In Mariano Llinás’ La flor a film crew is intent on filming shots of trees, but they all come out wrong. The trees are there and they look beautiful in real life, but somehow the image of the trees just doesn’t work. They realize that when a person appears within the shot, it suddenly makes sense. The human body in the frame, Llinás says, introduces a narrative tension, a latency. Now something could happen.
How do you introduce the human element in a landscape? What is there in a landscape that interests a growing number of filmmakers today? Which tensions arise between the staticity of a landscape and the inherent dynamics of a medium such as cinema? How do we, as spectators, fill with humanity the spaces where bodies are apparently absent? In Landscapes of Resistance, Serbian filmmaker Marta Popivoda solves Llinás’ conundrum in a different manner. Her gaze is often fixed on body-less scenarios, filled with the sound of a human voice.
The voice belongs to Sonia, a 97-year-old woman who belonged to the Yugoslav Partisans, taking part in the communist resistance against the German occupation of her country during World War II. She happens to be the grandmother of Popivoda’s girlfriend, and so a film about her seemed like a natural development. Popivoda, however, is not only interested in Sonia’s experiences, but also in the power embedded in her retelling of the past and how it echoes into the present. And so the film weaves together her stories (which immediately bring Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah to mind) with contemporary images of the landscapes where they happened. They often fade into each other imperceptibly, leaving us to wonder what exactly we are looking at. Like in La flor, without humans it’s hard to understand the landscape, but Popivoda trusts the audience’s instincts to inhabit those voids with their minds, stimulated by Sonia’s words. These images are therefore infused with the weight of history, the film becoming a sort of emotional cartography through these territories where the past lingers like a phantasmagoric presence waiting to be heard.
This aesthetic strategy is similar to what other documentarians have done recently: in Las cruces, Teresa Arredondo and Carlos Vásquez Méndez film the landscapes of a town in Chile where a group of workers was kidnapped and then murdered by the dictatorship, while the voices of their relatives read the confessions of the military who were involved in the event. In Jonathan Perel’s Corporate Accountability shots of the facades of various factories and offices turn eerie when coupled with fragments of documents detailing how the owners of these places conspired with the Argentinian dictatorship to eliminate unionists. It’s striking how similarly these films from different corners of the world deal with their countries’ violent pasts and the traces they can leave in the present. It’s perhaps a sign that these filmmakers are dealing with an unstable present threatening to bring back the pains of the past.
Popivoda certainly makes this explicit in Landscapes of Resistance, putting some of her diary entries on screen and showing us the contradictions and tensions that arose while making this film. There is, for example, a sort of guilt in her leaving Serbia for Germany — seeking a personal freedom not granted to the leftists and queer people back home with the far right gaining more political ground — and falling prey to an ahistorical center-periphery discourse where Western Europe becomes the bastion of ‘civilization’. It’s stimulating to see the director struggling with herself and her country’s situation so openly, and the call for action towards the end feels earned.