Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: The Crosses, What Lies Behind These Landscapes

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This year, we’re running exclusive articles on each new feature film in the 2019 programme. In this piece, Jaime Grijalba covers Teresa Arredondo and Carlos Vásquez Méndez’s The Crosses.

Since returning to democracy in 1990, modern Chilean cinema has struggled with how to portray, document, speak about and engage with what happened throughout the Pinochet-led dictatorship. The crimes committed were so atrocious that it feels strange, and at times, even disrespectful to risk romanticising them through the treatment of fiction. It is through the non-fiction form that Chilean filmmaking has come the closest to a careful consideration of what occurred. This can be seen most notably in the films about the dictatorship made by Patricio Guzmán, but also through various personal portrayals from people who experienced torture, or knew those who were tortured, such as in films like The Colour Of The Chameleon (2017, Andrés Lübbert) and Adriana’s Pact (2017, Lissette Orozco).

Filmmakers return to this topic risk repeating the same stories or imitating each others style of filmmaking, yet each year sees the arrival of new and innovative ways to approach the horrors of the dictatorship. The Crosses (2018, Teresa Arredondo and Carlos Vásquez) takes a formal and factual approach that first surprises and then entrances. This film presents the case of 19 workers of a paper factory that were detained 2 days after the coup for being part of the union, then summarily murdered and then clandestinely buried in the countryside. They became part of the infamous list of “disappeared detainees” that would only grow as the days after the coup happened.

The film, which is shot on 16mm, explores the places where these events happened: a river bend, an abandoned road, the factory the workers exited from, the trains they would have taken to arrive there, and the forest where they were found buried, amongst other spaces. It uses the voices of surviving family members of the disappeared, not to offer their perspective, but to acknowledge what happened. These various voices read police reports, judicial records, confessions and other documents (which are also seen on screen at times, ragged and at risk of being lost altogether), as a way to portray the events the only way possible: through the factual account of an investigation.

For the film’s imagery, cinematographer Carlos Vásquez takes an interesting approach, preferring to frame his shots in seemingly obvious places. These images may seem plain at first, until the viewer realises many are direct references to images from early cinema, particularly the films of the Lumiere brothers. The train comes into the station, workers leave the factory. People travel along a river bend, or even a ‘phantom ride’, where the camera is put in front of a moving train and can be seen travelling from one station to the next, as it captures both the railroad and all that which surrounds it.

The combination of this visual approach and the matter-of-fact nature of the verbal testimony helps the viewer to better understand what happened, how people were lied to, and how the military and police wielded their real power by controlling the factory’s unions. By making the decision to return to the basic tools of filmmaking and utilising straightforward, simple and striking imagery rather than any distracting camerawork or overly complex compositions, attention is redirected towards what is being said about what can not be seen in the images – what lies behind these landscapes and how they hide what really happened there, even 46 years after the fact.

Jaime Grijalba is a Chilean freelance film critic, filmmaker and programmer for the Valdivia Film Festival.

Teresa Arredondo and Carlos Vásquez Méndez’s The Crosses screens on Sunday 8th September at Bertha DocHouse.