Since its inauguration in 1954, the Mar del Plata International Film Festival has endured several name changes, switched governing bodies, been moved to different months, and been canceled for decades. Yet, since its definitive return in 1996, it’s grown into a stable and vital cinephile event. Some of the best movies screened during its latest edition, celebrated earlier this month, echo its resilience and demonstrate what can be achieved with a tiny budget and in unorthodox, even dangerous conditions.
One such film is Abbas Fahdel’s Homeland (Iraq Year Zero), an epic six-hour documentary about life under Saddam Hussein and, later, under coalition occupation. Back in 2002, when Fahdel, who has lived in Paris since the 1980s, overheard rumors of war, he decided to grab his camera and return to Baghdad to visit his family. As he told the Montreal Gazette, he had the superstitious belief that, by documenting his loved ones, he might protect them and preserve a “trace” of their culture.
The film begins with Saddam still in power. His figure is perpetually televised, as he lectures on international affairs and stars in bizarre musical montages that mix newsreel footage with patriotic music. Since armed conflict is imminent, Fahdel’s family stocks up on supplies and digs a well in their backyard. They also enjoy their leisure time. Haidar, the director’s 12-year-old nephew, walks around the countryside, admires ancient ruins, and later visits the Amiriyah shelter memorial site, where more than 400 civilians were killed by an American “smart bomb” during the Gulf War. No one really talks about Saddam. Publicly denouncing his regime was illegal, so certain things cannot be uttered before the camera. Protests can only be mute and physical: As the family watches the musical montages, Saddam’s exaggerated vigor seems grotesquely fake next to the tired, reposing bodies in the living room.
When the dictatorship falls, after the U.S. invasion, whatever is gained in freedom of speech is lost in other ways. Reams of molten celluloid coil through the bombed-out skeleton of the former Baghdad Cinema Studios. A man who was once employed there reflects on what’s been burned, countless hours of material that might have served the historians of tomorrow. But film footage is just one victim among others: institutions, political parties, thousands of lives. Streetside discussions among citizens hint at profound ideological disagreements. Yet these debates happen in the vacuum of foreign occupation. Whatever democratic or monarchical destiny they outline seems not for the debaters to bring about. Violence is a constant threat, whether from American forces or local armed groups. Fahdel and his family are disconnected from their surroundings, from their city, from their government. In every direction, they find amorphous chaos. They can hardly think about a future when nothing around them could sustain it. A few go to college and seek an education. Hope is the last thing to go. Yet the ghost of futility hangs over their classrooms.
Much of the conversation on the Iraq War, especially in the West, has been focused on the United States, either criticizing or applauding its actions. What both stances have in common is their privileging the American perspective. Homeland refocuses our attention on the more fundamental matter of what Iraqis have to say about themselves. It can be viewed alongside another gargantuan documentary screened in Mar del Plata, also about the destiny of an entire country, Kidlat Tahimik’s Balikbayan #1.
More than 30 years in the making, this anarchic movie is many things at once: a budget-conscious recreation of Ferdinand Magellan’s globe-spanning voyage; a comic biography of Enrique of Malacca, the Portuguese navigator’s (possibly) Filipino slave; a study of modern-day Filipino art and culture; a contemporary tale about a photographer who tracks down the mysterious, elderly artisan he accidentally captured in his photos; and, last but not least, a playful historiographic essay on the writing and rewriting of history. Despite spending so long in the creative oven, the film is militantly rough and unpolished. Tahimik accepts the fortuitous, unplanned nature of his artistic process and makes no attempt to hide the passage of time, visible on his aging body (he plays Enrique, the elderly artisan, and himself) and through the various recording technologies he employs, both celluloid and digital.
Balikbayan #1 is a documentary about its own creation, about what it means to talk about the past and who does the talking. Enrique, likely the first person to circumnavigate the planet, has been forever overshadowed by his European owner, and the movie attempts to reinstitute his place in the historical narrative. But Tahimik knows that simply adding points into a timeline is insufficient, and that how this narrative is woven is equally important. Which is why the film, in its fragmentary expansiveness, reflects the complexity of a culture splintered by centuries of Spanish and American colonialism.
Like Homeland, it interrogates how national and personal identities are closely intertwined, and for all its perambulations across Filipino time and space, the author’s personal point of view is never ignored. Whether from behind the camera, like Fahdel, or in front of it, like Tahimik, these directors can be said to be making so-called “first-person documentaries.” But as Argentine academic Gonzalo Aguilar has written, in his recent book Más Allá del Pueblo, they’re not first, second, or third person, but rather areas of indetermination, where the very concept of identity is in doubt.
Aguilar’s examples are culled from movies by the children of Argentina’s disappeared, whose own identities, and of those around them, “have been in suspense” since childhood. But the same idea applies, for different reasons, to Fahdel and Tahimik, who cannot ask what it means to be Filipino or Iraqi without accounting for their own subjectivities, either as a Filipino who studied economy in the United States or as an Iraqi who lives in France. There’s no resolving one matter without engaging with the other.
The festival provided an opportunity to compare these modern works to epochal, recently restored Argentine documentaries from the 1960s. It can be tempting to now see them as naïve, but they were made in a different context, with a different set of priorities and objectives. They sought to rescue the underrepresented from invisibility, whether they be slum kids from the outskirts of Santa Fe (as in Tire Dié by Fernando Birri) or artisans of indigenous ancestry (as in one of Raymundo Gleyzer’s more belligerent shorts). They were urgent wake-up calls, swift hooks to the jawline of the political conversation.
Whereas Fahdel and Tahimik probe inward, into themselves and their families, as much as outward, into their countries, these firebrand documentaries, while not denying their subjective slants, hope to move past them and toward broader collective social truths. This can seem simplistic, even authoritarian, yet it should be remembered that, 50 years ago, they were creating images where there were none, showing what had yet to be shown, pushing back against the symbolic erasure that threatened—and continues to threaten—certain sectors of Argentine society. Their booming voices, from an era when filmmakers believed they could transform the world, now call into question the same forum that hosts them. Snuggled into the festival schedule, their dreams of change—still unrealized—are too big for it.