In Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s documentary, Lemebel—an ardent homage to the Chilean artist, essayist and queer activist Pedro Lemebel that opens Neighboring Scenes festival dedicated to Latin American cinema—Lemebel looks at the black-and-white photograph of his adolescent self and his mother, leaning into each other, and croons repeatedly, “My mommy… my mommy.” It’s a moment so whispery and delicate a filmmaker less attuned to its emotional portent would have probably edited it out. But Garibaldi clearly sees her work as a farewell not just to the artist but also the person, an emphasis on affect that cuts across the various programs.
When Garibaldi’s film opens, Lemebel, who passed away in 2015, from laryngeal cancer, is already quite frail. His physical state makes for a poignant contrast to his intellectual vitality, as demonstrated in clips from his lectures (such as at Harvard University, in 2004), and also to the provocative and often taxing nature of his early performances. In one, the younger Lemebel bares his torso in a dark room. He pours hot wax on his chest and depilates it, as a voice on a speaker intones, “This is strength, you fag.” It’s not necessary to know anything about depilation—though it certainly helps—to understand that the deliberate slowness with which he peels off the plaster makes the procedure excruciating. In another video, Lemebel mutilates himself with a blunt object, his skin dripping blood.
The 1980s were heady years for performance art; artists world over, including Marina Abramovich and Ulay, Ana Mendieta and Hannah Wilke, to name a few, staged works in which they were naked, got harmed, or both. Lemebel’s art collective, the Mares of the Apocalypse, staged acts to draw attention to the extreme violence aimed at queers (Lemebel rejected the label, “gay,” which he thought exoticized sexual orientation). Lemebel himself traveled to the United States and joined AIDS-awareness protests. In one, he wears a Mapuche headpiece made of syringes, to show that, as a homosexual, a queer, and an indigenous person, he sees historical parallels between epidemics and blaming victims, and colonialism.
Despite her film’s political urgency, which could have easily overshadowed the intangible, personal aspects, Garibaldi finds a poignant way to present Lemebel. Particularly when he’s at home, in settings with low light that makes his image granular, as if dissolving. In such moments, Lemebel’s figure merges with the shadows cast by his furniture. But the images he projects on the wall or on his balcony—such as a photograph in which he wears a glamorous red dress posing à la Greta Garbo, or another, in which he’s stylized as Frida Kahlo (“I am Frida Kahlo,” he says)—loom large and pulsate vibrantly. They make for wondrous shadow play, and for a moment, thanks to art, we’re not just in death’s anteroom but also eternity’s.
It may have been a particularly ripe year for Latin American documentaries, or perhaps the impulse of the series’ organizers Carlos Gutiérrez and Cecilia Barrionuevo has leaned towards the intensely inhabited, albeit low-key, private material. Not that the showcase in any way lacks in grander auteurist gestures—Pablo Larraín’s Ema is but one example. And yet quite often, the complexity and frailness of private fictions are explored in documentaries, or understatement permeates the fiction films.
Documentary filmmaker Andrés di Tella is also concerned with resurrections. In his latest film, Private Fiction, di Tella has actors recite the letters of his Chilean born father and Indian born mother. Unlike in Garibaldi’s film, in di Tella’s, the main protagonists have exited the scene (both parents are dead). What remains is the sense that we can never let go of the people we love. Di Tella conveyed a similar feeling in his gorgeous documentary about the Argentine experimental filmmaker Claudio Caldini, Hazachos (2001), and earlier, in his documentary about a politically engaged young woman separated from her lover, and who goes underground during Argentina’s dictatorship (Monteneros, una historia, 1998). In Private Fiction, di Tella’s approach is two-fold: On one hand, he gives in to the melodrama of his parents’ letters and their love; on the other, he investigates his role as director, aka essentially an interventionist. Di Tella’s own daughter thinks that reading the letters is intrusive, and in the enactments, we are clearly in the realm of artifice that creates distance and estrangement. Di Tella takes this approach further when he has the actors (Denise Groesman, Julian Larquier Tellarin, and the Argentine writer and filmmaker Edgaro Cozarinsky as the reader of the elderly father) analyze the letters. An apt approach, when we consider that di Tella is also exploring the distance that builds up between lovers. In Private Fiction intimacy is always fraught. Communication halts and frictions expand, yet the interrupted communication with the past offers sustenance. For di Tella, revisiting his parents’ stories goes beyond intimacy; they recall a time when utopias seemed viable, or at least omnipresent. Caldini sought one in India, Ana from Monteneros in Buenos Aires, and di Tella’s parents in Israel and beyond, though perhaps with time they were rather seeking personal freedom.
Freedom and love, and the opposition of these two, is the theme of Romina Paula’s Again Once Again, a hybrid film that borrows from Paula’s personal life, and stars her actual mother and small son. One could say that Paula explores the many manifestations in which motherhood shackles one’s sense of freedom. But in fact, in each limitation Paula finds a small pocket of possibility, so that her gentle, intricately unwinding narrative (told by her by in the voiceover, as a running commentary to the film’s action), is more about her expanding self-awareness. To awake, to risk, to be shaken. While the plot may seem deceptively smallish—a young mom goes to a party while her own mother babysits her son, she almost flirts with a man, almost falls for her best friend’s sister, nearly returns to the husband from which she’s taking time off—the universe of possibility is wide, as Paula’s semi-fictional protagonist (which she plays herself) dares to pose difficult questions. What does it mean or take to live life as a “contingency,” or are we fated to “confirm what’s been confirmed”? Against a narrative of self-realization, at any age, Paula instead shows how quickly our sense of self can collapse, if we’re not tuned in.
In José Luis Torres Leiva’s equally poignant fiction feature, Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes, two female lovers (Amparo Noguera and Julieta Figueroa) live out their last days in tiniest of synapses—between acute pangs of pain, suffered by one of them (due to terminal illness, we can guess) and momentary respite. The latter is filled with touch, often captured in extreme close-ups, with syncopated breath (passionate and deep, anguished and shallow), and with dreamlike vignettes that tell of compassion and desire. Then there’s death, beautifully reimagined as a visitation by a mysterious nocturnal hound (Cerberus in his domesticated form, perhaps). Leiva has worked in the past primarily in documentaries—most famously, The Wind Knows That I’m Coming Back Home (2016), starring the famed Chilean documentary director Ignacio Aguëro (who makes a guest appearance in the new film). Versed in nonfiction, and in its hybridic possibilities, what Leiva does so marvelously is remind us that the notion of “documentary-like” understatement in fiction can be deceiving. There is nothing innately small or humble about documentary form, regardless of its contract with the real. Likewise, fiction that at first appears to borrow from naturalist vernacular need not be stylistically beholden to it. In Leiva’s fluid film, the final effect is of having slipped the veneer of reality into the netherworld, a resurrection as time and space come unglued.
Neighboring Scenes: New Latin American Cinema is showing February 14 - 18, 2020 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.