Prisoners clean the corridors, one of the few times they are let out of their cells and can communicate with each other. In this shot of Maria, Felix, and the electrician, dark walls create sense of constriction.

The electrician is one of several characters based on a real-life prisoner.

Diane reports Maria's kidnapping to the police. Conventional lighting makes the world she moves in seem normal, but this environment is intimately connected to clandestine prisons and torture centers.

While Diane searches for her daughter, Maria tries fruitlessly to call home from her cell.

Diane signs her house over to Texas in exchange for Maria's release.

Once he has secured the house, Texas kills Diane and throws her body out of a green Ford Falcon, the car driven by the paramilitary during Argentina's Dirty War.

Maria runs toward the light in an effort to escape.

Maria's figure is barely discernable from the point of view of those inside the clandestine prison, caught in darkness, who look out into an almost preternatural daylight.

The camera stays still as Maria's dark head, now in the center of the frame, begins to block out natural light.

As Maria and Texas come into focus, their dark figures block the daylight.

Fully reintegrated back into the clandestine prison, Maria is forced to leave the light behind her.

After her failed escape attempt, Maria is subjected to a mock execution. Shot from above, the scene emphasizes Maria's utter vulnerability to her captors.

Maria looks up at the camera with Texas's gun at the back of her head.

By superimposing the crane shot of the mock execution over a close-up of Maria's face, Bechis calls attention to shot construction in an uncharacteristic way.

Texas shoots into the floor as Maria lowers her head and prepares for death. The moral darkness of the male figure is reiterated by his shadow.

As Maria hears the shot, the camera jumps and loses focus.

Texas walks out of the frame, leaving Maria in the middle, rolled into a ball.  His upright stride contrasts with her balled-up immobility.

An aerial view of Buenos Aires captures the iconic monument on 9th of July Avenue.

Another aerial view of the city, this time at night. Later we understand that these aerial scenes represent death flights, which take place at all hours.

In an oblique reference to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Diane and other mothers of disappeared warn each other that the priest taking confession is gathering information for the government on dissidents.

The prisoners' vision is cut off by their blindfolds, and the spectator's vision is compromised by the metal grating.

The bright daylight makes Garage Olimpo's squalid door look ordinary. Ironically a well-lit, unobstructed view can also compromise vision.

An illuminated darkness and a blindfolded Maria play out a complex relation between dark and light, sight and sightlessness.

Maria and her comrade enact a conventional heterosexual narrative, kissing to evade arrest, as they are surveyed by the paramilitary in the inevitable green Falcon.

Tigre's daughter cajoles her father, suggesting a quasi-incestuous relationship.


Cinema of witness

I have gone into considerable detail recounting the film, not only because it is unlikely that many readers of Jump Cut will have seen Garage Olimpo, but because once I saw it I was recruited into its field of action. Speaking of Holocaust narrative (the theorizing on which, together with scholarship on Latin American testimonio, informs much of my thinking here[7]), Berel Lang notes that “all Holocaust writing aspires to the condition of history” (Lang , 2000, cited in Lang, 2004, 281). Similarly, Bechis intends to make sure that the history is written and disseminated to an ever-increasing number of individuals, not only so that its victims might be remembered, but also as a warning against the repetition of the atrocity. As Bechis has announced, “My artistic expression was born from the need to bear witness” (“Cine e historias”)[8]; but he knows he faces a reluctant public:

"We’re doing a big publicity campaign so that people will know that the film is there, so that people who were not directly involved will learn what happened. In this society the distinction between those who were involved and those who weren’t seems obvious. On the one hand, those who were closely touched by this thing because something happened to them or because they knew someone, and on the other hand, those who weren’t. For them, it doesn’t exist" (Gallotta, “Entrevista”).[9]

As one of a number of films concerning state and paramilitary violence in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, Garage Olimpo makes considerable emotional and political demands upon its audience.[10] One sympathetic critic, acknowledging his own adolescent ignorance of the clandestine prisons depicted in the film, describes himself during the Proceso as “worried by school, annoyed by censorship in the movies, wrapped up in soccer” (Noriega).[11] He goes on to remark:

"What I feel is not a sense of guilt that is eased over time: there is nothing I could have done during that period that would have allowed me to see Garage Olimpo without feeling just as miserable. Because it is the profound shame of being Argentinean, of being human, of belonging to the species that is capable of such behavior. We are contaminated, we always will be. Garage Olimpo brought back that that sense of shame and I, personally, am grateful for it."[12]

Yet even before Garage Olimpo made its emotional and political demands on its spectators, it was an intervention that commanded public space. The splashy publicity campaign that began with the close-up poster of a blindfolded Antonella Costa was followed by plastering the city with a variety of iconic images of the dictatorship:

"The week of the film’s debut, and the following weeks, the city began to be papered with blindfolded eyes and other images. Major streets — Corrientes, Santa Fe, Callao, Córdoba, Palermo, Barrancas, etc. Bus stops, subways. But now it wasn’t just blindfolded eyes. There were also images of armed soldiers, documents being burned, a passport, a plane with the Argentine flag flying over the water. The idea was that these images would invade the city, the people, what they saw. That the blindfold would begin to fall. 'You haven’t seen anything….'” (Gallota, “‘No has visto nada....’”).[13]

It is common enough for cultural expression in Latin America to be a medium for expressing dissenting beliefs and for provoking conversation about issues that the state –and some sectors of society-- would just as soon keep quiet. Novels as well as newspapers, narrative cinema as well as documentary films, have become part of the historical record, both as historical documents and as historiographical reflection on an era. With Garage Olimpo, Bechis participates in the creation of this historical archive, making memory under conditions of erasure, or within a struggle between inscription and erasure. There is nothing natural about the archive, however; it is not the ultimate reality. It is, rather the agreed-upon storehouse of material for remembering. Without the archive, claims of historical truth have no authority; the archive enables the legitimate construction of the past, because it contains the acceptable material for that construction. By amassing, culling, and representing historical material, the film announces itself as an authorizing text, not least because it provides a basis for action for its audience.

Bechis' stated intention to bring the recent history of Argentina into public discussion recalls Berel Lang’s observation that “reflection on the Holocaust also forces the viewer into history — in contrast to leaving him in the role of bystander.” (Lang, 2000, 150). The construction of the audience for Garage Olimpo is equivalent to the construction of the active citizen. In commentaries on the film, Bechis overtly links its Argentine spectators to the film’s subjects, their disappeared compatriots. Both groups, he observes, numbered around 30,000. In this implicit matching-up of viewers and victims in Bechis' arithmetic: one spectator for each disappeared man or woman, Bechis imagines a kind of personalized identification for each one of his spectators (Bechis).

Bechis' arithmetic of identification figures the transformation of viewer into political actor. But whereas the classic mode of political interpellation in the theater is the Brechtian scene that deliberately distances the viewer from the stage action, and whereas commentators on Holocaust film such as Gertrud Koch and Miriam Hansen similarly recommend avoiding the identification associated with narrative cinema, Bechis embraces narrative. He pulls us into the story, engulfs us in image and sound.

Bechis' choice to represent the extreme violence of the period, defies, in a way, the biblical injunction against making graven images. The prohibition against making pictures of God resonates with the reluctance to show the violence perpetrated on the victims of the Dirty War, as both would preclude the diminution of reality in favor of a mere referent. The representation of the Proceso’s practices risks reducing suffering to just another instance of generic film violence, or sentimentalizing and thereby containing it. In facing the conundrum of how to bear filmic witness, after the fact, to a historical moment that many would dearly prefer to relegate to forgetting, Bechis' response is not to avoid narrative cinema, but to utilize its conventions and techniques to draw the viewer in and to keep us watching.

The film’s two stories move along chronologically as if to an inevitable outcome. There is little release from the tension, although the scenes outside the garage allow the viewer to escape, for a time, the constricted space of the torture center. Moreover there is nothing sentimentally optimistic about the film. The moment of triumph — the assassination of the camp’s commandant, is immediately recuperated by the terrorist state, so that Maria’s death appears to be a direct result of that brief triumph.

Gertrude Koch argues that narrative cinema reinscribes the spectator in a regime of repression, and that only avant-garde cinema, with its refusal of narrative realism, and especially montage, which refuses the singularity of the image, can “break the fetish character of a cinema of illusions”(23). Bechis, nevertheless, traffics in what Koch disparages as the “continued presence of the depicted in the depiction.” Like Bechis, I value such presence, understanding it as that which is produced in community and, in the context of Latin American political movements of the 1960s and 70s, claims to advance political struggle against state oppression.[14]

By depicting both the torture center and the resistance, Bechis keeps them present — perhaps dangerously so. Bechis takes the risk, gambling that the result will be change and healing. Whereas much psychoanalytic film criticism faults narrative cinema for lulling the spectator with its artificial seamlessness, preferring avant-garde cinema’s display of disruption and discontinuity, the story line of Garage Olimpo is relatively straightforward and chronological. Despite the jagged interruptions of his aerial shots, Bechis is not overly given to montage, preferring blackouts between scenes. Yet Bechis' realism avoids Hollywood's hyper-reality. He does not build replica sets, but rather uses the ever-changing cityscape that is, to the knowing eye, different in 1999 than it was in 1980. The film engages the viewer in a continuing history of a real place, even as it refuses to be historically “accurate.” Ultimately, then, Bechis does not entirely enclose us in the narrative; he leaves us a sliver of Brechtian space.

Garage Olimpo is replete with historical references: the imprisoned electrician Mario Villani who, while detained in the ESMA, was given the choice between repairing an electric cattle prod used as an instrument of torture or allowing the torture to continue with live wires; the police chief assassinated by a bomb placed by his daughter’s friend; the name of the clandestine prison “Garage Olimpo” which echoes both a torture center called “Olimpo” and car repair shops that were converted to that purpose. Similarly the commandant is called “el Tigre,” recalling the nickname of the Chief of Intelligence, Jorge Acosta, who was tried for eighty-two crimes, including the kidnapping and torture of two French nuns. The film also rehearses events and situations characteristic of the period: attacks on homes to kidnap political prisoners, family members making the rounds of police stations to locate the missing, Church complicity with civil authorities, death flights and their drugged victims, swindling the families of the disappeared, ordinary spaces turned into torture centers, the sexual abuse of both male and female prisoners, threats of execution, disappearance itself, and the details of torture — all of which impart information and expose a hidden history. This accumulation of testimony distinguishes Garage Olimpo from conventional historical narrative film, which, although it may tell its story somewhere fairly high on the authenticity spectrum, makes different claims upon the spectator.

The relationship between the reality and its representation is complicated, and Bechis' own cinematic choices, including his decision to cast himself as a torture victim, make it more so. The narrative form and the fictionalization of the central characters distinguish the film from documentary, which aims for narrativization without fictionalization, purporting a transparent medium for accuracy, reportage, and even truth. Nevertheless the fiction of Bechis' film seems to have invaded history. The website of Argentina’s Ministry of Education, Science and technology lists “El Garage Olimpo” as a real torture center.

Bechis, however, refuses absolute mimesis in telling his story. The film accumulates true-to-life details and events, but it is not a reconstruction of the era. Instead, representation gives way to representativity. Bechis talks in interviews about the relevance of the film to similar events in other countries, effectively undercutting any reification of Argentine experience, and he is not interested in accuracy of detail:

"Cinematographically I wasn’t interested in an exact historic reconstruction. So if there are two bottles of Quilmes beer that are today’s, or if 9 de Julio Avenue isn’t the way it looked then, I don’t care. I wasn’t interested in the little details that the movies are always very careful with. I didn’t want the wardrobe to be too 70’s. In fact the story doesn’t tell too much of the history of the time, but all the basic elements that were important to me were all there, basically they were in the reconstruction of the daily life of the camp, the things that happened every day. For me the key to understanding that horror wasn’t the forty year old bad guy with a moustache. Those things are already out there, and they’ve had their success" (Gallotta, “Entrevista”).[15]

Counter-intuitively, Bechis' juxtaposition of historical detail at the level of the events depicted, and anachronism in terms of the visual details of the film, make the film more, rather than less, compelling. The anachronism of contemporary fashion, just a few years after the fact, keeps us focused on the action and on Maria’s psychological deterioration. An attempt to recreate the hair styles and clothing of the period would have set the film too firmly in a past that may be recent, but that has been superceded. Instead, Bechis immerses us in a past that is still present among the survivors and the families of those who did not survive. The film is a reminder of that presence. Moreover, this slippage between past and present ties what happened during the Dirty War to the contemporaneous moment in which the film was made, as if to say, “this isn’t over yet.” The film itself, then, is part of the process, not just a representation of Argentine state terror; but an artifact of it.

Paradoxically, historical precision often distracts the viewer; it would have turned this film into a period piece. The image in Bechis' film is not intended to be an accurate re-presentation of history. It is, as Keith Cohen (citing Pierre Francastel) notes, a relay to, not a facsimile of, reality. Bechis' anachronism is subtle, but it is sufficient to rescue the film from the oversimplification inherent in the pretense of representability.

Bechis claims to have cast the film "anti-cinematographically," paying no attention to creating visual contrast between background and costume, or even among the characters, so that the spectator could easily distinguish between them (Gallotta, “Entrevista”). The care with which Bechis structures the film, juxtaposed with the deliberate casualness with which he treats the basic rules of cinematic composition, creates just enough visual friction to keep the viewer from succumbing entirely to narrative pleasure. The artistry of the film — that it does not try for perfect re-creation, that it doesn't give us the triumphal ending, that it deals with complex emotional issues — works to make us feel most deeply, to create a visceral memory.

The film recaptures a grab-bag of actual practices and individual incidents. The text produced around them incorporates them into a single narrative, in a kind of process of incrustation of detail that then is circulated in both print and electronic media. These commentaries on the film add further details, such as the number of disappeared (Bechis uses the figure cited by human rights agencies: 30,0000) and the number of detention centers in and around Buenos Aires (there were approximately 350), make us aware that much of what is represented in the film is taken from, and supports a particular version of, the historical archive. Bechis' embrace of partiality provides the space for commentators on the film to bring this additional material to bear, to increase the store and dissemination of knowledge about this history of state violence.

To the extent that Garage Olimpo has generated worldwide discussion in newspapers, on the Internet, and even in scholarly journals like this one, it has been successful in its attempt to enter into the contested terrain of determining just what the years 1976-84 were about in Argentina. As such, Bechis' work has been received, especially in Argentina, as a cinema of witness. Dora Apo, writing on the web site of the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, says:

"Film is a potent medium. For the first time it shows the horror; I don't remember that this particular theme has been put on the screen before. For me, and for many others, there is no other purpose in the film than the exercise of memory."[16]

Analía Iglesias characterizes the film as “the oral tradition put on the screen.”[17] Gustavo Noriega notes that “the memory that Garage Olimpo leaves persists with time, like a stain, like filth.”[18] Ismael Alonso says, simply, “Seeing this movie helps us not to forget.”[19] What all these comments suggest is that the film is part of a project to develop something similar to what Marianne Hirsch has called postmemory, but that in the more recent Argentine situation might be more precisely understood as prosthetic memory.[20]

Postmemory describes the effort to maintain the visceral, affective, and ethical response to the Holocaust in the face of the loss of the primary bearers of memory, who are now increasingly aged and dying. Postmemory suggests the time after memory, when the primary bearers of memory are no longer alive to do the remembering themselves. In contrast, Garage Olimpo addresses a deliberate suppression of memory: the legal decision of the punto final, which functioned as a statute of limitations for those implicated in state terror, and the wish to let sleeping dogs lie. The prosthetic memory of Garage Olimpo is an intervention meant to keep this recent past alive in the endless present of film. Prosthetic memory is a manufactured memory that can be strapped on by those who lived through the era without acknowledging what was going on around them and therefore did not develop any memory of their own of the events; or for those who knew what was going on, but who, with no personal experience, formed no primary memory of state terror. The manufacturers of these memory prostheses do not simply create memory for a new generation, but, more critically, they reveal the nation’s common past to the light of day for those who were there but who lived in the sunny world outside the torture centers.

Narrative is one preferred vehicle for such prosthetic memory, whether it is the testimony gathered and published by truth commissions, prose fiction that revisits the period, theater that stages its scenes for live audiences, or films like Garage Olimpo. Another vehicle for prosthetic memory is ritual, one example of which is the cyclic repetition of such symbolic practices as the Thursday gatherings of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, now inscribed on the very pavement of that city square with painted images of white headscarves and the outlines of the bodies of the disappeared. Attending a film also requires a kind of ritual and the submission of the body. You must choose to attend, pay to enter and view, agree to join an audience and obey the rules of cinema attendance.

The narrative trajectory of film, its movement across the eye, its engagement of the ear, differentiate it profoundly from the unmoving monument, which is why the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, determined to keep the wounds inflicted by the state open, have opposed the proposal to build a monument to the disappeared. In contrast to the reification and closure provided by the monument, Bechis gives the spectator a visceral experience of the torture center. Whereas monuments are fixed in place and eventually become part of the landscape, narratives of state terror allow us to remember viscerally. Bechis' tightly structured film induces what Laura Marks calls a haptic, rather than an optic, experience. The haptic film takes the path of the body, the visceral experience inscribed on the viewer’s skin.

The haptic film takes a fast track to the unconscious via the direct route of visual images, sound as well as sight, and a familiar narrative line. Like dreams in reverse, films start from the outside and make their way into the subconscious. Film presents us with far more visual and aural information than we can process consciously. The size of the image, the speed with which the information gets to the brain, the quantity of information in any single frame, and the implied action between frames (especially in jump cuts) all intensify the power of the visual image. The fact that someone else is rolling the film, that in order to stop the process we have to close our eyes, or get up and walk out, knowing that breaking the action that way likely means that we will not get to pick it up where we left off, as we can when we are reading a written text. We are simply more at the mercy of the filmic narrative than of the written narrative.

Certainly, it is distressing to watch the scenes of cold-blooded brutality, terrifying to watch the slow wearing away of the protagonist's sense of power, self-worth, and ability to affect her surroundings as these are systematically taken from her. For someone who has gone through this or who has close friends or relatives who have, it may be too close to watching the real thing. Furthermore, narrative cinema works to make us identify with the central characters. Much has been written about the scopic pleasure of cinema, of the ways in which film cues us to be viewers, to gaze. But we are also asked to interiorize the experiences of the characters, and we are unable to alter their story. We cannot make the torture stop, we cannot make the mother not be led to believe her daughter will be saved through her own sacrifice and then be murdered. We cannot stop the death flights.

(Continued: Gendered narratives of terror and resistance)

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