108 (Cuchillo de Palo) is never more enchanting than in its opening moments, which use a series of poetically juxtaposed images to establish the tensions that the documentary will dote on—between the collective and the individual, between the traditional and the progressive, and, most fearlessly, between the melancholic and the absurd. Director/narrator Renate Costa describes her hometown of Asunción, Paraguay with goofily anthropomorphic vividness as a “city with its back to the river” while a boat-mounted camera catches the capital’s crepuscular skyline; soon after, a sharp splice seemingly sends us so far into the city’s bowels that only the ebullient sparks flying from a work tool are visible. This urban romanticism, however, is quickly punctured by Costa’s putatively dispassionate off-screen voice, striking up a conversation with the owner of the tool: her schlubby, conservative father, Pedro. Costa wants to know why her uncle Rodolfo had no clothes in his wardrobe to wear to his own funeral when he died 15 years prior; Pedro uncomfortably dances around an answer, focusing on his potentially hazardous shop work. And with one cut, an entire landscape has been loonily pared down to a single masculine icon (the grinding of an electric saw), which has in turn been revealed as an expression of a kind of impotence.
These symbolic dissonances swiftly become symmetrical with the dual and irreconcilable lives of Costa’s subject, her aforementioned uncle. As we eventually learn through Pedro’s flummoxed double-speak, his brother was one of hundreds of homosexuals that were falsely persecuted and exposed under Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda’s dictatorship. (The movie’s U.S. title refers to the number of gays outed in a government blacklist, a document so portentously scandalous that “108” briefly became the country’s analogue to our own “13.”) What follows in the film are the fruits of Costa’s investigative efforts to flesh out the details of her uncle’s life through the recollections of family, friends, and members of Asunción’s burgeoning LGBT not-quite-underground; an oral history of what was previously silent oppression slowly takes shape alongside more picayune factoids about Rodolfo. (We learn of infamous cleanliness, his early career as a flamenco dancer, his disinclination to work, his tendency to self-medicate, and the inexplicable fortune he left behind; alleged sources of income include everything from honest retail to pimping.)
These talking heads’ surroundings are provided few embellishments; old, queer friends of Costa’s uncle get misty eyed in front of washing machines and swamp coolers that communicate frustratingly little about who they really are. Some interviewees as a result appear lost between anonymity and individuality, an ambiguity of personhood that possibly dovetails with their experience as second-class citizens. (One man, afraid of being ostracized for confessing his sexuality, allows himself to be rendered only by the spectral silhouette a sickly yellow lamppost makes of his body.) The ineffable delivery of this testimony, however, ultimately precludes the speakers’ sketchy environments with fleshy candor; their delicate inflection forms a rich emotional landscape that the filmmaker further complicates by keeping herself almost constantly in frame, albeit turned away from the lens. This additional “first-person” context makes, for instance, the fondness with which an aging dance teacher speaks about bailing her former students out of jail on what were essentially “flamboyance” charges all the more alarming (she talks of it as if she’s trying to socialize with the director). A similarly strange but touching moment occurs when a local quasi-celebrity transsexual weeps over Rodolfo’s bygone pulchritude and hugs Costa for what feels like far too long.
108 gradually simplifies into an elaborate seesaw between general, journalistic scoopery and unabashedly personal confrontation; Rodolfo and his drag alter-ego “Hector Torres” become symbols for a subaltern subculture, while lengthy chats between the director and her now-divorced father practically ache with generational estrangement. Yet all this compartmentalized swerving somehow achieves a rare and forgiving synthesis, as though Costa were attempting to transcend the micro and macro details of her uncle’s tragic life by wildly alternating between them. The resulting dizziness we feel seems akin to that of Asunción’s citizens when self-consciously trying to explain homosexuality, a word that might as well be absent from their lexicon.
Costa’s aunt, for example, admits that she “[doesn’t] know how to describe it,” while Pedro more eloquently parses his myopic (and religion-informed) attitude by simply claiming that “a homosexual is undefined.” Not even Costa herself can properly articulate the impact of her uncle’s sexual orientation on his personality—as if such a thing were possible. “What attracted me about my uncle was his joy,” she says cagily at one point, and not long afterward the film cuts to archival VHS footage of her grandmother’s 80th birthday party. As her uncle’s utterly incongruous push-broom moustache, goggle-like spectacles, and bright green shirt emerge from the shadows behind his more formally dressed kin, “joy” seems a limp euphemism.