Open City Documentary Festival

Subterranean Whispers: an essay by Fernando Sdrigotti

We invited five writers to reflect on films of their choosing from this year’s festival programme. In this essay, Fernando Sdrigotti examines Shady River (Río Turbio).

Río Turbio is a small town in the southwest of the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, Argentina. Founded in 1942 during the coal-mining rush in the area, this outpost is no alien to conflict and tragedy. Once the home to Yacimientos Carboníferos Fiscales (YCF) — the state-owned charcoal extraction company — the town entered into a steep decline when YCF was privatised as part of Law 23.696 (also known as “Law of State Reformation”), sanctioned in 1989 during the first government of Carlos Saúl Menem.[1] This euphemistic state “reformation” resulted in the loss of many other state-owned companies, such as YPF (the national gas and oil extraction company), Aerolíneas Argentinas (the national flag-carrier airline), Entel (the state-owned telephone company), Gas del Estado (the national gas provider), the train services, and everything that Menem’s neoliberal ideologues saw fit to let go at a sale price. Regardless of the organised resistance of the local mining community, YCF’s privatization was completed in 1994.[2]

The lowest point in Río Turbio’s history is without a doubt the “tragedy” of 2004, when fourteen miners lost their lives during a collapse in one of the mines. I use quotation marks not because I think this wasn’t a tragic event, but because in many ways the death of these fourteen men was the logical conclusion of years of negligence, union-busting and lack of investment by the new owners — hardly an uncommon series of practices after privatization.[3]

This is more or less the backdrop of Tatiana Mazú’s o Turbio (Shady River)[4]. Or at least a backdrop, the socio-political one. The other backdrop is that of a woman with family ties in Río Turbio, who, motivated by a terrible personal event — her abuse by the son of her father’s best friend — sets out to (quite literally) unearth stories of (masculine) silence, sorority, and resistance in this Patagonian town.

***

o Turbio is a haunting and formally-sophisticated film that — at a risk of falling here into a contradiction —  is quite transparent. Everything is out there, regardless of the ornament; or perhaps because the ornament fails to conceal that which is too loud to be kept hidden. WhatsApp messages, voice recordings, drone-like and industrial sounds, geological and mining maps and blueprints, old family VHS and Super 8 tapes and purposely shot material, come together to deliver a story that, much like John Cage’s 4’33’’, uses silence as a medium. The mostly faceless female voices that do speak, do so like a cough in a concert hall at a moment in which no instrument is playing. And they don’t need to follow a constraining narrative line to tell their stories: if the cacophony of voices appears confusing at first, all things fall into place in due time.

The counterpoint of this silence is time. There are moments in which the film crawls: long shots of Patagonian desolation, Deleuzian “time images” of an almost geological nature — whoever goes down to work in a mine, whoever waits for anyone who went to work in a mine, must feel time much more than the rest of us.

It is true that the Patagonian landscape calls for this kind of image and absence of speed and sound — see Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool, for example, and the relentless march of its character across iced geographies of Tierra del Fuego, the province south of Santa Cruz. Or some of the desolate landscapes of Atlantic Patagonia as favoured by Carlos Sorín. But Mazú’s film strikes me as different: whereas in the works of these other filmmakers things are what they are, and the landscape, the speed and the silence are put to work to deliver their minimal stories, Río Turbio teases all the time with the promise of a revelation — there is something hidden here. And the film somehow delivers on this promise. Whoever wants to read between the lines will be able to get to it; but this is a revelation (or these are revelations?) that aren’t shouted but whispered gently, from the depths. Silence and a slow speed, then, are necessary for the viewers to arrive at whatever anagnorisis they might arrive. This is the kind of film you return to, in order to hear other whispers in between the silences, dig out another story.

In many ways the film’s self-awareness of itself as film is reminiscent of the work of Albertina Carri, another Argentine filmmaker of a previous generation. Her 2003 Los rubios remains, in my opinion, one of the best (or perhaps the best) documentaries about the 76-83 civic-military-ecclesiastic dictatorship in Argentina, and more specifically about the Disappeared. Certain themes, whether personal or collective or a mix of both, demand this kind of filmic self-awareness. Otherwise we just end up with a poor spectacle, unlikely to deliver pleasure, but also unlikely to effectively communicate the difficult topic it seeks to communicate.

***

Río Turbio is a film that reflects on how to tell a story about that which can’t be told.

It is in relation to the mine itself, the actual pit, that this becomes evident. Women aren’t allowed in the mine — this remains an almost exclusively male space. How to tell a story about a place one is forbidden to enter? It doesn’t matter if that place is hostile and dangerous — from the moment entrance is forbidden the need to tell a story about it is born. Mazú’s answer to the aporia of telling a story about that which can’t be told is making this a story not about the mine per se, as the film might appear to be first, but about the women of the town and their relationship to this forbidden space.

Whether dragged to the place or born and raised in Río Turbio[5] these are women that are both desired and rejected, needed and forbidden to exist as anything but the companions of the miners. We hear of the frustration of these women who refuse to remain put in their place, who are resilient enough to organise and resist together. These are women who — revitalised by the recent resurgence of feminism in the region[6] — want to be seen as comrades and useful cadres in the resistance of this town against the forces of neoliberalism.

Spanish — a gendered language — opens an interesting line of enquiry here.[7] Gender, more specifically masculinity, is present everywhere in the signifiers of this film, from Río Turbio (a male murky river), to the name of the local tailor shop (Casa Luisito), passing through the name of the streets (Avenida de los Mineros). But interestingly, the Spanish world for the mine is mina. It is interesting because mina is not only a female noun in Spanish — it is also the slang for woman, as much as “chick”, “broad”, “bird”, etc, in English. This is a mina in which women can’t enter, that permits only men . Why? I am sure there’s enough here for a psychoanalytical reading of male heterosexual fears but the banishment is excused in a more straightforward way. Women are forbidden to enter because if they go in the mine they’ll anger some mythical “Black Widow”, unleashing disaster for the miners who work down there. What role does this superstitious misogyny serve? Perhaps the purpose of displacing the frustrations and fears of the (mostly)[8] male miners towards something they might be able to understand? Because it is always easier to blame bad luck for any tragedy than assume one’s role as a pawn, in what is by all means, a dog eat dog world.

Beyond the violence implicit in any patriarchal society, and even because of it, these are men that long for women, need them. They drag them to the town (traídas a la fuerza); they organise beauty pageants to choose the Queen of Charcoal;[9] they have a robot with a female voice in the mine; they name their machines after women; they listen to the romantic songs of Eros Ramazotti when on their own. And they also commit acts of sexual violence against them. We find out at passing early in the film that the director has been the victim of one of these acts, as mentioned above. And we learn later from an older woman, who tells us quite relaxed how they used to compare her to Ringo Bonavena — a famous Argentine boxer — for her ability to keep gropers in check, responding to male physical violence with a physical violence of her own.

What is clear, both from the other women whose words and voices we hear and read and from Tatiana Mazú’s film, is that new generations of women won’t normalise male violence and silence in the same way as previous generations. Things have changed, women have changed. Perhaps the mine won’t ever be a welcoming space, for men or for women. Sooner than later their absence from the mine will be their decision, and not the result of some superstitious misogyny.[10]

***

As I finish writing this essay the Taliban regains control of Afghanistan, after a pointless twenty-year American war; the future of women’s rights in the courtly remains uncertain. A few days ago a young incel[11] went on a killing spree in Plymouth, UK, murdering five and killing himself, frustrated by his inability to find a girlfriend. Rarely a week goes by in Argentina without a femicide making it to the front pages of the national press — official figures for the first half of 2021 is of one femicide every thirty-one hours[12]; of course not all of these make it to the news. The situation is dire in many other places. The global pandemic and lockdowns all over the world didn’t make the situation better for women, needless to say.[13]

In a world in which it’s easy to fall into ridiculous online spats over what constitutes feminism or not[14], in which posturing and theory are many times more important than praxis, most battles are still fought on the ground, in real life, without much publicity, over urgent matters like employment rights, abortion rights, an end to gender violence, specially in the Global South. Sometimes the ones fighting those fights are granted a louder voice and an audience. For that we need to thank Tatiana Mazú and her outstanding Río Turbio.

References

BBC. 2021. Obituary: Former Argentine President Carlos Menem. 

Booth, Tom et al. 2020. Argentina legalises abortion in landmark moment for women’s rights. The Guardian.

Borges, Jorge Luis. 1962. El Aleph. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. London: Continuum, 2005.

Echeverría, E. 2001. El matadero / La cautiva. Madrid: Cátedra.

Kluger, Jeffrey. 2021. Domestic Violence Is a Pandemic Within the COVID-19 Pandemic. Time.

Nahón, C. 2004. La tragedia de Río Turbio. Un caso testigo del fracaso del programa privatizador de los noventa. VI Jornadas de Sociología. Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, 2004. 

O’Malley RL, Holt K, Holt TJ. 2020. An Exploration of the Involuntary Celibate (Incel) Subculture Online. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Serrill, Michael. 1990. Argentina: The Painted Faces. Time

Sakshi Venkatraman. 2020. A gender neutral Spanish pronoun? For some, ‘elle’ is the word. NBC News. 

Telam. 2021. Se registró un femicidio cada 31 horas durante el primer semestre de 2021. Telam.

Notes

[1] Menem (1930-2021), who served two terms from 1989 until 1999, was one of the most controversial democratically elected presidents of Argentina, not only due to his embrace of the most brutal neoliberalism but by the corruption of his administration. See BBC, 2021, for more on this.

[2] The company, which from then on was known as Yacimientos Carboníferos Río Turbio, was re-nationalised in 2002, after filing for bankruptcy, in a revealing example of how criminally flawed were many of the claims of inefficiency used to justify the privatization of state-owned companies during the Menem administration. Most companies sold during the 1990s were reacquired at a later date, many during the different Kirchner administrations (2003-2015), obviously not at the bargain price with which they were offloaded.

[3] See Carolina Nahón, 2004, for a study of the history of YCF’s privatization and the poor working conditions that ended with what is known as “La tragedia de Río Turbio”.

[4] Perhaps a better translation for the title would have been Murky River, due to the ideas of darkness, gloom, dubious morality, but also mist that the word “murky” connotes. All of these ideas are very much visible and alluded to in the film, but not all them are necessarily present in the word “shady”.

[5] In the film we learn that the women in the town are known as either “traídas a la fuerza” (dragged by force” or “nacidas y críadas” (born and bred). The patriarchal violence in the first type recalls a recurrent figure in the history of Argentine literature: “la cautiva”, a captive woman, generally a white woman kidnapped by aboriginals after a battle — women as spoils of war. Examples of this figure can be found in Esteban Echeverría’s narrative poem “La cautiva” (1837), and Jorge Luís Borges’s Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva (1949), among others. This aspect is particularly resounding if we think that, according to the film, the miners call the pit “el frente” (the front) — going to the mine is like going to war. Whether in the pit or the actual battle front, patriarchal violence always finds its way to treat women as commodities.

[6] A non-Latin American viewer might miss the subtle reference to the Green Tide, as this new wave of feminism in the region came to be known. This happens when the director’s aunt asks her, over a Whatsapp message, to send her green handkerchiefs, which can’t be found in Río Turbio. A green handkerchief is the symbol adopted by feminist activists in Latin America, specially in recent protests against gender violence and during the campaign for the legalisation of abortion in Argentina. As a side note to this side note, in December 2020 Argentina legalised abortion — a clear triumph for this new generation of feminist activists. SeeBooth et al 2020 for more details.

[7] It is true that this gendered nature is currently being challenged, particularly by younger users who continue to find innovative ways to deliver a gender-neutral version. But we are still far from adopting these ways as the rule — it’ll take generations for this to become natural, particularly for older speakers. See Sakshi Venkatraman, 2020 for more details.

[8] The only woman allowed in the mine, Clara, was born as a man and changed gender later in life. The fact that she is admitted in the space of the mine would merit an essay of its own.

[9] There’s a scene in which we see the director’s aunt as a fifteen year old, participating in this beauty pageant. Here she is crowned Queen of Charcoal 1988-1989. In a previous scene we find out from one of her text messages, that unlike previous queens she wasn’t crowned the 4th of December, due to a military mutiny, which took place the previous day, 3rd of December. This refers to the last mutiny by the Carapintadas, a group of servicemen who during the 80s mutinied several times in order to oppose ongoing trials or prison sentences for crimes during the 76-83 dictatorship. The problem is that this last mutiny took place in 1990, a year later. Is this an intentional “error” or one born out of the difficulty of holding on to memory over time? See Serrill, 1990, for a contemporary report of this final uprising.

[10] The film makes it clear that the mine is not a space where anyone should have to go. I don’t think Mazú’s point is to argue that women should have a right to become miners, as if participation in this dangerous and badly-paid labour was some form of emancipation. I make this clarification, as it is quite normal in liberal feminist circles to celebrate women’s participation in spaces that whether male or female are toxic: for example, the army. Feminism’s quest for emancipation doesn’t have as an end having “other kin” drone pilots but eradicating patriarchal power structures.

[11] Involuntary celibate. A member of an online subculture of people (mainly men), who find a common cause in their inability to find sexual and romantic partners. See O’Malley et al, 2020.

[12] See Telam, 2021.

[13] Domestic violence went through the roof since January 2020. See Kluger, 2021.

[14] Is manspreading a feminist issue? To name just one.

Fernando Sdrigotti was born in Rosario (Argentina) in 1977. His fiction and critical writing has appeared widely online and in print, and has been translated into French, Italian, Turkish, Norwegian, Arabic, Bosnian and Spanish. 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.

Shady River screens Thursday 9 September at 18.20, at Bertha DocHouse. Tickets for the screening are available here.