PRINT May 2017


Paz Encina

Still from Paz Encina’s Ejercicios de memoria (Memory Exercises), 2016, digital video, color, sound, 70 minutes.

PAZ ENCINA makes film objects and situational documentaries, or sit-docs, movies in which a dramatic narrative is transparently constructed from a handful of organized audiovisual facts. Sound in Encina’s minimalist films generally takes precedence over image. The artist is a formalist whose subject is the history of her native Paraguay—poor, landlocked, governed for decades by the ruthless right-wing dictator General Alfredo Stroessner.

Encina, who studied classical guitar as a child, learned to read music before she knew the alphabet. She builds her films, she has said, on the foundation of the sound track and has compared writing a movie to writing a score. Her first feature, La hamaca paraguaya (Paraguayan Hammock, 2006), is one of the key sit-docs of the early twenty-first century—a movie impossible to watch without conscious awareness of the elements from which it has been fashioned.

As befits a film object or a gallery installation, Paraguayan Hammock takes its own time, projecting a sublime indifference to the audience. Most succinctly described as a few exterior setups accompanied by obviously dubbed sound, Hammock opens with the first of many extended, static long shots. An elderly campesino couple emerge from the woods to hang their hammock in a clearing. “What is wrong with you?” the man asks his wife. Like all of the movie’s dialogue, their words are delivered, asynchronously, in the indigenous Guarani language.

Incantatory questions and rote bickering are punctuated by the sounds of distant thunder and a barking dog. One deduces from the couple’s conversation that their son is a soldier—and in fact has most likely been killed on the battlefield. Hammock feels (and looks) timeless, but it is rooted in a specific event, namely, the three-year-long Chaco War fought by Paraguay and neighboring Bolivia in the early 1930s for possession of an arid tract of land thought to contain oil. At least fifty thousand soldiers (and possibly tens of thousands more) died. Paraguay won—although, without belaboring the point, Hammock suggests that the conflict was senseless.

More primal in its simplicity than the Italian Neorealism from which it descends, Hammock bears a family resemblance to the Argentinean filmmaker Lisandro Alonso’s influential sit-doc La libertad (2001). Following the routine of a woodcutter who worked on his father’s land, Alonso fashioned a screenplay and shot an observational film all about process, as the protagonist—introduced shirtless, in the dark, eating what we later discover is an armadillo—undertook his solitary tasks, chopping down trees and hauling logs. (At one point, the woodcutter crouches down, like an animal in the field, to defecate in real time.) The use of natural sounds—of frogs croaking, cows lowing, birds singing, insects buzzing—supports the impression that we are watching something like pure existence.

Given its landscape and protagonists, Paraguayan Hammock could almost be the same film. It, too, is constructed from a series of documented events, purports to take place on a single day, and has a circular structure. But Hammock is at once more elemental and more obvious in its artifice than La libertad. Encina’s ultra-literalism is based in concrete metaphor. The porch where the old man converses with an unseen visitor might be a stage set; the hammock, suspended between two trees, suggests the bridge between life and death.

Hammock is also more modernist than La libertad in its purposeful absurdism. With their repetitive conversation, Encina’s campesino protagonists—played by veteran stage actors—suggest a pair of Beckett characters. (Their dialogue also contains allusions to the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo’s proto-magic-realist prose poem Pedro Páramo, in which, as in Encina’s film, time turns in on itself and the dead mix with the living.)

Because there is no synchronized sound in Hammock, the couple’s words could be thoughts—or something as material as stones. Encina employed a similar technique to lesser effect in her twenty-three-minute Viento sur (A Wind from the South, 2011). There, shots, which appear as though taken from a hidden vantage point, of a river—perhaps one of the three separating Paraguay and Argentina—accompany a dialogue between two brothers, opponents of the Stroessner regime, about whether to go into exile or remain and fight.

Since then, Encina’s work has largely involved material gathered from Paraguay’s “Archives of Terror.” Uncovered in 1992, three years after Stroessner was deposed by a military coup, the archive proved to be a trove of dossiers, surveillance photographs, and, perhaps most important for Encina, audiotapes that included interrogations, confessions, and reports by informers. The artist, who was a teenager when Stroessner was overthrown, in 1989, has taken this police-state data as the basis for a number of video installations and short films, including the three that constitute her twenty-seven-minute trilogy Tristezas de la lucha (Sorrows of the Struggle, 2014–16).

Unlike most of the Stasi art produced from the files and wreckage of East Germany’s security state, Encina’s pieces fashion specific dramatic narratives. The first part of the trilogy, Arribo (Arrival, 2014), juxtaposes blurry photographs with an audio recording of an opposition leader being interrogated by the police as he attempts to return to Paraguay from exile in Argentina. In Familiar (also 2014), an informer’s droning report accompanies images taken from the dossier of a twelve-year-old campesina, Apolonia Flores Rotela, who was shot by the Paraguayan army and subsequently arrested as a dangerous guerrilla fighter. The child’s mug shot is an indelible, defiant j’accuse that deserves to be as widely circulated a revolutionary icon as the snapshot of Che Guevara that formed the basis of Pedro Chaskel’s documentary short Una foto recorre el mundo (A Photo Travels the World, 1981). Equally political, if more literary, the final installment of Tristezas, which bears the trilogy’s title and dates from 2016, adapts an epistolary story by the Spanish-born turn-of-the-twentieth-century Paraguayan anarchist writer Rafael Barrett. Encina merged the reading of a political prisoner’s letters with the sounds of a pro-Stroessner rally, while showing a lone figure traversing the countryside.

Ejercicios de memoria (Memory Exercises, 2016), Encina’s second feature, is part archival excavation, part landscape study. Much of the seventy-minute movie is devoted to scenes of a river and a forest animated by the activities of children swimming, climbing trees, or following each other through thickets. Another section explores an empty domestic terrain with a series of still-life compositions, apparently shot in a small, isolated villa. Encina lavishes close-ups on worn furniture and household objects. Hazy images of framed photographs, a shot of an ant crawling across an embroidered linen tablecloth, and the contemplation of dust particles in the light promote the sense of a secular reliquary and recall the hermetic quality of Stan Brakhage’s autobiographical Sincerity films (1973–80). This feeling of abandonment is accentuated by an audio accompaniment of stray sounds, including the artist’s trademark use of distant thunder, and a series of voice-over interviews in which several individuals describe their recollections of childhoods spent in exile. Disembodied voices haunt the space, although, unexpectedly, the camera finds a woman, her back to the camera, slowly working a piece of embroidery—perhaps standing in for the filmmaker herself.

The child of a Paraguayan dissident, Encina grew up under government scrutiny amid police informants and detention centers. As Memory Exercises turns its attention to mug shots (accompanied, as in Familiar, by audio of an informer’s testimony), its protagonist comes into focus: Dr. Agustín Goiburú, a major opposition figure—and a friend of the filmmaker’s father—who was repeatedly abducted by the police, jailed, exiled, and finally “disappeared” in 1978. The voices we’ve been hearing are mainly those of his grown children.

Represented (or not) by bucolic images of kids playing in the woods, the Goiburú children are occasionally and only seen in family or surveillance photographs—one startlingly banal image shows three of them posed next to an enormous plush stuffed animal that looks like a purple knock-off of the Pink Panther. Like Hammock, Exercises is a family tragedy in the context of history. Yielding work charged with emotion yet too spare to be sentimental, Encina’s approach is analogous to that of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, as well as to that of Claude Lanzmann, in that she attempts to create fugitive monuments that will make an absence present.

Particularly striking in Memory Exercises is the tact with which Encina’s camera caresses, even as it observes, children at play in a natural setting that might be a lost paradise. The director has called these “river kids,” whom she encountered while scouting locations, stand-ins for something (perhaps a staged narrative) that she was unable to film. Seen but never heard, they are signs of life in the land of the dead.

Paz Encina’s Ejercicios de memoria screened this past February at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a retrospective of the director’s work organized by Natalia Brizuela and Kathy Geritz for the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, CA, and by Mónica Ríos for MoMA.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.