The memory of war and the potentiality of cinema
Rui Simões’ film War or peace (2012), which opened the I Fronteira, presents a powerful reflection on war, on its shared memory and on its disturbing consequences. Its personal motivation and its autobiographical sense give the film its interrogative drive, which is sometimes lost, however, due to the length of some testimonies, while the stylistic diversity which characterizes the film is able hold spectatorial attention throughout its unfolding.
If the “heart of darkness” Joseph Conrad talks about in his famous novel did not cease to exist, as one of the last voices which can be heard in the documentary, produced by Real Ficção, founded by Simões in 1986, and war is not the exception, but the rule, that which seems to be normal, to know one of its most dramatic moments is fundamental for anyone who wants to understand the present. War or peace participates in the diversified filed of cinematographic approaches of war, specifically of the colonial war conducted by the fascist regime of António de Oliveira Salazar and, after 1968, Marcello Caetano, against the people of the Portuguese colonies in Africa, who sought their political independence, in the broader context of decolonization movements. The singularity of Simões’ approach stems from the group on which he focuses: deserters and refractories of the Portuguese colonial war, that is, those who actually moved away from war, trying to escape its most ominous reach.
The director himself belongs to such a heterogeneous collectivity, whose testimonies are interwoven, in the film, with archival footage depicting the Salazarist regime’s parades, military operations and the locations involved in the conflicts, even if they are far from each other. The archival footage - taken from Simões’ first documentary film, Deus, Pátria, Autoridade (1976), and from Le Saut (1967), by Christian de Chalonge - helps to create a common place for the testimonies, a space where, in the pace of an uneven montage, their differences are held together by the thread of collective memory. Indeed, the film shows that the memory of war is also the memory of those who refuse it, of those who challenge its necessity, of those who question its legitimacy. The film dedicates a conventional documentary approach to this minor memory of war, while remaining stylistically open to invention.
One of the most striking features of War or peace’s style is its subtle use of what may be considered a characteristically experimental procedure: the distortion of sound elements. For conveying the destructive nature of war and the idea that the Portuguese fascist regime’s claim to African territories is untenable, Simões distorts the often repeated colonial slogan “Angola é nossa!” (“Angola is ours!”). While dominant fictional conventions of film narrative style include the use of visual and sound distortions to represent subjective conditions, like a character’s altered state of mind, the use of such expressive resource for conveying ideas remains scarce, at most, in documentary filmmaking. War or peace puts distortion to work as a conceptual device, whose meaning supplements the film’s more conventional staging of the testimonies as interviews.
Conventional documentary style is not a problem in itself, especially if we consider its relationship, within the film’s formal construction, to other expressive resources. By alternating between usual ways of staging interviews - when the characters are framed mainly in medium shots, and the camera occasionally zooms to a close up of the faces and expressions, in order to produce some sort of dramatic effect - and less usual forms of conveying ideas - the already mentioned distortion of the colonial slogan or the use of animation to invest drawings with different meanings - Rui Simões is able to keep the spectator’s attention in the film’s dense interweaving of stories.
The personal stories of those who fled Portugal and its colonial war reveal a less known part of the country’s recent past, but also become a way of interrogating its present. The movements of decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s were crucial for the demise of the fascist regime which ruled over Portugal and its African colonies from 1933 to 1974. The stories which compose War or peace interweave different social spaces and cultural locations, sometimes coding them through the vocabulary of institutional political affiliation (fascism, communism, parties etc.), sometimes ascribing them some sort of affective meaning. Colonialism, racism, miscegenation and cultural and national identity are some of the complex themes which cross the testimonies, whose fabric remains constituted by deep affective and emotional underpinnings.
While we see cases of families which were torn apart and reshaped due to the movement of some of its members across national borders, and friendships which were lost or born due to expatriation, as well as new affective worlds which were invented because of the need to live beyond war, the film creates a portrait of the political transformations that led to the promises of return, when coming back to Portugal after April 25 would seem to put an end to the perverse adventure of exile. But just like there is no end to the heart of darkness and to war, there is no end to the fight for a better life. War or peace is also an ambivalent, if suggestive, interrogation of the present. When one of its characters, Myriam Zaluar, born in exile after her father and her mother met in France, in the 1960s, reads a letter addressed to Portugal’s Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coleho, she poignantly recalls her parents itinerary, while refusing to repeat the experience of exile today. Maybe exile is a permanent condition of the unprivileged, especially in the current global crisis. But home is to be found in unexpected places, as many of the interviewees discovered. Indeed, War or peace seems to suggest that cinema shelters a unique potentiality of creating worlds in which, eventually, it is possible to live at home.
Professor de história e teoria do cinema da Faculdade de Comunicação da UFBA, em Salvador. Nascido em São Paulo, de onde saiu aos 9 anos de idade, já morou em Goiânia, Brasília, Florianópolis e Montréal. É pesquisador e crítico de cinema e cultura visual, programador e curador de mostras e festivais de cinema, doutor em Arte e Cultura Visual, com pesquisa sobre cinema e direitos humanos. É indeciso e nervoso, tenta ser leve e cuidadoso, consegue ser magro e comer muito.
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