Hiding in Plain Sight

in 60th International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen

by Pamela Cohn

In milky pre-dawn light, a small group of men and women of various generations moves silently through lush greenery, assisting one another across a narrow path in what appears to be some kind of clandestine border crossing. There is nothing outwardly urgent in their demeanor but they move with purpose. In the series of carefully framed and composed tableaux vivants that follow, director Federico Adorno stages a pantomime illustrating the aftermath of something terrible, an event that has decimated a small population of farmers on an estancia in the countryside of Paraguay. The realization surfaces slowly that they are “trespassing” back onto the land they call home.

La Estancia, Adorno’s spare and elegant 14-minute film, world-premiered as a selection in this year’s international competition at the 60th edition of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. By festival’s end, the international jury awarded the film with the highest honor of The Grand Prize of the City of Oberhausen.

Adorno’s film is a ghost story told in fragments, based on a deadly clash that occurred in June of 2012 on Campos Morombí in the city of Curuguaty. Currently, five landless peasants stand accused of taking part in the killing of eleven farmers and six policemen during a land eviction procedure, such cases being common in Paraguay, a country where over 80% of the land is in the hands of less than 2% of the population. Illegalities abound and cases of blatant corruption between the elite and the state are the norm. Landless individuals have no rights in this place — they are invisible, dispensable, powerless, voiceless.

Adorno’s cinematic vision is not concerned with the task of providing any kind of facile re-enactment of an actual event. Many films in the Oberhausen program this year dealt in myriad ways with re-enactment, the ritualizing of selective memories staged in anonymous rites or rituals of celebration or mourning, often using the warp and weave of grand landscapes to encounter secret, inchoate histories. Because of the breadth of its brutality in a place where brutality is the currency of the entitled, this particular case of the peasants in La Estancia is a story that has been recorded. Yet Adorno shows them in the complete and authentic isolation that is the only reality that truly belongs to them. They cannot even seek refuge in the stolid permanence of land appropriated by others more powerful than they. They are chased away over and over again. The cows can stay. The people who tend them must flee.

Subdued ambient sounds from the natural surroundings are the only aural elements to orientate us. There is no score, nor is there any text to accompany the passion play that unfolds before us. Abandoned by these reliable signifiers, we are left with the eerie tranquility and stillness in the aftermath of unspeakable things. Adorno uses the short film form as a master writer uses the short story: catching the essence of a moment, the shock and devastation where the unwritten, undocumented part of all this — the never-ending, stunning grief of voiceless people — is absorbed by the landscape, a landscape where they are able to hide in plain sight. The surprise comes from how easily they blend in. In most every scene of Adorno’s story, after a few moments of looking around, we conclude that there is no one there. And then like ghosts inhabiting corporeal form for brief moments as ghosts do, they appear, looking out at us from the underbrush, praying and administering over their dead loved ones, standing silently watching, ensconced in the living tomb of their brothers, sisters, parents and children. There lays a single small black rubber boot on its side in the mud, there a delicate white plastic rosary, amongst other unidentifiable detritus at a ravaged campsite. There is nothing else but the breaking daylight and the soft susurrations of the breezes to accompany the survivors as they go about discovering and recovering the ones that have fallen, also left like so much detritus scattered across the suddenly abandoned landscape.

A couple of months ago, in March of this year, the five peasants being held responsible for the massacre went on a hunger strike for more than thirty days in order to demand justice and freedom, seemingly their only source of protest in a country where their lives are less than incidental. After watching the poetic precision of Adorno’s film, we can begin to understand that wasting away, eventually disappearing altogether, is something the state and the land-grabbers rely upon them to do. And so they play their parts. They play them so heartbreakingly well.

In a statement read at the closing ceremonies in Oberhausen, the filmmaker expressed his solidarity with the people that are the inspiration for his film. From Paraguay, he had written to express his gratitude to both the festival and the jury for the honor, but felt he needed to forego an opportunity to travel to Germany. He needed to remain by their side.

Pamela Cohn