Three Important Documentary Features By Dennis West

in 45th Gijón International Film Festival

by Dennis West

The recent, world-wide explosion of documentary film production was very much in evidence at the 45th edition of the Festival Internacional de Cine de Gijon. In the following article, I discuss the three most interesting documentary features I was able to see at the festival.

In the history of documentary filmmaking — at least since Nanook of the North — perhaps no sub-genre has been more important than the documentary portrait. With Hafner’s Paradise (El paraiso de Hafner), director Guenter Schwaiger adds a new milestone to the history of that sub-genre.

Schwaiger has found the perfect documentary subject — an elderly, unrepentant, unapologetic former Nazi SS officer who still adoringly keeps a portrait of Hitler on the wall of his home and who does not hesitate on camera to proudly snap up the Nazi salute. This authentic “sinverguenza” (literally, “one without shame”), as the Spanish might say, lives like a gentleman in Madrid; in fact, he has resided there comfortably for over half a century! As Schwaiger has pointed out in his public declarations, Hafner is an important subject since we have many documentaries showing the horror and devastation inflicted on the victims of the Holocaust; but there are few documentaries exploring in depth the worldview of the perpetrators of that violence. And we should attempt to understand that worldview the better to avoid such horrors in the future.

The filmmaker uses traditional documentary techniques to explore his subject — Hafner is observed practicing sports, explaining his past history in Spain as a hog breeder and an inventor, meeting with acquaintances, and so forth. A dramatic climax is achieved near the end of the film when Hafner, who had visited the Dachau concentration camp a few days before it was liberated in 1945, is confronted face-to-face with an actual survivor of that camp. The survivor convincingly presents his documentary evidence (still photographs) of the horrors of the camp; and an unmoved Hafner continues to deny them.

Two documentary portraits are sketched in Nicolás Prividera’s M: a thirty-six-year-old Argentine documentary filmmaker who goes looking for his “disappeared” mother, and the mother herself, who “disappeared” at age thirty-six supposedly for her radical political activities during the Argentine military dictatorship which ruled the country with an iron fist in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Prividera uses conventional documentary techniques, such as interviews with friends and colleagues, to sketch a portrait of his mother, who, as a left-Peronist activist opposed the brutal military dictatorship. M also draws on a wealth of archival material, such as the home-movies which depict a loving mother and a dedicated professional worker.

Much of the power of Prividera’s film derives from the filmmaker’s personal search for information. Why was his mother detained and by whom? When and where was she killed? Why were her activities and ideas so frightening to the military dictatorship? How can his mother’s life and work be honored at this time? Such burning questions are the key to a sociohistorical reckoning with Argentina’s recent past. In M, Prividera’s achievement is threefold: we learn about the importance of one “disappeared” person’s personal and professional life, we understand the personal and political importance of the son’s search, and the sociopolitical and historical significance of the human rights issues raised is clear. By the end of M, Prividera has still not found his mother’s body or her final resting place. He has, however, succeeded in leaving us an extraordinary document testifying to his valiant efforts. M, then, continues in Argentina the cinematic dialogue on the clandestine “guerra sucia” and the “desaparecidos” that was initiated with Luis Puenzo´s powerful melodrama The Official Story (La historia oficial) in the mid-1980s, soon after the dictatorship collapsed.

Another fine documentary feature is the recent Argentine film Stars (Estrellas), which was directed by the young filmmakers Federico León and Marcos Martinez. Their ideological project is most unusual: they wish to examine the ways in which slum dwellers in Buenos Aires attempt to earn their living by capitalizing on their intimate knowledge of urban poverty — by turning it into art, entertainment, culture, and, at times, an actual paying job. Specifically, the inhabitants of the slum Villa 21 offer their knowledge and services as slum dwellers to film production companies that seek to portray that urban reality. The history of Latin American documentary cinema abounds with titles which illustrate the socioeconomic plight of slum dwellers. Few, however, are the documentaries which show the poor creatively working together in the cultural sphere in order to economically sustain themselves.

Our guide in this world of slum-dwelling turned movie-making is the organizer and political activist Julio Arrieta, himself a long-time resident of Villa 21. In interviews, this engaging, humorous, and articulate figure offers nuggets of populist wisdom such as “Culture is everyone’s right; it doesn’t belong to anybody.” Humor is certainly one of the filmmaker’s greatest tools. With a stationary video camera set-up, and with the timer counting off the seconds at the bottom of the frame, viewers watch in real time as a typical villa shack is completely assembled by efficient workers in only two to three minutes. And we further see those same workers appearing as extras in a sci-fi movie about — believe it or not — Martians invading the slums of Buenos Aires. Now there is a theme seldom treated in the history of Latin American cinema! With Stars, then, León and Martinez succeed in presenting new and fascinating perspectives on the lives of Latin American slum dwellers.

The above documentary features do not in general break new ground stylistically. But they all represent very well done attempts at understanding very different realities.