copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006
Marco Bechis’ Garage Olimpo:
Cinema of witness
by Amy Kaminsky
Rafa: “Yo, el cine argentino no lo veo.” […]
Juan Carlos: “Yo, la realidad argentina, no la veo.”
(El hijo de la novia/Son of the Bride)
[Rafa: “Me, I don’t see Argentine movies.” (…)
Juan Carlos: Me, I don’t see Argentine reality] 
Although Garage Olimpo was nominated for awards at festivals all over Europe and Latin America, Marco Bechis' film never had a commercial release in the United States, and it had very limited success in Argentina. Before it opened in Buenos Aires in September 1999, the city’s fashionable shopping malls were plastered with the film’s compelling poster: the face of its star, Antonella Costa, blindfolded, beneath blood-red lettering on a black background. The Australian owner of the malls was perfectly happy to sell advertising space to display this image (Gallotta, “Entrevista”). However, during the first week of the run, box office workers in the upscale cineplexes showing the movie told patrons that the film was sold out (Beladrich). This meant not only that those who wanted to see Garage Olimpo did not get in, but that first-week receipts were so low that the film was largely withdrawn from circulation. By the time I got to Buenos Aires in late December, the only theater showing Garage Olimpo was a small downtown cinema devoted to national films.
Residual censorship and the ethics of silence
This box office censorship, oddly tempered by the free speech of the marketplace (or at least of the shopping malls) echoes the censorship of the period of the Argentine Proceso (1976-1984), during which time state control of discourse made it virtually impossible for anyone other than those sanctioned by the state to name national reality and to write national history.After 1984, many feared that repression would return if the history of the Proceso from the perspective of its victims were too boldly written. As Nelly Richard points out in the similar case of post-Pinochet Chile, the transition to democracy was marked by an intense focus on the present that turned the recent past into a blur inimical to the formation of memory. Bechis encountered not only this residual censorship, but also an expectation of reverential silence: representing the pain of the victims might well trivialize it. Beginning famously with Adorno, who said that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, and continuing to the present with Berel Lang’s concern about who has the authority to write the story of the victims of the Holocaust, we are confronted with the possibility that the great evils of the 20th century might be sublimated into art, or, worse, be converted into mass entertainment (Lang, 2000). By these lights, Bechis treads dangerously, deliberately fictionalizing events and using popular cinema's techniques and tropes to engage his audience. Yet in the end, Berel Lang grants the authentic voice permission to speak, and even Adorno reconsidered his famous dictum, saying: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems” (362). Or make films.
Perhaps most important, the writers, artists, and filmmakers who are engaging with the question of memory of the Argentine Dirty War are those who have been touched by the events themselves, directly or indirectly. Certainly the contributors to the influential Argentine cultural review Punto de Vista [Point of View] believe that remembering is vital, and that however problematic, representations and memorializations of the abuse of power during the Dirty War are necessary. As a filmmaker bearing witness, Bechis strains against obstacles, ultimately refusing to be silenced. Nevertheless, as his marginal success in dealing with the barriers he encountered at the level of distribution indicate, Bechis' ability to overcome these obstacles is limited. Ironically, one of the most obstinate is the sense of exhaustion on the part of Argentineans who claim that they have heard enough about the Dirty War.
In addition to the limits on representation imposed by residual censorship, economic roadblocks, ethical injunctions against turning other people’s misery into entertainment, and emotional exhaustion at being repeatedly confronted with scenes of brutalization, Bechis faces constraints intrinsic to film itself. Narrative cinema cannot seem to escape the reinscription of the female body as fetish or those discourses of power that in the end seem to be about, or symbolized by, heterosexual, patriarchal gender arrangements.
As one of the thousands of the detained and disappeared, whose Italian passport apparently saved him (after ten days in a torture center in 1976 he was expelled from the country), Marco Bechis can lay claim to the authority of personal experience from which to make his movie. He thus sidesteps the proscription against an outsider speaking for the victims of atrocity. His film, however, is not overtly autobiographical. It tells two interconnected stories, one of Maria, a young literacy worker living in genteel poverty with her French mother, who rents rooms to make ends meet. Their tenant, Felix, is in love with Maria, but she, his social superior, spurns him. Maria is subsequently kidnapped and taken to Garage Olimpo, a Buenos Aires car repair shop outfitted as a torture center, in which bored guards eat sandwiches, play ping pong, and listen to soccer matches between torture sessions and raids to round up more detainees. There Maria discovers that Felix is one of the torturers, and suddenly the power relation between them is inverted. The film follows Maria’s psychological disintegration under conditions of relative isolation and (implied) torture, in which Felix is her only link to her former world. He protects her from mass rape, brings her decent food and even fresh flowers. She becomes utterly dependent upon him and accepts him as her lover.
Toward the end of the film he orders her to shower and dress: he is taking her out of the garage on a parody of a date: they walk together, and she clings to his arm, in a kind of forced lock-step he imposes on her. She seems to try to escape, momentarily, unsuccessfully. He watches her on a child’s swing in a playground, they go to eat in a cheap cafeteria, and he takes her to a hotel, where they make love. She tries to call home, also unsuccessfully. When he returns her to the detention center, she is incorporated into a group of new prisoners.
The story of Maria and Felix, which takes place over a period of weeks, is framed by another story that takes place on the single day of their grotesque outing. The first image of the film, before the title, is an aerial shot that appears abstract — a roiling brown aqueous substance fills the screen. As the camera pans, the spectator recognizes the Río de la Plata, with Buenos Aires in the distance. The camera approaches the city and begins to track the progress of a bus. Bechis then cuts to the interior of the bus, following a young man who gets on, finds a seat, and hands the backpack he is carrying to a young woman sitting alone. She leaves the bus with the backpack, and the camera follows her into a well-appointed apartment building. Cut to the young woman bantering with two armed men guarding the apartment she is about to enter. She greets the school friend who is expecting her, and excuses herself to go to the bathroom. Instead, she enters a bedroom and places a bomb underneath the bed. We see the bomb being armed as if we were ourselves under the bed looking out. The young woman returns to her friend and tells her they must go out to go to a movie, but her friend says no — she has to get permission from her father first.
Very late in the film we will return to this scene: the intended target of the bomb returns home, and we recognize him as el Tigre (the Tiger), the commandant of the torture center. After a tense scene in which his daughter cajoles him with a flirtatious, quasi-incestuous promise of a foot massage when she returns, the two young women leave the house. He makes arrangements for dinner, and the camera follows him down the hallway to the bedroom, to return to the same tight low shot: focused on the bomb under the bed. After some tension-producing foreplay, the commandant walks past the bomb, sits on the bed to take off his boots; the bed and the bomb under it creak; he lies down and the bomb explodes.
This second narrative, taken from a real-life event, in which the school friend of the daughter of a police chief assassinated him with a home-made bomb, neatly frames the main story. But as we recall, the opening shots depicted not this intimate political murder, but rather the aerial view of the city. And indeed, Bechis closes with a return to the aerial shot. When the bomb goes off, we hear a load roar, but it is not the sound of the bomb exploding. It is the sound of still another weapon of death: the engine of a military airplane about to drop its cargo of drugged political prisoners into the river of the film’s opening shot. The camera cuts to what we can finally identify as an Argentine military plane. With this shift first via sound and then via sight, the viewer’s attention is immediately diverted from one scene of death to another. Cause and effect are confounded: el Tigre is killed because of these death flights — and the detentions and torture — that occur under his direction; and a new load of detainees is taken to be tossed out of a planes to their deaths. In the logic of the film's manifest chronology, Maria’s murder, together with that of the latest group of detainees, follows on el Tigre’s assassination.
The film’s grip of inevitability, created in part by its circular structure and its careful symmetry, is further tightened by a series of scenes threaded through the main narrative depicting the sequence of events leading toward the death flights. Each such scene represents a fragment of the process, each builds on the previous one, until we fully understand just what the procedure is that we are seeing. In the first of these scenes, Maria witnesses a group of detainees being given injections, told they are bound for transfer, and loaded onto a truck. A fellow prisoner tells her that, despite what the detainees are being told, he does not believe they are being transferred to another prison, nor that they will be released. In a later scene, the camera follows the prisoners into the truck, and each subsequent scene of this sort takes us closer to the final destination of the truck’s drugged passengers.
This slow repetition/progression reaches its apotheosis when Maria and Felix return from their grim date and Maria is incorporated into the line of incoming prisoners being loaded onto the truck. Felix is reprimanded for breaking the security of the detention center — he is no longer able to protect Maria. And the film ends with the death flight in the airplane whose engine we heard as the explosion of the bomb, thus linking the one with the other, not causally but metonymically.
The film’s chronology implies causality without asserting it, but Bechis ultimately withholds the narrative of a logic of causality. It appears that Maria is caught up in the machinery of torture because she rejects Felix, and that she is incorporated into the death flight because el Tigre has been assassinated. On closer scrutiny, we realize that any relation of causality is that of the larger system, the terrible coincidences that are inevitable in the regime of state terror.
The film’s elegant structure is complemented by its carefully designed and executed cinematography and use of sound. Bechis uses a hand-held camera and available light for the scenes in the garage, resulting in a documentary-style effect that intensifies the sense of lack of control experienced by the prisoners. It is hard to see all of what is happening in that half-light, and it is disconcerting to be visually jerked around by an unsteady camera. The film maintains a documentary stance in many of its scenes. The commandant’s office is almost always shot from outside, through an interior window, giving the partially obstructed view available to an unwelcome camera. In addition, the film’s single most graphic depiction of torture makes recourse to autobiography. Not only does Bechis cast himself in the role of the naked victim on the torture table, he also depicts the scenes of torture primarily through sound, remembering for the spectator that during his own 10-day detention he was kept blindfolded. Bechis' own witnessing was not visual but aural. Autobiography, the witnessing that might be thought as the most trustworthy, in fact demands the honesty of the limits of vision. Still, the only exact reproduction in the film is visual — the brief glance Bechis had of the prison corridor:
"The sound is what is autobiographical. I was held, for about ten days, in the Club Atlético, one of the camps they had in the city. […] Since I was blindfolded I didn’t see anything, only once did I lift the blindfold and through some bars I saw a corridor. When I was freed and I went to Italy I sketched that corridor and with that sketch I made the stage set. The set is exactly what that sketch looked like; I gave it to a set designer and I said I want this. It’s an exact reconstruction of what I saw from under my blindfold. And as for the sound, it’s not that I listened to those exact songs, that radio, it’s not that I heard those exact things, but what is exact is the thickness and the quality of the sound of that place, that is very much like what I remember" (Gallotta, “Entrevista”).
Bechis makes judicious use of crane shots of prisoners in cells, under torture, and threatened with imminent death. Just after her attempted escape, Maria is forced to her knees as the guard named Texas, whom we already have seen kill her mother, holds a gun to her head and slowly counts. The overhead shot increases the tension, which is released with the juxtaposition of the sound of the gun firing (into the floor as it turns out), and a cut to a frontal shot of Maria. The crane shots, together with images of the action seen indirectly, through the grainy, black and white closed-circuit cameras that allow for constant surveillance of both prisoners and guards, heighten the sense of claustrophobia. They reinforce the dictum that from this place there is no escape, a line that Felix repeats to Maria.
In contrast, Bechis shoots the scenes he refers to as “above ground” using conventional filmmaking equipment. The dollies and fixed cameras that do not call attention to their own artifice, and the panoramic aerial shots of an over-lit Buenos Aires, contrast strongly with the claustrophobia of the garage footage. Bechis shot the exterior scenes on very sunny days, creating an extreme contrast between the hidden, dark world of the detention center and the overly bright, almost blinding shots of the city and the conventionally lit interiors of the world aboveground. Thus the metaphors of above and below are actualized by the nature of the cinematography. The irony is that the scenes that are truly “above” — the aerial shots of the city — seem not to forward the narrative, but rather to interrupt it. The aerial shots of Buenos Aires that punctuate the film evoke the interior surveillance of the torture center; we observe the city from above.
These aerial shots, which promise a god’s eye view, or a bird’s, one beyond the realm of human ethics and the other not able to aspire to it, turn out to be about the death flights. The implication, which we come to draw only at the end of the film, is that day and night these planes dropped their human cargo. Until then, the multiple fragmentary scenes from the air seem disconnected from Maria’s story and the intermittent narrative of the detainees on the many trucks that blend into one. In the end, these scenes fall into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which, when completed, reveals the terrible secret of the death flights. To emphasize the centrality of this particular outrage, among the many depicted in the film, the movie ends with a postscript that informs the viewer that thousands were killed in this manner.
Light and dark, vision and deprivation of sight, are central themes of the film. Bechis intensifies the unrelenting, dark horrors of the torture center by contrasting them with the ordinariness of life that goes on right outside its doors. When Maria manages to make her way out, it is into a blinding light that others must find commonplace, but that from inside the garage looks like the gates of heaven. She is quickly found and returned to darkness and the blindfold. The control that the guards have over the ability of their prisoners to see or not see is central to the film’s insistence on the scopic: who sees, and under what conditions.
It is striking how often the prisoners are told to remove their blindfolds, permitted to see — and therefore potentially identify — their torturers. But here were are beyond the realm of the purely narrative and in the realm of the symbolic, so we note that the bright light of the city blinds the people in the streets to what is going on around them; giving them, perhaps a false sense of vision. Along the same lines, but in a return to the literal, the aerial shots of the city that impart the feeling of surveillance in fact do not permit us to see the details of what is occurring there. Paradoxically, light does not illuminate. Indeed, one of the horrors of the film is the way the life of the city continues. The Buenos Aires of the film is crowded, anonymous, rushed, and somewhat squalid — no one makes eye contact, there is a cacophony of sounds, the streets are run-down, and the people seem to be in a state of anomie.
Once Maria is kidnapped, the only human connection portrayed on the outside is the society of women trying to find their disappeared relatives. Maria’s mother, Diane, trying to locate her daughter, goes to the police station, where she meets a woman looking for her husband. In a later scene, in which a military priest hears the confession of women looking for their missing children and spouses — an apparent reference to the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo — she finds an underground community of desperate relatives who are neither part of the normal world of the outside, nor (yet) disappeared themselves. They are utterly isolated from the rest of society. Diane approaches one powerful man, an old friend, who says he cannot help her. She finally agrees to hand her house over to Texas, the guard who will later hold the gun to Maria’s head, in return for her daughter, or at least for the ability to see her. The transaction completed, Texas murders Diane. Maria, of course, never learns of her mother’s death, which makes her fruitless phone calls home all the more piteous.
Cinema of witness
I have gone into considerable detail recounting the film, not only because it is unlikely that many readers of JumpCut 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), 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”); 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”).
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. 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). 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."
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....’ ”).
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.
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”).
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."
Analía Iglesias characterizes the film as “the oral tradition put on the screen.” Gustavo Noriega notes that “the memory that Garage Olimpo leaves persists with time, like a stain, like filth.” Ismael Alonso says, simply, “Seeing this movie helps us not to forget.” 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.
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.
Gendered narratives of terror and resistance
With Garage Olimpo, Marco Bechis has crafted a film that elicits a bodily reaction. People leave the theater shaken and drained. But there is another level at which the body operates in this film as well, as it does in narrative cinema more generally. Laura Mulvey famously argued that narrative cinema both reinscribes the suppression of the feminine and exploits the female body by utilizing it as an immobilizing fetish. In other words, narrative cinema relies on the familiar regime of patriarchal heterosexuality, in which that which is seen is by definition under control, thereby giving pleasure, and, is symbolically, feminine, while the viewer is symbolically masculine. Moreover, projecting the image of the woman onto the screen reiterates and, therefore, reinforces this arrangement. The fetishization of femininity, materialized in the image of the woman’s body, serves as a limit to representation. Representation stops short at the boundary of the feminine; reified as fetish, it itself remains unrepresentable: it exists only as the projection of masculine desire, bound up with the masculine fear of castration.
However, this particular narrative film confronts the fetish head on. It does so by making castration one of its themes, representing it literally in the scenes of genital torture performed on a naked man, and symbolically via the iconic image of the blindfolded woman. Moreover, it renders both characters figuratively impotent in the face of an authoritarian regime. The film follows the breaking of one defiant woman by the apparently impotent male, who, in the realm of hyperpatriarchy that is the police state, strips her of all power and forces her into a position of utter dependence upon him. It also depicts the active resistance of another woman who succeeds in her attack on a member of the police state.
The central story of the film depicts not a battle between two political entities, the repressive state and the armed opposition to that state, but between the state as patriarch violently repressing women’s agency as sexual and maternal beings. This channeling of the story of political repression is not incidental, but in fact overdetermined. The filmmaker finds the most affecting manner of denouncing state violence to be the depiction of the brutalization of innocence, virtue, vulnerability, and beauty, all embodied in the feminine. The victim is by definition feminine in its very subordination. The most easily deciphered metaphor for the brutalization of a people is heterosexual rape. Here thanks to the actual practices of the Proceso, the figure is not metaphoric but metonymic: rape was one among many modes of torture it employed.
Presenting the story of female victimization and the sexualization of the victim under a torture regime alongside a story that portrays a woman who exercises her political agency destabilizes the notion of women’s passivity. During the Proceso, the discourse of order, obedience to authority, and patriotism used by the right was highly gendered. A true man defended nation and protected his family. A true woman tended lovingly to her children, and their behavior was her responsibility. Within the film, we might expect the conjunction of surveillance (as a topos) and the fiction of complete knowing that narrative cinema purveys, to align with a culturally sanctioned ideology of femininity to conspire to disallow the irruption of a counter-narrative. But Bechis interrupts this triad by opening femininity to question and, in one scene in particular, demonstrating how a deployment of the conventional narrative of gendered heterosexuality can serve as a cover (albeit temporarily) that permits clandestinity and opposition.
In an early scene, Maria and a comrade are nervously driving late at night when the telltale green Ford Falcon of the paramilitary pulls up alongside them. Maria immediately begins kissing the man she is driving with, warning him not to look at the car next to them. The paramilitary are satisfied that this is just a pair of ordinary lovers: i.e., they fall for the conventional narrative. Moreover, Maria makes sure that their kissing also literally hides both their faces from the round-up squad. Acting out the conventional narrative wins Maria a temporary respite. Garage Olimpo flirts with the potential recuperation of its narrative by the imperatives of conventional gender narratives around maternity as well as romance. Nevertheless, both the mother/child dyad and the heterosexual romance are troubled in this film.
Bechis contrasts the non-patriarchal family, the mother-daughter dyad, to the condensed patriarchal family of el Tigre and his daughter, where the daughter takes a wifely role, even as she maintains her place as child. There is a creepy undertone of sexuality in this relationship; the daughter is simultaneously flirtatious, sexual, and infantile in her relationship with her father. She will not leave the apartment without his permission, and she is deeply dependent on his approval. The mother/daughter pair is far healthier: the daughter lives her own life and has access to a wider world. Nevertheless, when the daughter disappears the mother does whatever she can to find and rescue her: Diane becomes Demeter to María’s Persephone. For her part, the daughter is frantic to get word to the mother.
Under conditions of hyperpatriarchy, the absent father presents a dilemma. The mother/daughter dyad is by definition suspicious, with no male to control them. Their dominance within the feminine space of the house is not, on the face of it, endangered by Felix, the weak son of the patriarchal state who is debilitated by his desire for the daughter. A more potent masculine presence invades that space in the form of the paramilitary squad that forcibly enters the house and takes the daughter. The mother finds no purchase in the hypermasculine system — all the methods she tries of getting her daughter back end in failure. The final failure is the loss of her house, symbolically connected to the mother figure herself, which she willingly gives up for the promise to see her daughter. However, once she turns her house over, she is, literally and figuratively, utterly without protection. Thus exposed, she is murdered. One of the most painful aspects of the story is the fact that the daughter never learns of her mother’s death. She tries repeatedly to telephone her, depending on the mother’s power to help free her. Once the mother has been eliminated, we know there is no hope for the daughter. Neither can hope to survive the hostility of the hypermasculine state.
Bechis here is fully integrated into a traditional understanding of motherhood (to which his audience willingly acquiesces as well, given Dominique Sanda’s performance as a mother who galvanizes all her resources to save her child). Curiously, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are present only as a potentiality in the film. The Sanda character allies herself with a younger woman, looking for her missing husband. There is one scene that brings the mothers and wives of the disappeared together, not in the Plaza de Mayo, but in a church, where one warns the rest not to speak to the priest, who, she realizes, is working with the military. Bechis does not question the narrative of ferocious maternal love in this film. Instead, he condemns the paramilitary machinery that exploits and thwarts maternal devotion.
Bechis is more iconoclastic when it comes to the narrative of heterosexual romance. Maria is young and beautiful, but she is unattached and sexually autonomous. Her very disintegration is figured in terms of her acquiescing to Felix’s desire for her, and that does not occur except under the most extreme conditions. As in other films of the Proceso, including María Bemberg’s Camila and Alberto Lecchi’s Nueces para el amor, the deformation of heterosexual desire functions as a trope of civic chaos and state terror.
Mia Mask has, understandably, objected to Bechis' “plac[ing] the story's moral weight on the awkwardly titillating spectacle of the tortured female […] body,” noting that “the tendency to equate the national landscape with the feminine is as old as repression itself.” Nevertheless, Bechis begins to destabilize the equation of the abjected woman with the nation under repression. Maria needs Felix in order to survive: he protects her against even greater brutalization in the clandestine jail. More troubling is that he also appears to help her survive psychologically. Even so, although she quite willingly eats with him the food he has brought for them to share, and she seems to take comfort in their sexual relationship, María twice tries to escape. She would leave him happily if it meant getting away from the torture center.
By endowing his female characters with sexual, societal, maternal, and political agency, however stunted by the violence of the state, Bechis pushes against the conventional patterns of gender meaning. Women may be impotent in the corrupted world depicted in the film, but by implication they have the power of their own agency in the restored world that the film gestures toward. As the early scenes suggest, under normal conditions Maria takes responsibility for engaging in literacy work, she is confident in her refusal of Felix, and her mother is mistress of her own home. The agency of the woman militant speaks for itself.
The narrative of victimization is a gendered and sexualized tale of strength and weakness, upon which the state apparatus of terror capitalized in asserting its own supremacy. The superiority of masculinity is complicated by class, however. Bechis takes advantage of the multiple markers of dominance, inflecting his critique of militarized, bureaucratized masculinity in the character of Felix, who is seen as a failed man. Maria rebuffs him, and he uses the apparatus of state violence to conquer her. Ironically, Felix’s tenderness for Maria is perceived by the apparatus of the state to be both deviant and dangerous. He cannot be trusted, and in the end he must be disciplined.
Although language is always plagued by the gap between the representation and the thing represented, in Garage Olimpo Marco Bechis strains against that limitation. He hangs his film on the familiarly narrow narrative of the love story, only to disturb the underpinnings of heterosexual romantic love under conditions of coercion. He binds himself to the conventions of narrative cinema, only to break with their most elementary rules of continuity, visual contrast, and illusion. He defies residual national censorship both by screening the film in Argentina and by circumventing local commercial distribution, showing the film on the international festival circuit. He challenges viewers to rise above the pleasure of narrative rhythm and closure, to say nothing of the voyeuristic pleasure they might take in watching a young, beautiful woman in extremis. He dares to tread on sacred ground, making pictures out of pain, turning painful reality into fiction, in order to bear witness to the brutality of dictatorship. Given the skeptical response among film theorists to narrative cinema, I’d like to end by suggesting that “narrative” in cinema need not signify mystification. Moreover, Garage Olimpo might fruitfully be classified as cinema of witness, i.e., according to its function rather than its form. Insofar as Marco Bechis draws from the historical archive in order to challenge and inform his audience, his film bears witness to a past that, if ignored is all too likely to be repeated.
1. All translations from the Spanish are my own.
2. The release date of Garage Olimpo places it in what has been celebrated as the New Argentine Cinema, but as David Oubiña notes, beyond the fact of a resurgence in production of films in Argentina that are linked by chronology and geography, there is little that binds these films and filmmakers into a coherent group.
3. The military junta presiding over Argentina between 1976 and 1984 called its dictatorial practices “el Proceso de Reorganización Nacional” (the Process of National Reorganization). Shortened to “el Proceso,” this deliberately bland-sounding label is still widely used to refer to the period and the practices of the military government in power. Another, less euphemistic, name given to the junta’s practices is the Dirty War.
4. Hugo Vezatti probes most deeply into the question of memory in “Políticas de la memoria: el Museo en la ESMA,” in which he asks questions like “whose memory,” “memory of what,” “for what purpose?” But the the Dirty War so fresh, that there is no hesitation in Oscar Terán, Graciela Silvestri, Héctor Schmucler, Nelly Richard, and Leonor Arfuch, all writing in Punto de Vista, that memory is appropriate, and that certain kinds of representations, produced by those who were most harmed, are necessary.
5. This was the initial reaction of Cynthia Paccacerqua, the Argentinean doctoral student in philosophy who was assigned to respond to an earlier version of this paper, presented at the conference, “Memoria, Lenguajes, Cuerpos,” held at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, March 26-27, 2004. I am grateful to her for her insightful reading of my work.
6. “El sonido es el elemento autobiográfico. Yo estuve secuestrado, unos diez días, en uno de estos campos llamado Club Atlético, que es uno de los campos que funcionaban en la ciudad. […] Al estar vendado no he visto nada, una sola vez me levanté la venda y vi a través de una reja un corredor. Cuando yo fui dejado en libertad y me fui a Italia dibujé ese corredor y con ese dibujo hice la escenografía. La escenografía es textual de ese dibujo, se lo di a un escenógrafo y le dije quiero esto. Esa es una reconstrucción exacta de lo que yo vi a través de las vendas. Y en cuanto al sonido, no es que yo escuchara esas cancioncitas, esa radio, no es que sea textual lo que yo escuché, pero sí es textual la pastosidad del sonido y el sound de ese lugar, eso es muy similar a lo que yo recuerdo.”
7. See, e.g., Lang and Koch on Holocaust studies, and Beverley on testimonio.
8. "Mi expresión artística nació de la necesidad de testimoniar."
9. “Estamos haciendo mucha campaña publicitaria para que la gente tenga la percepción de que la película está, para que se enteren los que no están involucrados directamente en el tema. En esta sociedad se da de manera evidente la separación entre los que tienen que ver y los que no. Por un lado, los que están tocados íntimamente con el tema porque les pasó algo o porque conocen a alguien, y por otro lado, los que no. Para ellos no existe.”
10. Others include Camila (1984), The Official Story (1985), La noche de los lápices (1986), Un muro de silencio (1992), Nueces para el amor (2000), and Bechis' own Figli/Hijos (2001).
11. “preocupado por la facultad, fastidiado por la censura en el cine, pendiente del fútbol.”
12. “La que siento no es una culpa que se resuelva viajando en el tiempo: no hay nada que podría haber hecho en esa época que me permitiría ver Garage Olimpo sin sentirme igualmente miserable. Porque es la vergüenza profunda de ser argentino, de ser humano, de pertenecer a la especie que es capaz de esa conducta. Estamos contaminados, siempre lo estaremos. Garage Olimpo refrescó esa vergüenza y yo, personalmente, se lo agradezco.”
13. “La semana del estreno de la película y las semanas siguientes, la ciudad comienza a empapelarse de ojos vendados y otros motivos. Corrientes, Santa Fe, Callao, Córdoba, Palermo, Barrancas, etc. Paradas de colectivos, subtes. Pero ahora no son sólo ojos vendados. También son imágenes de militares armados, documentos quemándose, un pasaporte, un avión con bandera argentina sobrevolando el agua. La idea era que estas imágenes fueran invadiendo la ciudad, la gente, las miradas. Que la venda fuera cayendo. ‘No has visto nada....’”
14. See Kaminsky, “The Presence in Absence of Exile” in Reading the Body Politic.
15. “Cinematográficamente no me interesó la reconstrucción histórica exacta. O sea que si hay dos botellas de Quilmes que son las de hoy o si la 9 de Julio no es la de esa época, no me interesa. No me interesaron esos pequeños detalles que en cine siempre son muy cuidados. No quise que el vestuario sea demasiado de los '70, en fin, que tampoco la historia contara demasiado de la historia de la época, pero que los elementos de base estuvieran todos, los que a mí me importaban, que básicamente eran la reconstrucción de la cotidianeidad en ese campo, de lo que era cotidiano. Para mí era la clave para entender ese horror, que no era el malo de bigotes gordo de cuarenta años. Esas cosas ya existen y con su éxito.”
16. “El cine es un medio potente. Por primera vez nos muestra el horror, no recuerdo que este tema punctual haya sido realizado antes. No hay para mi y para muchos otros, más finalidad en el film que la de practicar la memoria.”
17. “tradición oral puesta en pantalla”
18. "El recuerdo que deja Garage Olimpo persiste con el tiempo, como una mancha, como la suciedad.”
19. “Ver esta película nos ayuda a no olvidar.”
20. I take this term from Alison Landsberg.
21. For a more thorough discussion of gender politics during the Proceso, see Mary Beth Tierney Tello, Allegories of Transgression and Transformation, Francine Masiello, The Art of Transition, and Amy Kaminsky, After Exile.
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-----------------. "Memoria, fotografía y desaparición: drama y tramas.” Punto de Vista 68, diciembre 2000.
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--------------------- "Memorias del ‘Nunca más.’” Punto de Vista 64, agosto 1999
---------------------“ Políticas de la memoria: el Museo en la ESMA.” Punto de Vista 79, agosto 2004.
---------------------“ "Representaciones de los campos de concentración en la Argentina." Punto de Vista 68, diciembre 2000.