Fernando Sdrigotti writes on Jonathan Perel’s latest film, Camuflaje (2022), which screens at this year’s festival.
At the core of much of Jonathan Perel’s work lies an inquiry of the relationship between place, memory and power. This topic — explored by the Argentine director in films such as Los murales (2010), El predio (2010), and Toponimia (2015) — returns in Camouflage (2022).
Perel’s latest feature is an adaptation of Félix Bruzzone’s autofictional novel Campo de mayo (2019). In his book, Bruzzone, who plays himself in Camuflaje, launches into an intimate survey of the Campo de Mayo locality through dialogues with neighbours and a series of barefoot jogs; a form of aerobic psychogeography perhaps. The film translates these same procedures and motifs to the screen, disguising (camouflaging?) as a documentary. Here with the camera as silent witness, Bruzzone encounters people from different walks of life, in-between jogs, always with the purpose of getting to the heart of Campo de Mayo, both metaphorically and literally.
This may sound like a simple proposal but there are two important details to consider. One: this area homes one of the largest military bases in Argentina, the homonymous Campo de Mayo, the lab for many an Argentinean military coup. Two: here operated the clandestine detention centre known as El Campito (The Little Camp; I’ll leave the possible connotations of this euphemism to your imagination). A third detail embeds the whole project in a more personal aura: it was in this camp that Bruzzone’s mother was imprisoned and disappeared back in the 1970s. The reasons for his attempts to unpack Campo de Mayo thus become clear.
With the exception of the initial dialogue with his aunt and a later one with a trade unionist who was detained in El Campito, most conversations in Camuflaje border the mundane. There are no grand confessions in this film; there are no big political declamations. Here we find just everyday chat about work, hobbies and interests, nature, and so on. And yet the area’s dark history never stops sneaking in. Sometimes it’s down to Bruzzone to make sure this is the case, through questions or his voice-over narration. Other times his interlocutors can’t avoid mentioning disquieting details in passing: the friend who went for a jog in the military base and saw human remains, the one who was stopped by gun-wielding soldiers after trespassing, the one who – when showing off his real estate in the area to Bruzzone – casually mentions a battle between opposing forces in the late 1960s, during a coup. . The film reaches its climax during an endurance event in the military base. It is by joining the unfortunately named Killer Race that Bruzzone finally gains access to the military fortress, that the binary relationship is reversed and present penetrates past.
Almost forty years since the return of democracy in Argentina it is nearly impossible to say anything about the dictatorship that has not been said before. Both literature and film have done their best to exhaust the possible ways of dealing with this particular historical moment. There is always the risk of producing “one more book or film about the dictatorship”, of pitching to the marketplace of memory in order to deliver more junta misery porn for export. But not here. With apparent naivety but through a sophisticated aesthetic and conceptual apparatus Camuflaje reveals the link between personal and historical with microscopic precision. What we encounter by the end of the film is a country that — almost forty years since its last dictatorship — is still dealing with its trauma, in personal terms, but also as a society. Perhaps then, the possibilities are not exhausted. Perhaps the only ones exhausted are those attempting to jog away from history.
Fernando Sdrigotti is an Argentine author, translator and cultural critic. He is the author of several books, including Shitstorm (Open Pen, 2018), Grey Tropic (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019) and Jolts (Influx Press, 2020). He lives in London.