Seen together, many of the excellent documentaries screened at the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) articulate a surprisingly coherent argument about nonfiction filmmaking and its relationship to the real. The people on screen might not be invented characters, and their words might not (explicitly) be the creations of screenwriters, but the camera means mediation and performance. Someone selects the shots, presses the record button, and edits the footage, while the filmed subjects know they’re being filmed and knowingly create a version of themselves for the consumption of unknown audiences. Rather than ignore this phenomenon, some of the best documentaries take advantage of it, emphasizing how capturing reality is a way of intervening in it.
No other film at the festival conveyed this as forcefully as Tomás Lipgot’s Vergüenza y Respeto, concerning the Romani community in the greater Buenos Aires area. At the screening I attended, the film’s subjects were actually in the theater, cheering, applauding, and laughing at their projected selves, transforming the cinema into their living room. Cinematic portraits of minorities often establish a distance between the observer and the observed, between the director and his or her subjects, which then grows into an irreparable abyss between the viewers and the viewed. To pose an Argentine example: Even the canonical, fictional works of Lisandro Alonso, though they interrogate the marginality of the rural characters, end up reinforcing their inscrutable Otherness. Alonso himself acknowledges this problem in his meta-textual, self-reflexive Fantasma, in which blinkered city-dwellers, after watching the director’s own Los Muertos, fail to meaningfully connect with its provincial star, who travels to Buenos Aires for the quiet, underpopulated screening. “Who is this movie for?” Alonso seems to ask.
Lipgot attempts to solve this quandary by allowing his subjects to become co-creators. The members of the Campos family, whom the documentary focuses on, recognize this as a rare opportunity to publicize what it means to be an Argentine gypsy in the 21st century. They reflect on their culture, their traditions, and their history; they sing and dissertate on the significance of their music; they defend their sexual politics; they explain the reach and limits of their acceptance of modern technology; they point out that, unlike other strands of Romani, they don’t wear traditional clothing and aren’t nomadic. Their community is invisible in the local consciousness, a blip amidst the all-engulfing spread of greater Buenos Aires. And so, rather than passively allow the camera to capture their daily activities, they actively engage with it, shaping Vergüenza y Respeto into a vehicle for their self-expression. Rather than settle for being seen, they tell others how they wish to be seen.
The Look of Silence and Citizenfour, also shown at BAFICI, are equally aware of the camera’s active role. The latter, by Laura Poitras, recounts the faithful meeting between journalist Glenn Greenwald and whistleblower Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room, along with their subsequent revelation of the NSA’s surveillance program. But the director is no mere bystander: she made the meeting possible, after Snowden failed to establish secure communications with Greenwald; she scrupulously documented the proceedings; and, crucially, her film is a key element in the trio’s media strategy. As Snowden and Greenwald discuss their soon-to-be-disclosed information and explain its significance, and as they share tips to avoid detection, with Snowden regularly lapsing into didactic monologues on the vulnerability of technological tools, it becomes obvious that these aren’t conversations they would have had outside of the camera’s eye. They aren’t only speaking among themselves, but also to a larger, future public. Near the end, as the existence of another whistleblower is unveiled, and as Poitras, Snowden, and Greenwald encourage the sprouting of more like him or her, Citizenfour turns into a visual manual on how to reveal state secrets, what risks and sacrifices are involved, and how to go about doing it without getting caught.
The Look of Silence is similar in this respect. Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to The Act of Killing follows the optometrist Adi, whose brother was killed by death squads during Indonesia’s anti-communist purge in the 1960s, as he interviews those responsible for the massacre. Each encounter is charged with incredible tension, because what’s at stake, in every tortured dialogue, isn’t merely a circumstantial, immediate conversation between oppressor and oppressed, but the recording of their words for posterity. What’s at stake, then, is history, or rather, what’s made of it. Because to plunge history into the depths of an intractable past, to disconnect it from the present, to declare it irrelevant and to condemn any attempt to restore it as “too political,” as the interviewees would wish it, is a way to forget it. The Look of Silence, then, militantly attempts to contradict this position by proving how the past still exists in the present, how the latter has its roots in the former, and how forgetfulness is the art of those who don’t want their fortunes reexamined.
Instead of seeking not to intrude on reality, as in “fly-on-the-wall” documentaries, these films embrace their inevitable intrusion. An ethos that, during BAFICI, was behind not only such serious and lofty fare as the aforementioned, but also more playful, even trifling titles. Paula Schargorodsky’s 35 and Single is the feature-length extension of the director’s previous short of the same name, which went viral after being commissioned by The New York Times. In both cuts, the author attempts to figure out why she’s burdened with her titular relationship status. What did she do wrong? Does she even want to marry? To find some answers, she tracks down her former boyfriends and interviews them. But the added minutes—more than 70 of them—add little to the sweetly brief seven of the original, and the result is confused and meandering. Her conclusions, after journeying halfway around the globe, are pat and simplistic, not too far removed from what she already sketched out, far more swiftly, in her older piece.