry.gifFilmed during the breakup of the Soviet Union, Hear My Cry captures the essence of Maciej Drygas's articulate and insightful film essays on the rupture between official record and human history, the impossibility of absolute truth, and the malleable nature of collective memory. The theme of revisionist history is prefigured in the film's opening shot, a wordless sequence of uniformed officers taking turns in confiscating documents from a private residence to be destroyed at a makeshift bonfire that had been set in the courtyard. Cutting to an image of a records clerk unlocking a series of doors leading to a remote storage room in order to retrieve what would prove to be woefully incomplete archived reports on the investigation surrounding a middle-aged accountant, Ryszard Siwiec's self-immolation on September 8, 1968 during a harvest festival at Warsaw Stadium - the dossier containing only a related citation for distributing flyers containing "false information" at the public event - the juxtaposition between the labyrinthine odyssey through locked vaults and the retrieval of Siwiec's sanitized files becomes a metaphor for an altered history (implicitly linked by the idea of destruction by fire) that had been suppressed during the Cold War. A subsequent review of church records by a parish priest similarly provides an intentionally ambiguous account of Siwiec's death (albeit for compassionate reasons), listing the cause of death as an accident, perhaps in order to be allowed proper burial in a Catholic cemetery (a sanctification that is also reflected in a priest's description of a Buddhist monk's self-immolation as a spiritual act of self-destruction and creation). In both cases, the incompleteness of information creates secondary - and equally inexact - layers of truth. Protesting against Władysław Gomułka's increasing alignment with the Soviet Union that contributed to the Warsaw Pact's intervention in Czechoslovakia after a series of liberalization reforms, Siwiec had sought to expose the party's betrayal of socialist ideals under Gomułka's leadership and the folly of subjugating a nation.

But beyond a chronicle of Soviet-era whitewashing, Drygas examines the plasticity of memory in the way time deforms and sets - however imperfectly - during moments of crisis and tragedy. This idea is illustrated in the reading of Siwiec's will, as photographs of his wife and children from 1968 are intercut with present-day interviews of the children, now middle-aged, who share memories of their father and comment on the legacy of a heroism that had only been realized in the hindsight of cultural rehabilitation - his death, figuratively suspended in time, even as history has transformed to reframe his protest as an act of patriotic resistance. The refiguration of memory is also reflected in Siwiec's wife, Maria's recollections of their last Easter together, observing a distance and melancholy that may or may not have actually existed (a daughter earlier recalls Siwiec's animation especially when discussing politics with family), and in the accounts of witnesses who remember the incident only within the context of a momentary disruption from the pageantry by a mentally unstable spectator. In this respect, Hear My Cry converges towards Harun Farocki's expositions on the interrelation between cognition and recognition in Images of the World and the Inscription of War, exploring the disjunction between the captured image (seeing) and its registration (memory). Concluding with a slow motion, magnified shot of Siwiec's self-immolation captured by Kronika Filmowa camera operator, Zbigniew Skoczek, the manipulated footage itself becomes a protraction of time and signification of the image - an act of imprinting memory.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 05, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Maciej Drygas