A Landscape that Speaks
by Fernando Chaves Espinach
Exploring three pieces of creative documentary, Fernando offers us a reflection on the relationship between landscape and History, and the ways film and photography can reconnect that bond blurred by oblivion.
Let us look at absence: concealed, suppressed or untold histories, at what is not there and yet demands to speak; what silently deafens us.
When contemplating a landscape, and especially when we set out to traverse it, we look for the keys to read it: what goes where, how and how much do we perceive of its composition, which processes shaped it. To read a landscape may imply an effort to reintegrate it to History: an active reading that, by transforming it in the present, recovers its past to clinch it to another future, a future where mourning is possible and visible.
Between 1915 and 1923, the Ottoman Empire in its death throes launched a deportation and extermination campaign against Christian Armenians in its land. Armenia estimates that more than a million and a half died; the Turkish government doesn't acknowledge what happened as an instance of genocide. The multimedia project 1915 (2015), by Diana Markosian, seeks to reconnect the extremes of the tragedy, its last survivors with the barely discernible vestiges of a crime for the most part denied by politicians, inheritors to a state that no longer exists.
Markosian reunites the victims with their past through the images of their hometowns, barely visible today. Thanks to them, we meet Movses Haneshyan, then 105 years old, touching an immense photograph of his land, which he is seeing for the first time in a century. Yepraksia Grevorgian, 108 years old at the time of the project, remembers seeing Ottoman soldiers dumping Armenian bodies into the Akhurian river. A hundred years later, Markosian portrays her with a photo of that river, with a demolished tower as one of the few evidences of the life that once vibrated in that corner of the world.
Markosian arrived at her people’s history through the most personal way, that of her reunion with her father. In the mid-1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, her mother took her, along with her brother, to the United States. Dad was left behind. Her mother had cast him into oblivion in the family photos themselves, by cutting the father’s image out. Markosian travelled back to Armenia in search of a man who she never thought to see again. Inventing My Father (2013-14) not just represents that reencounter: it fulfills it in its own execution, as a series of collaborative photos created together with a man who, little by little, becomes once again what he couldn’t be for two decades.
La práctica colaborativa de Markosian complejiza nuestra relación con las imágenes al exhibir el tejido interno de la búsqueda. Nos hace partícipes del proceso de recordar, de producir las imágenes de la distancia y la separación. Reúne lo escondido por la historia mediante un esfuerzo físico implícito en los retratos de los ancianos con las vistas de sus aldeas natales, de las que solo vemos escombros, huellas indefinidas.
With the advent of photography, Jacques Rancière reminds us that, "all lives entered the shared light of a writing of the memorable”, hitherto a privilege of the “great” figures of History in capital letters. The democratizing appearance of the "writing of light" has spawned some of the most influential photographic projects, of course, always in search of extracting from the darkness the traces of peripheral, marginal, subaltern lives. Such search has taken us, even, to photograph ghosts, as in Markosian’s project: spectral presences that inhabit places emptied by violence. 1915 restores history to its landscape and even displaces it to return it to its witnesses and survivors, deprived of it by an amnesiac power
Wang Bing erects monuments whose massive scale barely begins to have an effect on the gigantic oblivion enterprise they are fighting. For Dead Souls (2018, 495 min), filmed between 2005 and 2017, he collected 600 hours of testimonies from 120 survivors of the “reeducation” camps for rightists, commanded by Mao Zedong in the Gobi desert. Out of 3200 prisoners, only 500 survived. The first seven hours of the film compress statements of about 15 persons; in the last hour, the reconstruction of a prisoner’s experience is outlined through multiple perspectives. But pain is, ultimately, unspeakable. By the end, the film traverses the landscape of death.
Temperatures in the Gobi desert can drop down to −40°C. In summer, they can reach 45°C. The “crimes” of the condemned went from opposition to the Party’s trivial rules to indefinite accusations that, nevertheless, condemned them to endless months in that inhospitable land. Another manifestation of this director’s project, Traces (2014, 29 min), is a silent look at what is left of the labour camps. Very little, almost nothing. Until a bone appears. Then a handful of bones. Then another. And nothingness. Plenty of nothingness
Meanwhile, Dead Souls, with its testimonial accumulation, forces us to confront the silence of the landscape. Referring to Man with no name (2009, 92 min), which follows a hermit cave dweller in northern China, the philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman writes: “The duration of Wang Bing's shots seems to me first and foremost a gesture of respect before the gestures of that tiny life”. In Dead Souls, this respect is brought to paroxysm not just by the duration of the shots, but by their intense humility, restricted to the frontal recording of the interviews and to details that, in their apparent banality, do nothing but reinforce the unbearable presence of death in the testimonies of the elders.
To watch the film requires a physical and intellectual effort. An extremely painful scene places us in front of a man who can barely communicate. In others, survivors smile bitterly, laughing at the randomness that led them to their punishment. Women complete men’s narrations, correct them, move away. The lightness of some conversations doesn’t reduce the impact. If anything, it deepens it, because we confront the simple fact that it is possible to keep living after going through hell. The effort of Wang Bing is to reconnect the previous life to this transit with which it walks towards the future, afflicted—even physically—by the past.
However, language falls short to enunciate some oblivions. In the film Altiplano (2018, 16 min), by Malena Szlam, what is normally inaudible speaks of what has been suffered by the landscape, its first inhabitants and its constant transformations. This telluric recitation is composed by “nature’s infrasounds, frequencies below human hearing range: inner voices of earth, underground waters, volcanoes and whale vocalizations”, according to the filmmaker.
In Altiplano we see, as in between flickers, lands traced (imagined, seen, felt) by ancestral peoples. We know what has happened to them. We know that silence that is not such, that reverberates in America’s highs and lows. Day and night, soil and sky blend together in the exploration of an ecosystem that bursts under the pressure of mining.
Filmed as a sensorial process, a reaction to the rhythms of the image, the film extends the inner landscape outwards until it dissolves it in geological infinity. We are left before a timeless shot, yet, filled with historic inscriptions, some visible, some concealed. A landscape that speaks.
Mariam Sahakyan was 101 years old when she agreed to collaborate with Markosian. She asked her just one thing: to bring her back soil from her home village to be buried with it. The photographer brought the soil back to her —soil scattered by History.
Fernando Chaves Espinach
2020. San José, Costa Rica
Published in July, 2020
Volume 3 , Issue 5