3. Memory Believes Before Knowing RemembersWeekend 3 - Jan.10-12th
The third Harvard Gulbenkian program showcases the work of three extraordinary artists who emblematize the creative and often radical approaches to non-fiction narrative that have transformed documentary cinema as a practice and realm of inquiry over the last two decades. In keeping with the larger mission of the Harvard-Gulbenkian program to create a new international context and conceptual framework from which to reexamine Portuguese cinema, the celebrated work of Susana de Sousa Dias is offered here in dialogue with the films and presence of two eminent figures of contemporary world cinema- the legendary Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán and South Korean experimental filmmaker Soon-Mi Yoo. Guiding the distinct work of each director is a restless searching for an original form adequate and appropriate to the difficult and, indeed, bitterly contested chapters of national history they have bravely chosen to engage. Embracing precisely those individual voices and experiences that are typically excluded from the smooth narrative of official history, the films of Dias, Guzmán and Yoo reveal the tones and textures of a different kind of history, a history understood not as a past of carefully arranged facts, but as an urgent, still breathing present. Each of these filmmakers is, moreover, profoundly invested in the emotional resonance of the past and the unusual ways both individual and collective memory stubbornly relives the pain and trauma of those deepest wounds that refuse to heal. And like these difficult memories, the filmmakers themselves return repeatedly, even obsessively, to the same moments whose full histories remain incomplete and unwritten: the Salazar dictatorship which resonates through the still images animated by Dias’ work, the death of Allende and the dark Pinochet years relived by Guzmán’s heroic multi-film chronicle, and the Korean War whose many afterlives haunt Yoo’s films.
With her breakthrough film 48, Susana de Sousa Dias established herself as an important practitioner of the same mode of creative non-fiction cinema given such an important spotlight by DocLisboa, the major annual and international festival she also co-directs. A methodical yet deeply emotional act of historical recovery and even redemption, 48 gives a resolutely and defiantly human voice to the brutal zero-degree style PIDE portraits of dissidents jailed and tortured during the Salazar dictatorship. Contrasting the mute factuality of the police photographs with the voices telling those intimate stories of courage, fear and resistance subtly legible in the subjects’ expressions and gestures, 48 proposes a different reading of the faces recorded in the PIDE leger, a cry against the chilling systematic logic of the police state. A film of avant-garde simplicity, 48 deftly uses its structuralist principle to capture both the methodical cruelty of the police apparatus and the mentality of everyday life in a fascist regime. At the same time, Dias’ quietly refuses any form of total system by subtly using discreet fades and moments of silence to pay poetic tribute to those moments lost to word and memory. A choral and human retelling of history from the point of view of the vanquished, 48 is also a powerful meditation on the equal strength and fragility of human memory.
An interest in avant-garde form as an alternate mode of history also guides the lyrical short films of Soon-Mi Yoo which give haunting life to the fleeting shadows and ghosts of history. Yoo’s early training as a still photographer and her time studying under the mentorship of experimental directors Saul Levine and Mark LaPore (at the Massachusetts College of Art where she now teaches) clearly inform her poetic and essayistic approaches. Her films seek a different kind of moving image, one able to render vivid the deep emotional resonance of the past. A powerful example is offered by Yoo’s spell-binding DANGEROUS SUPPLEMENT which remarkably uses footage from American fighter planes bombing North Korea to capture the dark sublimity of war through fragmentary landscapes that tip away as soon as they fleetingly appear, haunting us with afterimages of beauty and destruction. The ghosts and ghostly memories of war are also the subject of her longest film to date, ssitkim: bringing out the dead which courageously took on the taboo and long suppressed subject of South Korea’s collaboration with the American war against Vietnam. Fiercely contesting any notion of cinema as a tool for the smooth narrativization of official histories, ssitkim interweaves the uncontestable facts of the Vietnam War with the dreams and supernatural visions of its victims. As in her radical landscape film ISAHN, Yoo brilliantly gives expression to the memories, trauma and longing that are war’s most devastating legacy.
Few filmmakers have understood the tremendous potential of cinema to shape memory and historical consciousness as perspicaciously and courageously as Patricio Guzmán. In his first major work, The Battle of Chile, Guzmán discovered what would become the urgent central subject of his filmmaking over the next forty years - the fleeting victory and tragic 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, the world’s first democratically elected Socialist leader. By keeping alive the images and memory of Allende’s tragically foreshortened rule, Guzmán offered The Battle of Chile as a vital aide-memoire and a stubbornly contradictory thorn in the side of the Pinochet dictatorship. The urtext of Guzmán’s prolific career, The Battle of Chile is also the first of his works to explore the documentary film as a vital form of collective memory that refuses the selective amnesia guiding “official“ histories and shaping the memory of its individual survivors. In his late masterpiece Chile, Obstinate Memory, Guzmán skillfully expands and problematizes the idea of the documentary as a means to recover the past and in particular the lost word of Allende’s brief reign and the years of repressive dictatorship which followed. Carefully balancing interviews with victims and survivors of the coup d’état and repressive Pinochet regime, and charged visits to contested sites scorched by Chile’s violent past, Chile, Obstinate Memory makes clear Guzmán’s fascination with the fragility of collective memory and with history’s tendency to erase as much as it remembers. With his latest film, Nostalgia for the Light, brilliantly offers Chile’s Atacama Desert as a geological embodiment of the strange burden and beauty of memory whose willful tenacity is powerfully a place where the ancient and historic past are uncannily preserved. Guzmán’s restless probing of the past attains an even greater philosophical and poetic depth, driven now by a search for some sort of cosmic order able to provide a broader, more patient understanding of humankind’s legacy of imperious folly.