"The Drowned Man" Absence as Permanent Presence By Pamela Biénzobas Saffie

in 21st Fribourg International Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

The 21st edition of the Fribourg International Film Festival was marked by the imminent departure of its respected and highly esteemed artistic director Martial Knaebel. With its focus on the cinemas of Asia, Africa and Latin-American (under-represented this year), the festival offered a rather high level competition and very interesting panoramas. Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd’s powerful film The Drowned Men (Le cercle des noyés, presented in the Berlinale Forum as Drowned in Oblivion), about the repression of black activists in Mauritania obtained our prize — among other awards.

A monotonous voice narrates, in the first person, the story of the political persecution suffered by a group of men. Hypnotic images of deserted landscapes in black and white accompany the calm voice-off. The voice is the one of Fara Bâ, one of the black Mauritanian activists imprisoned in the eighties in the fort of Oulata. The story is about him and his comrades revealed with outstanding sobriety. Throughout 75 minutes, the counterpoint between sound and image (broken only through a couple of testimonies of people who appear on screen) creates a flow of an astounding political and poetic intensity. Between excess and purification, Vandeweerd chooses the latter. Everything — image, text, sound — is as purified as can be in this film about excess and violence. Presented as a documentary, The Drowned Men is not an informative, denouncing film in the sense that it withholds much of the background about the story – members of the FLAM (Forces de Libération des Africains de Mauritanie), imprisoned and tortured in Oulata under Ould Taya’s government. Its exercise of keeping a trace of the past is not a gesture of historiography but of personal memory. Art in general and cinema in particular having tried to deal with memory regarding issues such as political oppression and institutional violence against individuals in its different forms: war, dictatorship, imprisonment, torture, assassination, forced disappearance… Through fiction or, most frequently, through documentary, filmmakers have faced the question how to bring this on the screen. Apart from the usual problem to balance information and art, these cases bring forth a series of other practical, ethical and esthetic questions. Dealing with repression means dealing with victims— sometimes like in this case individual, identified victims. They have a story to tell and they have a body that suffered physical punishment, though some are no longer there. So how can cinema bring that body on the screen? How can the torture, the pain, the lack of freedom be depicted? The suffering bodies are no longer the same as the ones that could recount it today. This is even clearer when they don’t exist any longer, the bodies of those who did not survive. Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd’s response is absence. Only the voice of Fara Bâ, both individual and collective, embodies the victims. It is the only kind of incarnation, along with the words it speaks on behalf of them all.

The text that Fara Bâ reads was written by Vandeweerd together with the filmmaker based on the testimonies during meetings with the survivors over an eight-year period. Once the text was there Vandeweerd added the images: images of landscapes and places, of the fort where they were once imprisoned. Black and white images often over-exposed, mostly uninhabited. The Drowned Men is a severe and moving example of cinema’s capacity to show by concealing. The general absence of people on screen reinforces the weight of their presence. The image of the places in the present, with a voice speaking in the past tense to evoke the experience of these men known as “the circle of drowned men”, makes us feel the past we didn’t experience. The indescribable violence is most fiercely suggested through the lack of visual description. The overwhelming emotions are poignantly transmitted by the cool and detached narration of Fara Bâ. The monotony of his single voice synthesizes the diversity of individuals that form the collective victim. The beauty of the images we see makes the hideousness that we do not see clearer than any attempt to depict it. The sobriety and austerity of Vandeweerd’s film make it a remarkably delicate and humane testimony of an inhumane atrocity.