Fear and Paranoia in Buenos Aires

in 15th New Horizons International Film Festival Wroclaw

by Engin Ertan

Urban paranoia is a subject filmmakers obviously love, and it is also the main issue in Benjamín Naishtat’s first feature film History of Fear (Historia del miedo). However, the director doesn’t follow the rules of conventional storytelling and he isn’t looking for easy answers either. This ambiguity sets History of Fear apart from many films with a similar theme, and the unsettling viewing experience it leads to is very appropriate to Naishtat’s intentions.

As Naishtat himself stated, the original title of the film involves a word play: ‘Historia’ means in Spanish both ‘history’ and ‘story’… The international title could be misleading, though, because the director is not really interested in the past nor in explaining the reasons behind the social tension he portrays. Still, this is a film dealing with the origins of fear. In a loose, but carefully constructed narrative, Naishtat shows fragments of the daily life in Buenos Aires. The characters come together and go apart, but they share a common emotion — fear. In other words, fear is the main motivation in this film’s narrative.

One of the earlier scenes in the film is set in a fast-food restaurant. A customer in the queue suddenly starts contorting his body and takes a position as if he is an animal about to attack his prey. This creates panic among other customers, but Pola, a young man who is also one of the central characters of the film, observes him both with fear and fascination. Scene by scene we watch similar events, which distort the order of everyday life… We don’t know the reasons behind them, but these unsettling moments become intriguing in this fragmented narrative. Pola’s manner becomes ours (the audience’s) as well.

Even though Naishtat prefers to raise questions rather than answer them, History of Fear isn’t as inaccessible as it might sound. This isn’t exactly a story of ‘haves against haven’ts’, but the film deliberately emphasizes how its characters come from different classes. While some of them live in a gated community, others work for them. It should be safe to live in a gated community, or so they assume, but one day there could be an intruder in the house… On another day there is a hole in the fence… Is the security guard doing his job properly? Then there is a long blackout… While these characters try to find safety within fences or thanks to high-tech security systems, they feel more and more insecure (à la Michael Haneke’s Funny Games). In a very interesting dinner scene, they play a game where they have to pick who they want to be and what they would like to have. However, none of them can really deliver an answer. They are so lost in their own existence that losing what they own became their biggest fear, and no matter how much paranoia it causes, this is their only motivation to go on. Unsurprisingly, children behave differently and are braver compared to the adults. Just like Pola, who happens to be the maid’s son, or Camilo, an artist who records people’s reactions during some interviews with his camera and who also starts the aforementioned controversial game during the dinner, only the children can confront fear and look it in the eye.

The meticulous sound design is another thing to praise about History of Fear. If any label is needed, History of Fear could be described as a mood piece and Naishtat cleverly uses sound to set the disquieting atmosphere of the film. While the opening scene features the heavy noise of a helicopter flying over the suburbs; the sound of alarms going off, persistent buzzing from the intercom and news on TV or on the radio continue delivering the same effect in subsequent scenes. History of Fear clearly takes place in the present and has obvious references to the current situation in Argentina (the gap between the rich and the poor, as well as the ongoing feeling of insecurity caused by the financial crisis during the last decade), but thanks to the sound editing it evokes the feeling of a dystopian thriller as well. This feeling of timelessness makes Naishtat’s promising debut even more effective, since it deals with an emotion which has always shaped our lives and our perception of reality throughout history.

Edited by Birgit Beumers