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Welcome to Hell: Close-Up on Camilo Restrepo's "Impression of a War"

Restrepo’s searching and excellent essay film is both a document of and contribution to Colombia's ongoing struggle against oblivion.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Camilo Restrepo's Impression of a War (2015), is showing from August 10 - September 9, 2017 in most countries around the world as part of our Direct from Locarno series
“Why, why, why!” screamed a woman as she tore at the twisted and charred wreckage of a car in the hope of finding the body of her young daughter, whom she had left inside. The force of the blast hurled the remains of the vehicle into the front of a furniture store.
The New York Times, April 16, 1993
In any event, ordinary Colombians celebrated the tenth anniversary of the slaying of their most famous billionaire criminal with little optimism that the car-bombings would ever cease. While the Colombian army and rightwing militia persist in murdering trade unionists, oppositional journalists, and leaders of the legal Left, the corrupted guerillas of [the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia] defiantly maintain Escobar’s war without pity on the wives and children of the oligarchy.
—Mike Davis, Buda’s Wagon
Camilo Restrepo’s Impression of a War is, necessarily, an incomplete picture. How, but how, could one film encompass the myriad political forces, cultural currents, social tensions and historical factors that have undergirded Colombia’s notoriously endemic violence over the last 70 years? Setting aside roots (anti-leftist American imperialism), figure the consequences: in 2013, a 434-page report—the outcome of research undertaken by the country’s National Center for Historical Memory—reckoned that nearly a quarter of a million people had been killed in Colombia since 1958. A staggering four fifths of the victims were civilian noncombatants.
Brevity is brutal. Across a mere 27 minutes, Restrepo traces lineages—banal scraps of an extraordinarily complex and ongoing civil conflict—and accumulates something resembling a personal, essayistic foray into his country’s heartache. In particular, the filmmaker—with co-scribe Sophie Zuber—frames the war through a pictorial recent history of Medellín, the city where he was born in 1975, and where Pablo Escobar was killed on December 2, 1993. Escobar, born in nearby Rionegro in 1949—less than a year after the assassination of populist Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, whose death is commonly cited as the catalyst for the subsequent conflict—had amassed, as the head of the Medellín drugs cartel, $30 billion by the early 1990s. At its peak, the Medellín cartel was trafficking 15 tons of cocaine into the United States per day; its income was $70 million per day. As a 1988 TIME article put it: "Welcome to Medellín, coke capital of the world."
As its title suggests, Impression of a War trades in fragments. Its power is associative: a film about violence in Colombia’s second city has to be, by its nature, a film about everything. And so Restrepo constellates and delineates: from within. His opening title card, in which the typeface is only faintly recognizable, is highly appropriate: look closer, squint the eyes. Feedback from an electric guitar fills the soundtrack: makes itself heard, screechingly, like the lingering result of a single human action. This is a film about finding ways of seeing, even (and especially) when the process of doing so is dreadfully painful.
Impression of a War
Violence, all-enveloping, is a centrifugal force. At the outset, onscreen text notes that the outlines of Colombia’s catastrophic civil war “have grown hazy”: its actors, the agencies by which murder has become normalized (in addition to rape, torture, kidnap), include guerillas, drug traffickers, military and paramilitary forces, and mafia-style gangs. Soon after, in the kind of hushed, contemplative voiceover that only heightens the awfulness to which his words refer (and as a counterpoint to the intense energies of Medellín punk artist Fertil Miseria), the filmmaker takes a common attitude about the country’s mainstream press at face value: if, as popular thought suggests, the national newspapers are void of content, might we then get to grips with what has happened in Colombia in the last seven decades by weighing the pulped mass of such an insight-free output? To pose it in different terms: what does a war weigh, how does a war feel, what form does a war take?
In war, the medium is the message. Impression becomes a film about the materiality of things: the printing press (and the surplus dyes that transform the Medellín River into what looks like a literal watercourse of blood); the yellow paint with which the city’s fleet of taxicabs was once painted (to Escobar’s apparent strategic advantage); and autonomies of flesh (tattoos, scarification, a kind of autoethnography by permanent disfigurement). Amidst cultural amnesia—and the blinding fog, no doubt, of war—such practices are interpreted by Restrepo as “struggles against oblivion”. Wounds are embedded: painted over, assimilated.
Later, Restrepo’s quietly robust voiceover explains the territorial rules of engagement that have come to define certain sections of this urban hell, even while his camera, filming sideways from the passenger seat of a car, denies any stable viewpoint from which to glean a clear picture—much in the same way that the very rules imposed onto such terrain, by the fractured gangs that emerged in the wake of Escobar’s death, defy comprehension in the first place. Defiance, we’re told, equals death­—regardless of age or gender. Again, quietly, Restrepo points to the counter-struggle: to Toke de Salida, the pacifist organization that goes about its business without fuss, contravening markers of territory by plastering flyers to posts in protest.
At the Hotel Punchiná in San Carlos, we learn, the walls bear traces of cruelty and torture—and the garden has skeletal remains out back. Enter Pastora Mira Garcia, the coordinator of an organization campaigning for reconciliation and reparation on behalf of the families of the victims killed there. The building, a haunted shell, has what the film calls “palimpsest walls,” which grieving relatives of lost loves are encouraged to confront and repurpose. Creation as catharsis: “They draw their meaning from what they are able to cover.” As the irreparable blemishes of his grainy 16mm footage imprint their own scars onto the image, Restrepo’s film—searching, excellent—is both a document of these struggles against oblivion, as well as a contribution to them.

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