Berlinale Dispatch (2013) #2:
Gloria, The Battle of Tabatô, Layla Fourie, The Act of Killing

Features, Film Festivals, FILM
Unresolved historical trauma formed the backbone of a number of films at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival.

One of the competition standouts at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Chilean film Gloria, positions the Pinochet regime as a subtle subtext to its story of a 50-something single woman trying to move on with her life. On the evidence of this and other great Chilean films of recent times (particular by Pablo Larrain, producer of this film), working through this trauma is proving fertile ground for filmmakers—particularly those of South American descent, as recent films from the likes of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil suggest. Unlike Larrain’s brilliant Tony Manero, Gloria employs a much lighter touch—it’s hilarious, well-acted, and features a killer soundtrack—and is remarkably moving too.

To focus solely on the historical subtext would however do a disservice to the film. Deserved Best Actress winner Paulina García plays Gloria, cruising through singles parties with the hope of meeting someone new. At the same time, she’s maintaining her relationship with her children, dealing with her obtrusive neighbour and his cat, and drifting through her job. She meets Rodolfo, a retired naval officer (and now runner of a fun park), and their on-off relationship provides the crux of the narrative. Their relationship is on the one hand, touching and charming, but on the other full of lies, half-truths, and repressed behaviour.

Music provides a link to the past (much like the dark use of disco in Tony Manero). The soundtrack is mostly composed of disco and ’70s Latin American music, and muddies up the notion of nostalgia. Lelio pointedly asks: nostalgia for what and for when? Can the characters afford to be so nostalgic given the events of their youth? There’s an added reference to ’70s pop hit ‘Porque te Vas’ by Jeanette, so effective in Carlos Saura’s haunting post-Franco film, Cría Cuervos.

Furthermore, the individualism that underpinned Pinochet’s free market reforms (coupled with his repression) clearly didn’t match with providing happiness for the people living in the era. And as director Sebastián Lelio suggests, the generation who grew up during that time are now full of regret, ennui, and are frequently trying to reinvent themselves in banal ways (whether it’s via gastric bypass surgery to look different, or simply finding a new job). To Lelio’s credit, he doesn’t give Gloria an easy-way out, nor does he use her situation for cheap moralism. In the end he celebrates her resilience and acceptance of herself—in sharp contrast to most romantic comedies in which the characters have to give something up—and provides an approach for moving forward. It’s also a pointed critique of machismo. The result is wonderful.

In the Guinea-Bissau/Portuguese film The Battle of Tabatô, a completely different approach to trauma is evident. Directed by Angolan born filmmaker João Viana, the film takes its cue from one of the most vicious post-colonial reprisals of the 20th century. Guinea-Bissauans fought a bloody war of independence against the Portuguese in the ’60s and ’70s. (The war was dubbed ‘Portugal’s Vietnam’, and the Portuguese army and government were truly criminal in most, if not all of their colonial exits.) Finally following independence from Portugal in 1974, the new Guinea-Bissauan government promptly executed Guinea-Bissauan soldiers who had been forced to fight on the Portuguese side of the conflict.

In the film, a father returns from Portugal for his daughter’s wedding (he was one of the lucky few to escape). There, he encounters the trauma of the past through things he witnesses, and finds himself paralysed by fear when anything resembling war happens around him. Guinea-Bissau’s post-independent history plays a sharp role: the frequent coup d’états and violence having stunted the country’s growth and continues to cause grave wounds in the population.

Viana shoots the action with a slow and steady eye. The editing is stylised, and he captures the streets and landscape through crisp, evocative black and white (with occasional red tints). He utilises the traditions of the Mandinka people, a proportion of Guinea-Bissau’s population who are Muslim and who have links to the Mandinka Empire from Mali. The culture’s rich music, oral tradition, and use of repetition provide the template for the filming. The stylisation works to Brechtian effect, meaning at times it feels a little alienating. It is also occasionally impenetrable—especially to those unfamiliar with the history. The uplifting conclusion in which music and community join forces provides the fitting resolution required for such a deplorable history. It is a fascinating debut film—dense and admittedly challenging—but an intriguing approach to considering a traumatic past.

Pia Marais’s latest film, Layla Fourie, is a less successful account of a recent, troubled history. In it, Johannesburg resident Layla is a harried single parent forced to drive some distance for a new job. Clunkily, the job she has is to administer lie detector tests. Distracted by her young son, she accidentally hits a ‘white’ man on the side of the highway. Her reaction to the events—as she tries to cover up the traces and keep her son from letting slip the events—provides the narrative thrust to the film. Narrative contrivances and plot holes are used to focus on Layla’s mental state (though, unevenly so) and the end result is a cool, contemplative film.

Marais’s previous two films, At Ellen’s Age and The Unpolished, were intriguing affairs, and Layla Fourie is no different. Marais’s visual intelligence is again to the fore, and the South African landscape and weather adds a chilling layer to the world she films. But the distance in which Marais affords the characters—she shoots her actors with Bressonian restraint—jars with the psychological thriller aspect of the film. The actors’ ambivalent South African accents also don’t help in maintaining continuity. If the distance is to allow for observation (a strategy that worked in her earlier films), here it hampers our ability to empathise with the characters’ inner workings, and consequently, the ‘thriller’ element falls flat. The slightly heavy-handed interplay of lies, guilt, repression, and future generations’ use of such history also limits the film’s resonance.

While the aforementioned films have enough to recommend them, none quite had the knockout effect of Josh Oppenheimer’s remarkable The Act of Killing. Prior to the screening, Oppenheimer introduced his documentary by talking about how it was a privilege to present the film in Berlin: incidentally, his grandparents had just managed to escape Berlin during the Nazi era. When one visits Berlin, it’s almost banal to mention that its 20th century history is all-too present. Germany, however, is admirable in its earnestness to critically analyse its actions in the past, and to use this analysis to start afresh (this in part explains why Berlin is such an exciting contemporary city). Oppenheimer looks at another 20th century genocide—the 1965-66 killings in Indonesia of up to two million Communists and ethnic Chinese—and reveals that no such dialogue or starting afresh has taken place in contemporary Indonesia. In fact, Oppenheimer begins his documentary by showing how those responsible for the killing, and the systems they put in place, are still fêted. Or worse: still in charge.

Instead taking the standard approach to documenting a horrible past, Oppenheimer inverts the focus. He locates one death squad leader, Anwar Congo, in the city of Medan. Congo was one of the founders of a prominent right-wing paramilitary group that carried out many of the killings—the orgy of violence a result of collusion between the army led by Suharto, petty criminals praised as gangsters (or “free men” as many in film gleefully state), and Cold War politics that gave anti-Communist purges free rein in Indonesia. The film opens with Oppenheimer asking Congo about what he did during that time. Congo talks about being a playboy during the era. He watched a lot of movies. He is next shown dancing on the spot where he personally murdered hundreds. He then—and this is the hook of the film—admits that he dances to forget. Others are far less reflective. One boasts about killing his ethnic Chinese girlfriend’s father in the street. The Vice President of Indonesia is filmed praising the paramilitary group. Another government minister leads the charge in recreating the burning of a village. Oppenheimer pointedly juxtaposes this past with modern Indonesia: a rollicking economy with all of the trappings of Western capitalism presented as being built on the bodies of murdered victims.

Oppenheimer’s audacious tactic to try to discover what went on in the ‘60s is to ask film-fan Congo to recreate the events for the documentary—in the style of Congo’s favourite films. Camp horror films. Film noir. War movies. Big musical numbers. Art as something terrible, not as something noble. Congo is more than happy to oblige, and gathers a few of his fellow gangsters to assist. As Congo carries on with filming (tellingly, he frequently plays the victim), he becomes more and more disquieted by what he is acting out. Oppenheimer isn’t particularly interested in providing any redemption for Congo, and admitted after the screening that he didn’t have the right to do so. His documentary instead is more of a physical and psychological purging up of the past, and an analysis of repression (political and personal). The documentary presents jaw-dropping scene after jaw-dropping scene, the cumulative effect being that of a sledgehammer. Actors recreate the burning of a village at the site where an actual village was burned in the ’60s, and the village’s children and women who were coerced to be extras continue to cry after “cut” is called. Congo and his henchmen tell the actors they can stop crying. “It’s only a film.” In another brutal scene, Oppenheimer follows the gangsters as they rough up ethnic Chinese merchants for bribes. Oppenheimer focuses on the hands of one victim as they shake while the gangsters ask for more money. This is true horror.

The Act of Killing caused a big stir in Indonesia, and Errol Morris and Werner Herzog were so impressed by it that they came aboard as executive producers. Some have criticised the film for not giving the victims a voice, but that arguably misses the point. Aside from the fact that Oppenheimer tried to include the victims, but was prevented from doing so by army and government interference (the end credits largely list the crew as ‘anonymous’ for continued fear of reprisals), the documentary is about the mechanics of terror and citizens’ willingness to either be complicit or indifferent to “someone else’s” travails. Horrifically, Oppenheimer depicts the banality of evil becoming intricately tied to the world of escapism. But the film also offers a glimmer of hope in showing how art can prevent the past from being repressed or forgotten. A vital piece of work, it’s not hyperbole to state that The Act of Killing is simply one of the most incredible documentaries ever made.