In Paraguay Remembered, French documentarian Dominique Dubosc returns to Asunción to rekindle memories decades after an unforgettable stay in the city. He reminisces about friendships with poets and activists, the wounds of dictatorship, and a mysterious love story. His narration bears the precision of a Chris Marker voiceover and the warmth of Manuel de Oliveira’s own from the masterful 1993 essay film Visit or Memories and Confessions. Like the latter, Dubosc’s film is an artist’s passionate introduction of a place that inspired him to an audience soon to be drenched in inspiration. While de Oliveira’s site is the familiar domesticity of his family home, Dubosc’s is the elsewhere that once was his shelter, and which he hasn’t seen in over 40 years.
The film’s first shot, a black-and-white image of the front of a small wooden boat going up a river from the point of view of someone supposedly doing the rowing, is as eerie as it is illustrative of Dubosc’s subject matter: the revisiting of a site of injury where love for cinema and romantic love both emerged yet only one survived. The boat, steeped in such melancholy, is at once the one we see in Mario Peixoto’s Limite, too desolate not to capsize, and the almost doomed one from F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise, treacherous but still taking us somewhere unforgettable. It turns out that the uncontested loveliness of the French language is tailor-made for the gloomy quietness of Asunción, a city teeming with ghosts of not-too-distant tyranny—political horrors that, unlike those committed by France, weren’t outsourced to a “civilizable” elsewhere.
Here the little trimmings that normally bracket a film only before it assumes its final form, shouted cues like “let’s go!” or “cut!” from camera operators, become part and parcel of the work. The image of the filmmaker’s shadow holding the camera is visible—a symbol of resolve that’s presented without fanfare. These purposefully discernable seams denounce the artifice of cinema, and preserve the telltale signs of remembrance as hard labor.
Like most great essay films, Paraguay Remembered is driven by associations not just with art works with which it shares a kinship, but a stream-of-conscious relationship between word and image. Dubosc’s stitching of visuals and narration is akin to a psycho-analytic game where the patient surrenders to the poesis of whatever comes to mind, without calculation or shame. Hotel rooms with dusty long curtains pulled to the side take him back to the glamorous ball gowns worn by his elderly aunts. A visit to the circus brings up the recollections of the first film he ever saw, a western. Certain lighting compositions make him think of Edward Hopper, or Jean-François Millet’s painting The Angelus. And most chillingly, a South American train over-stuffed with passengers leads him to an unsettling memory of the Algerian war where a group of men were locked in a wine cellar filled with toxic vapor.
The unvarnished weight of Dubosc’s words is delivered with the distance, and cadence, of someone who’s begun to understand his youth to be much further away than his own demise. The lyrical quality of such a nakedly introspective approach is, of course, due to the earnestness of the artist’s invitation, which amounts to a tour of Asunción as a multiplicity of cities and metaphors. It’s also an excursion into the uncanny choreography between external reality and unconscious process happening in Boscoc’s very own mind. These memories don’t feel gratuitous or narcissistic. Instead, we’re made privy to an act of psychological curation for artistic, not therapeutic, means.
Dubosc crafts a series of chromatic shifts throughout the film, mostly holding on to black-and-white imagery of past and present—the past as the present but also allowing brief sequences in color to turn up and depart rather surreptitiously. Dubosc makes things strange through the nuanced and slowly developed intimacy between maker and viewer that recalls the romantic courtship of yore, and he exposes the most banal of images—a bus stop, a construction site, a bodega—as the thin veiling of a history of bloodshed.
This strategy is particularly striking when he takes us to a carnavalesque Paraguayan mall, at which point that ultimate site for “the dictatorship of advertisement” gains the “exotic” aura of Marker’s Japan in Sans Soleil, minus the Orientalism. The modern present seems absurd, even pathetic, throughout. There is, Dubosc suggests, not just the Asunción of his first visit and the contemporary one, but another invisible Asunción, underneath its theatrical modernity. The city is seen as a perverse Pompeii of sorts, where “the disappeared” certainly don’t rest in peace, and where the contemplative mind can still seek refuge, if not reparation, in its cinematic dreams.