Past Possible Futures
1. Robert Gardner’s recent passing made me think again about how images originate in other images, one’s gestures in another’s gestures, through an incalculable testimonial chain of new encounters. I first saw a sequence of one of Gardner’s films in another director’s film. It was Forest of Bliss (1986), reframed by the video camera and comments of Hartmut Bitomsky in one of his chapters on documentary in Das Kino und der Wind und die Photographie (1992). Bitomsky’s commentary tries to describe Gardner’s film: “One understands little of what happens here. … There is no commentary to offer an explanation. It is as if the world has turned its back on us. One observes and understands nothing. One is preoccupied with watching.”
2. During the possession ritual, one of The Mad Masters (1955) cracks an egg on the head of the governor’s statue: “Why an egg?” asks Jean Rouch, while immediately cutting to a shot of a military parade: “To imitate the white plumes the British governor wears on his helmet.” Different orders, same protocol, adds the assertive voice, while cutting back to the place out of time and space where, in a cathartic, rigorously chaotic collective reenactment, every singular gesture reproduces, condenses, extends, and exorcises the literal violence inflicted upon them.
3. “Take me to the shadow,” mumbles the statue, encapsulated in History, uttering the last words of the dying soldier. Next to him, inside the hospital elevator, Ventura had barely noticed the life-size figure, but he doesn’t seem surprised to encounter him there: (a man playing a statue of) the Unknown Soldier of Portugal’s Colonial War. It is only when the statue’s mumbling becomes a cry—“Take me to the shadow, get me out of the sun…!”—that Ventura looks again at him more attentively. Yet the soldier’s call was but a trap and the possession can now begin. As historical forces are set loose and time gets off track, the Unknown Soldier will speak many voices but only one Creole language. Ventura was ready for the ritual though, and as the polyphonic delirium starts he begins to repeat mechanically the revolutionary slogans as soon as the spectral voices demand him to: “Are you with the People, Ventura?!”
3.1. In Pedro Costa’s Sweet Exorcist (2012), Ventura and the statue are also reenacting in the haunted arena of History. Their model is some rare war footage—available on YouTube—filmed by a French TV crew in Guinea-Bissau. When the dying soldier with a name and a birthplace is being covered by his own jacket, the image cuts for brief seconds from the jungle to an idyllic scene in the countryside, clothes drying by the river. “Two weeks ago, we had filmed at Ponte de Lima, North of Oporto.” The gesture of covering the corpse is finished with the cut back. It was a flashback.
NUNO LISBOA is the Director of Doc's Kingdom International Seminar on Documentary Film, and a filmmaker, teacher, and programmer, based in Lisbon, Portugal.