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Todo documento de civilización

Every document of civilization

Tatiana Mazú González

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” wrote Walter Benjamin. Tatiana Mazú González borrows this line for the title of her film. “And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another” continues the author. To counter this barbarism and to describe the struggles of people who’ve been made invisible, erased from history, Tatiana Mazú González rises up. In Río Turbio (FID 2020), she went to war against women’s erasing from the history of the mining town of the title. Here, she seizes upon the case of the forced disappearance of Luciano Arruga, a teenager tortured and killed by Buenos Aires’ police, conducting a clinical critical examination, meticulously dissecting the traces of the State crime. “The reality is a multi-layered mass grave; this film, a process of excavation”, writes the director. Placed at the point where Avenues General Paz and Mosconi intersect, where the teenager was last seen, her camera, as though to detect the invisible, obstinately scrutinises the details of the landscape – asphalt, traffic lights, garbage – which, with editing, she brings together with a whole corpus of iconography that makes up the memory of the young man – footage of gatherings in his honour, graffiti, photos. In doing this, Tatiana Mazú González champions the truth of a counter-history, which the crystal-clear voice of Luciano’s mother, an admirable tragic storyteller, hammers home with anaphora, nuance and silence. Against the barbarism of the manner in which it is transmitted that constantly obscures the vision of the “vanquished” (Benjamin) and silences their voices, all that remain are images, faces and stories, which filmmaking (in other words, editing the images, faces and stories) can still give substance to, restoring the power of protest.

Louise Martin Papasian

Your film revisits an event that took place over 16 years ago: the enforced disappearance of a teenager, Luciano Arruga, by the police of Buenos Aires, who was found 6 years later in the Chacarita cemetery. Why did you choose this particular event? What was the starting point for the project?

On October 17, 2014, I was traveling by bus to La Oculta, a huge slum near my home, to the premiere of a friend’s short film. The bus was passing by El Olimpo, a former clandestine detention center during our last dictatorship. As I recognize this place, I receive a message: They found the body of Luciano Arruga. He was buried in Chacarita as NN. I already knew the struggle of Luciano’s relatives from my political militancy at the university, which was based on an anti-capitalist critique of the State. In La Oculta, the then President of the National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts, thanked the Federal Police for their support to carry out the screening in the street. I felt like throwing up. That night, when I got home and opened Facebook, someone had uploaded a Google Street View capture of the intersection of Av. General Paz and Av. Mosconi: there, the definitive trace of Luciano Arruga had been lost. For 27 years, that traffic light, that intersection, that bridge, that police station had been nothing more than the signs that I had to get off the bus every time I went to visit my grandmother. A year later I moved into my family home. And that became my daily landscape. And with an inexplicable feeling in my body I thought: there’s a movie at this intersection.

The camera observes at length, insistently, almost obsessively, the intersection of General Paz and Mosconi avenues and the details of its surroundings (stones, traffic lights, kiosks, street lighting, graffiti on the walls). Can you tell us more about the choice of this cinematic technique, and why this blurred, partially visible image?

When I moved to La Matanza, I began to feel a lot of anger and pain when I passed by there every day, as if nothing happened. I think that’s why the film insists on such a pronounced being there, it poetically dissects the landscape to shake that illusion of normality that capitalism -and its image- proposes. When in 2015 I started taking some scattered notes about the film I needed to make, I wrote: nocturnal, grainy, noisy, pixelated. At first it was just an intuition. But then it appeared in conversations with Fran (DoP) this idea of shooting the whole film through glass fogged with water and vaseline. And later on, to start using the camera at very high sensitivities to incorporate as much noise as possible. I ended up going on an almost militant crusade against sharpness in film. I am overwhelmed by how the industry and its institutions offer us an increasingly cleaner, clearer, more perfect image. But seeing more does not equate to seeing better. I think we need to see in other ways. And even learn to find meaning and community by groping in the dark.

The film is also composed of other types of material: maps of the urban space, Google Street views, illustrations from Jules Verne books. What principles governed the editing of this diverse material?

When I began to think about the film, I imagined documents from different disciplines that, in some way, hid and at the same time revealed what at first sight we could not see or hear passing by: the disappearance and death of Luciano Arruga at the hands of the State. That initial idea was refined and softened. Finally, the technical representations of the space persisted, where the traces of structural violence since the foundation of our nation-state were very evident. Something of that initial idea also remained in the archaeological sequence, that moment in which we made still lives with garbage, collected together with Joaquín (DA). When Monica told me that Luciano was an enthusiastic reader of Jules Verne, I began to wonder what future he would project by immersing himself in those stories and what’s built today from that crossing of avenues where, year after year, hundreds of people meet to demonstrate against trigger-happy crimes. And that’s when the idea of imagination as a political tool gained ground in the film. Almost like a counter-document in which collective struggle and fantasy converge. So, while editing with Manu, we discovered that the film could begin as a journey to the center of the Earth, followed by a take-off from the Earth to the Moon. And with the image of that journey in mind, we advanced in the editing decisions. We edited, filmed, edited again, filmed again. Something that a film made with a tiny budget like ours could only make possible because of the collaborative mode of production we have with our collective Antes Muerto Cine.

Todo documento de civilización belongs to a certain tradition of experimental and analytical documentary cinema, but nevertheless maintains a clear narrative line, carried by the testimony of Luciano Arruga’s mother, who recounts the last moments of her son’s life. At what point did this narration play a role in the development of the project? Why was this narrator important?

Initially, this was a short film with no words. But 20 or 30 minutes were not enough for me to recover that particular sensation of being there, which was important for me to account for. I’d been wanting to sit down and talk with Luciano’s mother for a while because one of the many things that excites me about filmmaking is that it allows me, who am ridiculously shy, to be able to talk to others. When we finally got together to talk, I found myself not only with the strong, fighting woman I’d seen at the demonstrations. But also with a sensitive, enormous storyteller, who taught me about silences and nuances. And there was no turning back: her voice, her story, her words had to be part of the film. And then I remembered that in some lost notebook I’d written down at the beginning of the process that the film had to be told as if someone was telling us a story at night, before going to sleep. And so it was.

Her crystal-clear voice contrasts with the dark, deep, heavy sound design, which almost sounds like it comes out of a science-fiction. How did you work on it?

I’m dark. And it’s a film that surrounds dark issues. The thick, the sad, the sadness, the anger were inevitable. The night, the earth, the engines and the asphalt were its raw material. And I’d already been working since my previous film with Julián on certain shared obsessions in relation to noise, machines, geology, insistant field recordings, geophones and contact microphones. When I met Monica for a chat and listened to her voice, I also perceived it as crystalline. And it’s crazy, because it’s a word that also has to do with minerals. That contrast, initially, came about on its own. But over time I realized that I had to make the greatest possible effort to find light in this film. I also understood that the struggle of Luciano Arruga’s relatives was not only a struggle against state and police violence against children from poor neighborhoods. It wasn’t only a struggle for a roof and bread. It was also a struggle for their right to poetry, to imagination, to the future. And there we began to play with fragments of classic movie soundtracks, with synthesizers, with tuning forks, we invented a sidereal space. If every frame encloses and cuts, sound always opens.

The film’s title is taken from a phrase by Walter Benjamin, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism » (On the Concept of History). Can you explain the choice of this quotation?

I was always very moved by Benjamin’s thought, that cross dialectical materialism, mysticism and the criticism of a certain linear idea of progress. The title of the film is part of a text that I always keep close to me because I always think that secretly it’s also an essay on cinema. When he says, for example, that to articulate the past historically doesn’t mean to know it as it has truly been, but rather to take possession of a memory as it flashes in an instant of danger, for me he’s also talking about cinema. It’s a text that strongly questions the civilizing ideal of Enlightenment. And that, with it, questions the conformist traditions and that illusory sensation of capitalist normality of which I spoke at the beginning. A normality that covers the horror of multiple oppressions with a veil of progress. Jules Verne, in his own way, also questioned these issues in his novels, which are even populated by anarchists.

Could you tell us a few words about your collective Antes muerto cine? How did your way of working enable you to make this film?

Those of us who formed the collective met at the public university, in a context of student protests between 2010 and 2012. That changed forever our way of thinking and doing. We make films slowly, in weekly exchanges where the word turns and bounces from mouth to mouth, beyond the technical, creative and emotional role that each one takes in the film. And so, together, many of the central decisions are made, from the moment it’s just an idea to the exhibition stage, which we also do in an artisanal way. Making films in contemporary ultraneoliberal Argentina implies overcoming very specific material difficulties. It revalues the word “resist” and strengthens the desire to make films that shake the reality around us. It was the collective logic that allowed us to sustain this project for seven years, advancing in our free time and allowing it to mutate with the context and the ideas that each one of us contributed. We are very DIY, but even more DIWO: do it with others.

Interview by Louise Martin Papasian

  • Ciné + competition  
  • International Competition
10:3026 June 2024Artplexe 1
14:0027 June 2024Variétés 1
21:0029 June 2024Cinéma Artplexe 3

Technical sheet

Argentina / 2024 / Colour / 88'

Original version: Spanish
Subtitles: English, French
Script: Tatiana Mazú González
Photography: Francisco Bouzas
Editing: Manuel Embalse
Sound: Julián Galay

Production: Nacho Losada (Antes Muerto Cine)

Contact: Tatiana  Mazú González (Antes Muerto Cine), Nacho Losada (Antes Muerto Cine), Manuel Embalse (Antes Muerto Cine)

The state of things (lenghtfeature, 2012, 71′, directed by Tatiana Mazú González and Joaquín Maito).
The international (short, 2015, 13′, directed by Tatiana Mazú González).
Little Red Riding Hood (lenghtfeature, 2019, 94′, directed by Tatiana Mazú González).
Shady River (lenghtfeature, 2020, 82′, directed by Tatiana Mazú González).