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Home arrow Philosophy arrow Playful Memories: The Autofictional Turn in Post-Dictatorship Argentina
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Albertina Carri’s Kampf

Albertina Carri’s take on disappearance and the dictatorship in her much- discussed film Los rubios draws on the ability of playful memories to tackle societal taboos via a “child-like” gaze, to reveal the ideological narratives that lie behind objects of childhood consumption, and to offer alternatives to sentimental, nostalgic or epic accounts of the past. The film is a very complex docufantasy or an autofictional documentary along the lines of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), Jonathan Caoette’s Tarnation (2003) and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007). Carri explores the limits of the documentary form, and of the mediums that would supposedly deliver the truthful version of its object— namely, testimonies, photographs and letters, and ultimately concludes that it is impossible to faithfully represent (the absence of) her parents, Ana Marfa Caruso and Roberto Carri, using traditional documentary resources.26

Instead, the film mixes documentary and fiction, and presents us with a series of playful and distancing devices: the presence of an actress (Analfa Couceyro) to play Albertina’s role; the blond wigs that the film crew wear to refer to the way the director’s parents were mistakenly perceived to be foreigners in the neighbourhood where they had moved to mix with “the people”; and the collages made up of old photographs of the Carris that the actress creates at one point while sitting at a desk covered with Playmobil figures. As Carlos Gamerro points out in the film, Carri/Couceyro “acts” like a child who does not (want to) understand or is fed up with what the fellow companeros of her parents have to say about their militancy. She turns her back on them, is intentionally rude and screams so that they can understand her. But far from depoliticizing the past, this deliberate childish position of incomprehension is the most political feature of Los rubios: “hers is not only an individual but a generational boredom [hartazgo in Spanish], not only emotive but also aesthetic and political; it includes a criticism against the witnesses she interviews in her film but also against the ‘documentary of the dictatorship’ genre historically made by the generation of her parents.”27

In Los rubios Analfa Couceyro introduces herself in front of the camera as an actress playing Albertina’s role: “My name is Analfa Couceyro, I am an actress and in this film I play Albertina Carri.” This strategy is analogous to that of autofictional writers in the way they construct a character, give them their names (Analfa Couceyro has the same initials as the director) and make that doubling explicit to avoid straightforward identification between the semi-autobiographical subject and the readers/ viewers. For Joanna Page, in Los rubios, strictly speaking there are not two Albertinas but three: “Albertina, the subject of the film,” “Albertina, the director” and “Analfa-Albertina, the actress.”28 Her observation echoes Regine Robin’s suggestion that autofiction is a fragmentation of identity and an expression of the need to change subjects.29 Couceyro not only presents herself as an autofictional character but also cites Robin in the film, making it clear that Carri was familiar with the term when making the production.

Carri uses an actress to play her role, in addition to other autofictional devices in a medium that, one could argue, cannot be but autofictional. As Philippe Lejeune suggested, the autobiographical pact cannot exist in a commercial and collective artform like cinema, which is so profoundly divided between fiction and documentary.30 Films that attempt to be autobiographical, such as Nanni Moretti’s Caro Diario (1993), are, in truth, what we call autofictions. Lejeune follows here Elizabeth W. Bruss, who had already suggested that autobiography is impossible in cinema. Bruss argues that the “value of truth” characteristic of the autobiographical act (a verifiable act) has no equivalent in cinema. Cinema, for both Lejeune and Bruss, is thus condemned to fiction: “I cannot ask cinema to show my past, my childhood, my youth. I can only evoke it or reconstruct it. Writing does not have this problem because the signifier (language) does not have a relation with the referent.”31 For Lejeune, childhood memories in books and films are fictions, but in cinema the inauthenticity of the artefact becomes clearer because the camera (unlike writing) could have registered, in another time, the reality of what is in the film presented as a simulacrum. In this respect, writing is thus “superior” to cinema because it makes us “forget” its fictional part. “The more the filmmaker attempts to get closer to reality,” writes Lejeune, “the more visible its fictional part becomes,” a sentiment also expressed by Carri in her film.32

The second problem that cinema faces when it attempts to be autobiographical, according to Bruss, is the “principle of sincerity,” which is vital for the autobiographical pact. Bruss and Lejeune argue that even the subjective camera is a very poor procedure for making the film more personal because it does not give a lot of information about the filmmaker. For them, cinema has not made of itself a medium that blends the two aspects of the autobiographical subject: the enunciator and the narrative.

It is impossible to be both in front and behind the camera, whereas the first person, spoken or written, can more easily mask the fact that the I is another. In addition the credits for a film remind us that films are always collective creations. For Lejeune, despite all these difficulties that cinema confronts when it attempts to say I, films can still acquire a value of truth by filming the present or using photographs, and it can also say I by using voiceover. He also points out that Bruss made all these observations in the 1970s, and that since then cinema has witnessed an historical change in the way it approaches autobiography.

Los rubios is an example of this new trend. It is also one of the first works by a member of the post-dictatorship generation in Argentina to explicitly refer to autofiction as an appropriate strategy for providing an account of the post-traumatic self. The film insists that memory is deceitful and that we cannot trust it. Instead, we can only reinvent our memories, redefine them and make explicit their fictional status. This status is true to all memories but even truer for those with absent/dis- appeared parents. The uncertainty of what happened to their bodies, the fictions that both third parties and their own children made up to explain that absence, and the idealized or demonized images built up around political militants in Argentina all create hybrid reminiscences and identities. Thus, if narrating the self is also narrating where we come from, that account, in the case of the children of the disappeared such as Carri, will always have a considerable number of fictional elements. Los rubios exposes the spectator to the construction of that autofictional experience: “this film will be about the impossibility of memory, about the frauds committed in its name,” explains the director in the book she wrote about it.33

The sequences I want to focus on here are those in which Carri uses Playmobil figures and stop-motion to reconstruct her childhood memory of the abduction of her parents at the hands of the military when she was three years old (Fig. 3.1). As we will see in other chapters of this book, the use of toys and tropes of play as conceptual or material elements in the cultural memories of those who grew up during the dictatorship is not uncommon. Many of these artists use objects of play or fictional characters as an autofictional device to represent them in their narratives of horror or their experiences living underground. It is my contention that the childhood objects and stories in these works overcome the limitations of monuments and conventional testimonies when dealing with the legacies of the traumatic past.

Albertina Carri, Los rubios, carto- grafia de una pelicula, 2007

Fig. 3.1 Albertina Carri, Los rubios, carto- grafia de una pelicula, 2007

Los rubios opens with a close-up shot of a toy house at night. An artificial light illuminates the interior. The house is empty but there are traces of someone having been there: some bottles and dishes are on a table, and the door of the house is open. Later sequences with Playmobil toys reconstruct the cause and effects of that empty family house. Evoking the process of the construction of Carri’s identity after the abduction, at one point we see a loop of a Playmobil figure wearing different hats, one after the other, first slowly then more quickly: a fireman’s hat, a bowler, a turban, a crown and so on. Couceyro’s voiceover, quoting Regine Robin’s statement that constructing one’s own identity is necessary when it is under threat, helps us to make sense of the sequence. But the way in which the hats are shown repetitively, in circularity, suggests that this process, when confronting disappearance, is always incomplete.

British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott considered “play” to be a creative activity that allows both children and adults to use the whole personality as a means of discovering the self.34 He uses play in a broad sense:

Whatever I say about children playing really applies to adults as well, only the matter is more difficult to describe when the patient’s material appears mainly in terms of verbal communication. I suggest that we must expect to find playing just as evident in the analyses of adults as it is in the case of our work with children. It manifests itself, for instance, in the choice of words, in the inflections of the voice, and indeed in the sense of humor.

With this scene, however, Carri suggests that if in general “play, like dreams, serves the function of self-revelation,”35 play could also serve to show the impossibility of self-revelation in the absence of parents. Couceyro’s voiceover explains why: “to develop yourself without the one who gave you life becomes an obsession, at odds with daily life, disheartening. Since most of the answers have been lost in time, in the mist of memory.”

In addition, from the very beginning of the film it is clear that what we are going to see is not a vis-a-vis reconstruction of the past but instead Carri’s child-like and subjective perception of it. In this respect, Los rubios echoes the works of artists born in the aftermath of the Holocaust who have also employed toys to refer to the impact that past events have had on their lives. Pointing to his right to “remember” the Shoah the way he pleases, Levinthal responded to a professor from Yale University, who had demanded that he take photographs of real people instead of photographing Nazi toys, by stating that “these toys are my reality.”36 Similarly, one of the connotations of the image of the mirror in the title of the Mirroring Evil exhibition also insinuates that these works are not replications of reality but rather reflections, distortions, mediations and effects of the past in the present. Art Spiegelman, author of the classic comic book Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1980), himself accused of banalizing the Holocaust by using mice, cats, pigs and dogs in his re-enactment of his father’s experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, has also defended his right to speak freely, in content and form, about the Holocaust, using, like Levinthal, the title of Hitler’s autobiography:

The book was a text about my ... my struggle, mein kampf And within that context I was trying to tell the story without falling into two pits on either side of the project: either coming off as a cynical wisenheimer about something that had genuine enormity, or being sentimental, a form of trivializa- tion on the other side of the road.37

The use of Playmobil figures in Los rubios responded to a similar rejection of effrontery and sentimentality, at the same time as it implied a certain freedom to remember the past using a more flexible relationship with the referent.

The multiple disguises of the Playmobil figures might also refer to the different ways Carri has said that she has “remembered” her parents at various stages of her life: alternatively as superheroes, as geniuses and as ordinary people.38 Yet toys are deployed in the film not to bring the past back to the present but rather to confirm absence: “I cannot get rid of memories, I can only reinvent them, redefine them, and reread them. But they are still there, forever confirming absence.”39 Toys that imitate the human body, she believes, are a deformation and an optical illusion, just as memory does not re-enact the past but instead deforms it (interestingly, autofictions have also been called “deformed autobiographies”40). At the same time, however, toys are not the opposite of experience but rather, as with dreams and nightmares, a “diminutive, and thereby manipulat- able, version of experience.”41 As Susan Stewart puts it, “the inanimate toy repeats the still life’s theme of arrested life ... But once the toy becomes animated, it initiates another world, the world of daydream.”42 Toys (particularly anthropomorphic ones) are thus a kind of “dead among us,” a ghostly condition that they share with the complex neither-dead-nor-alive figure of the disappeared.

The potential of toys to manipulate experience and their nightmarish, unheimlich nature becomes evident in the scene in which Carri reconstructs the episode of her parents’ kidnapping. Carri has in fact explicitly referred to the nightmares she had after the abduction, in which all kind of monsters attacked her while sleeping.43 The sequence starts at night. A yellow toy car stops at a fuel station. Two Playmobil figures get out of the car and meet with a group of other Playmobil toys, that hand weapons over to them. They get in the car again and start driving along an isolated road. Suddenly we see a spaceship that abducts one of the toys. We hear horror-movie-like screams. Then the spaceship snatches the other figure in the car. Some dry leaves fly in stop-motion over the deserted road. Three blond Playmobil figures (the three Carri sisters?) arrive at daybreak only to find open, empty suitcases at the scene of the crime. The whole sequence looks as if it had been taken from a B movie and it is set to the soundtrack of The Day the Earth Stood Still (Dir. Wise 1951), a film that, as suggested by Gonzalo Aguilar, Carri might well have seen as a child.44

Both Beatriz Sarlo and Martin Kohan have expressed their disapproval of the “excess” of subjectivity evident in these reconstructions of the past, which, they argue, ends up removing history and politics from the memories of the period. Kohan has written, for example, that though in the stop- motion sequence we see a group of Playmobil figures carrying weapons, the scene is not resolved through an armed confrontation but through a situation more typical of science-fiction films, which is ultimately a deceptive gesture:

The group that irrupted aggressively during the night, and the weapon that we saw, has been eliminated and replaced for this version of the abduction, which instead evokes a scene from the emblematic film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What was going to be, or could have been, a political cause, now belongs to the afterlife.45

For Kohan the removal of politics cannot be attributed to a child-like gaze because the film mentions other children (notably Carri’s nephew) who, despite their age, understand that the abductions were motivated by the political activism of the Carris. Thus, unlike critics such as Aguilar, who has argued that this sequence is a clear manifestation of a mourning process, Kohan affirms that what we see here is the removal/negation of reality.

Sarlo attributed this (subjective) approach to the fact that the director’s parents were well-known middle-class intellectuals, making Carri’s images of them less vicarious than the memories of, for example, children of working-class disappeared parents, who “are alone in the situation of reconstructing the past.”46 Thus, unlike Carri, these children cannot afford to show disinterest in the testimonies of those who knew their parents (as Carri does in her film), nor to replace them with a (playful) memory that does not refer, in any shape or form, to the political militant agency of the disappeared.

Most scholars have read Los rubios as an example of what Marianne Hirsch has famously called “postmemory,” a term that defines the mediated, imaginary and fragmentary memories of the children of victims of traumatic events, who “remember” these events assisted by the memories of “first-hand” witnesses and the discourses of mass media.47 However, Carri’s was not an adoptive but a first-hand account of the abduction of her parents, as demonstrated by the scene in which Analia Couceyro/ Albertina Carri tries to reconstruct that dramatic episode in her life at the crime scene, outside the last house that she shared with her family. She starts by stressing that she was three years old so she does not remember a great deal. Yet she does have some recollection of what happened:

the memory I had of that day is of me crossing the street holding hands with my sister, Paula. I remember I tripped over so first she caught me, and then two men came and tried to catch us. My other sister, Andrea, saw us from the window and let my dad know what was happening (my mum had already been kidnapped). Then one of the men took me to a car, I think it was a red Ford car, but I might have imagined it. I don’t know if I remember many of the things or if my sister told them to me. In the car, the man showed me pictures and asked me who the people in the photograph were. I answered him.

Thus, although Carri’s memories are a hybrid of what she remembers and what she was later told, her position as a first-hand (child) witness of the abduction is different from those studied by Hirsch, who were mostly born after the events that marked their lives. Moreover, as Sarlo pointed out, all memories and not just postmemories are fragmentary and vicarious. Therefore what distinguishes Carri’s memory from other reconstructions of the dictatorship is not the fact that it is a memory after memory but that, unlike the testimonies of other children of disappeared parents and members of HIJOS, Carri’s memory is a subjective (rather than a political) memory, a point also supported by Kohan.

Even those who describe Carri’s memory as postmemory, a term that, according to this view, could also be applied to the memories of the members of HIJOS, agree with Sarlo and Kohan in that, in other aspects, Los rubios is opposed to the practices of this group. One clear example of this opposition is the way in which Los rubios challenges the mimetic approach to inheritance that underlies the practices of HIJOS.48 Carri’s own reluctance to participate in this organization because she did not feel that her pain was similar to or identifiable with the pain of other children of disappeared parents seems to lend credence to this view.

I agree with all these scholars that within the same age group there are diverse positions towards the past as well as diverse ways of addressing it in artistic forms. But I also believe that reading Los rubios beyond the framework of postmemory might help us to find continuities (and not just points of rupture) between Carri’s film and the practices and memories of HIJOS. Indeed, one key similarity between Los rubios and HIJOS, particularly with the latter’s famous escraches (in the Rioplatense slang form lunfardo, escrachar means “to expose” or “to uncover”), is their playful spirit. Under the banner of Si no hay justicia, hay escrache, members of HIJOS gather at locations where (former) members of the military and their accomplices live. As Diana Taylor explains, during escraches and in collaboration with collective art groups such as GAC (Grupo de Arte Callejero) and Etcetera (renamed Internacional Terrorista), the organization circulates flyers, holds open broadcasts and prepares highly theatrical and noisy urban interventions, using giant puppets, masks, live music and military pigs-on-wheels to capture the attention of both the anonymous pedestrians and the targets of the protest.49 In addition, GAC frequently use toys in its urban interventions, such as when its members threw toy soldiers with parachutes from a building in downtown Buenos Aires on 19 December 2001, while singing and parodying military marches. Thus the non-solemn and carnivalesque memory enacted by escraches, as well as the performative representations that use giant puppets and toys in the streets, could be read as an antecedent of Los rubios’ playful memory.

Moreover, the figure of the perpetrator also plays a central role in escraches. Not only are they the main targets of escraches but they are also metonymically and visually represented in the traffic-sign posters of juicio y castigo (trial and punishment) with the iconic drawing of a military cap inside a red warning circle. In this respect, escraches offer an alternative visual framework to the famous silhouettes of the disappeared made by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, which focus on visually representing the victims.

What distinguishes these memories from previous recollections of the past in Argentina, therefore, is not so much their alleged mediated or vicarious nature but their playful spirit, a feature that—despite the many and evident differences between both experiences—they share with many cultural memories of the Holocaust. It is this spirit that stoked the anger of critics and older generations. Just as with the works of Mirroring Evil, Los rubios was also accused of, to put it in Kohan’s words, not only erasing history but also the fundamental differences between the victims and their perpetrators, thus leaving to one side the fact that monstrousness is not universal, equivalent or exchangeable between the military and the militants: there are victims and there are perpetrators.50 Carri was categorical in her response:

What kind of foolishness leads someone to think that the military should be depicted with another type of dolls? That is, like Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, a way of thinking that portrays my parents’ generations as sheep willingly sent to the slaughterhouse, a version of history to which I am strongly opposed.51

Drawing a parallel between her film and Downfall (Dir. Hirschbiegel 2004), Carri has pointed out that Hirschbiegel’s film was criticized for portraying a humanized Hitler, as if demons or monsters (and not humans) had carried out inhuman crimes. Her decision to use the same characters for both “goodies” and “baddies”—after considering employing a Dracula figure biting a Barbie doll to represent the abduction of her mother—highlights her desire to break free of that logic.

As we shall see in Chapter 8, other post-dictatorship generation works in Argentina—including Seman’s novel Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China and Lola Arias’ play Mi vida despues—have also explored this emphatic nexus and heteropathic identification between victims and perpetrators. If the young artists addressed here reject any accusation of trivializing the horrors of the past, their works allude to a different type of banality—namely, Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, meaning the idea that the dictatorship was a bureaucratic, systematic and administrative machine of terror organized by “ordinary” people rather than the product of inhuman minds. A second possible connotation of the image of the mirror in the title of the Mirroring Evil exhibition warns us, in this vein, that we are perhaps not so different, in essence, from the perpetrators, and that we are all, given certain circumstances, capable of evil.

In Los rubios we see the places of abduction and captivity (the fayade of the Carris’ house and the former clandestine camp known as the “Sheraton” now converted into a police station, respectively), but there are very few references to the military. As discussed above, only at one point does Couceyro/Carri remember what she witnessed on the fatal day of the kidnapping, but her memory is blurred and not even she trusts it. The Playmobil figures are the only representations of the perpetrators, though they appear not as individual figures but in the form of a spaceship. Yet the film delivers a much more complicated image of those responsible for the disappearance of the Carris in the figure of the woman who lives in the working-class neighbourhood where the Carris went to proletarizarse.52 This woman was supposed to be “like” the Carris, with whom they identified because she, in turn, represented “the people,” the amorphous mass that gained social consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, as stated in the paragraph of Roberto Carri’s book on Isidro Velazquez that Couceyro reads out at the beginning of the film. But instead what we see is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, someone who never considered the Carris as equals but as foreigners in the neighbourhood (thus her perception of them as blond, even when they were not). She did not hesitate to betray them to the military, stating later that after the abduction everyone in the neighbourhood felt an “enormous relief.”

As if playing at role-play, in Los rubios, everyone pretends to be someone else, or to know more or less than they do: Couceyro pretends to be Carri; the film crew pretend to be students making interviews for a university project; the survivors and the staff members of Antropologfa Forense pretend not to know that Couceyro is not Carri; and the director requests a blood test (normally used to find out the likelihood of being a relative of a disappeared parent) and pretends not to know the result. But if in these cases pretending to be someone else both lies at the heart of the very definition of acting and is a playful device, and if in the case of the Carris there was an honest desire to become “like” the others/the people (even if that attempt failed), in the case of the woman, the act of pretending (to be a good neighbour) paradoxically unmasks her real self. One of the most striking revelations of Los rubios is thus to alert us that, yes, there are victims and there are perpetrators, but not everything is so straightforward when it comes to Argentina’s recent past, either because the perpetrators are more similar to us than we would like to think, or because those we thought to be our most faithful allies turn out, in fact, to be the cause of our downfall.

 
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