48

06/03/2013

Portugal / 2009 / Portuguese

Directed by Susana de Sousa Dias

48-4“This is the face you have on the inside. It isn’t the face you have on the outside.” The words of this former political prisoner have, perhaps beyond her intent, a double meaning – or at least, a deeper meaning, an additional fold. In a euphemistic sense, “on the inside” refers to prison itself – the face in the photograph is inherently different than that which she wears in her daily life. This is an optimistic distinction; for many, daily life had become akin to being imprisoned, and at any time could give way to the reality of arrest. The interrogation room was never remote. At the same time the face we see in the mugshot is one that is divulged from within, involuntarily, transformed into the elemental registers of fear, as well as desperation and abjection. It is the soul under fascism, made flesh, and here struck in in an image to be archived.

In Susana de Sousa Dias’ rigorous, hypnotic documentary 48, the filmmaker shows a succession of these photographs, most showing a look forward into the camera, and alternating with those depicting an appraising look at the side of the face. The intimate gaze of the subjects, caught in the headlights as it were, feels oddly direct and penetrating, precisely because of how detached it looks – the look that a prisoner gives to the warden. There is no narration from the filmmaker added. Instead each of the political prisoners, located decades after their torture, tells his or her own story. It is left to them to reveal the history behind the photo, the context of the gaze, the weariness, the pain inflicted, and how near or far freedom remained from that frozen moment.

One woman talks about her hair, focuses on the details in her face. Another remembers the outfit that she wore, remembers everything about it, and then describes how all of it was forcibly stripped off from her body. The casualness with which they speak of their treatment at the hands of the PIDE (Portugal’s secret police) – their voices occasionally overwhelmed by emotion – is jarring, but plainly evocative of a time and place where fear was mixed with the ordinary, the surface of people’s everyday existence infested from below with apprehension and an all-too-justified paranoia. They lived in a stage-set world, in which any one of the props could conceal spies of Salazar’s government.

48-2Each photo is done the same way, with the same dimensions, angles, distance from camera to subject. The same lighting, the same sort of gaze reproduced each time. The mechanical nature of their creation is matched by Dias’ steady presentation of them, lingering on each picture for a few minutes at a time before presenting the next one. The chilling pictures immediately speak of possession, of not just holding a person in place but of imprisoning his or her identity and all physical details.

Painfully, the earliest memory shared is usually the most vivid: the first time being arrested. Recollection of later portraits is often hazy, or not there at all, the memories perhaps having been beaten out by the torturers. Even though the portraits were done routinely, as official business, they have the lurid aura of private pathology, like a killer collecting documents of his victims, like the main character in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). They call to mind the numbered portraits from the Khmer Rouge (although those were truly the only earthly reminders of the lives they depicted), another regime that took an almost obsessive interest in the identities it smothered. With those images they share a blankness, the numbing and clinical surroundings, the vacant gaze back into darkness.

Although António de Oliveira Salazar was not president for all 48 years of Portugal’s repressive dictatorship, he is considered its chief architect and policymaker. The reign of terror ended a few years after his death, with the “Carnation Revolution” of 1974, but not entirely. Right-wing forces continued to influence the direction of the country and, as one prisoner notes, many of the people who were carrying out secretive arrests and torture on dissenters, became reintegrated into society without punishment. The scars never healed, and in fact were made worse by being covered over with new clothing, fashionable clothing that replaced colonial cotton with Western European democracy. The photos were swept into storage, the cries of the anguished suppressed for years. Doing preliminary research for her earlier found-footage film Still Lives (2005), Dias happened upon this collection of images that had disappeared, as most evidence of the regime’s activities had.

Dias calls it a “moral imperative” to take such a straight-ahead, eye-level look at the pictures, not to sweep them out with pans and zooms, or juggle them between angles. Those, she believes, would be a betrayal. There is no music, no script. In a sense, she is also eschewing editing by making the edits invisible, postmortem even. After each portrait has been up on the screen for a few minutes, it gradually splashes down again into the archive, fading to black. At times we see the edges of an adjoining picture on the outskirts of the frame, contrasting the crisp details of the scene with the flatness of a film roll, the gallery-like succession of portraits.

48-1The features of the people take their time to emerge, first resembling charcoal impressions, before the intricacy of their mottling reveals a crisp and untarnished presentness. From the neck up, the image suspended like a bust in a museum, its mass and dimension are intact. Dias remains faithful to the single, unified perspective of the archive but, by representing the returned look from the prisoners, she redoubles it, answers it, deflects it back and into every surrounding crevice. She says that it never crossed her mind to interview those responsible; her ethical boundary ends somewhere before theirs begin. The photos exist as a statement of those who had power, but now she is retooling them to be just the opposite. Without this intention behind revisiting them, they remain ghastly, another tribute to hegemony immured in fascist aesthetics.

These images materialize without an imposed sense of travesty. Most often, the trauma has already happened, been felt, reverberated throughout countless lives. This is the wreckage, so to speak, painstakingly kept and now presented that transports the viewer. It does so in ways that its creators and its subjects could never have imagined. A man describes “sleep-torture” (seemingly the most common one used, as many of the subjects for the film had experienced it) and like a picture coming into focus, the anguish, rage, and tiredness are upon us, refracted by the gaze, his hallucinations after weeks spent awake practically flickering in front of us.

The face becomes the last platform of individual will, of human possibility. The body will be – or perhaps, at the moment in which we see them, already has been – broken, the memories haunted, the inner life ground down to something as smooth as alabaster. But they cannot dictate the expression of the subject. One prisoner talks about the faces he and his fellows would make when they were photographed, because that is the one moment in which they were free to defy. It is ironic that the one remaining shred of evidence from the prisoners’ time locked up (for some, it was decades) is also the precise moment when, for the split second of exposure, the chains fell off.

Dias has said that anyone still calling the regime quiet, efficient, or even intellectual, should study up on how it dealt with the colonies. If torture was used in Portugal as a means to extract information, while having the added benefit of injecting a twinge of apprehension into everyone’s lives, it was the opposite in Africa; it was mostly used to create total terror, a fear of the state and, only occasionally, to get people to talk. The practices were more brutal by whole degrees, and virtually no records of the victims, Dias found, are extent. So she disrupts the previous flow of the first 80 minutes or so, when she crosses over to the colonies, recording two former political prisoners from Mozambique. Since no prison photos from the time are known exist, she uses a bit of army footage of a tree next to a fence in Guinea-Bissau, at night, blazing white from a flood light, the film slowed down to 1% of its running speed. From white flecks of dust on unexposed celluloid, the scene emerges, a forthright memory of a time that was meant to have vanished.

48-3That last sequence, more than any in the film, accentuates the importance of the peripheral, because it uses something from an editing room floor as its visual center. Not only is the found footage a reminder of that for which it is standing in – massive atrocities, unrecorded, pitiless, unrepentant – but also, its very peripherality, its outlying and seeming insignificance, makes it infinitely more redolent of a certain place than the prisoner portraits, which could have been made anywhere. The frames of film, coming from the edges, possibly even shot unintentionally, are completely unmediated, and are thus the most pure and truthful. They are ghost images from beyond anyone’s memory collapsing within them the side-details that illuminate the past/present connection and cement it.

In the auditory realm of the former prisoners’ soliloquies, it is the marginal details in the surrounding room that give the pictures life, a depth-by-transference, whereas before they had been mute. We hear noise, hum, echo, birds outside, the saliva at the edge of the speaker’s lips – even a distant siren just to set the scene. Again, there is a fixation on the sedimentary effect of the peripheral, the information from the outer edges, and how it carries the most electricity. The sense of confined space becomes palpable, and many layers of reality, both presented and represented, telephoto into one. As much as the narration brings us into eye contact with the victims in the pictures, centers us, the ambient presence of the person speaking surrounds us like the white lights of the interrogation room. The narrator sits before a microphone, in a room in modern-day Portugal, but a part of them (and now, irrevocably, a part of each of us who listen) remains in that cold chamber, awoken by a secret history that refuses dissipation.

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