Memory Excerises (still).The Stroessner dictatorship in Paraguay was the longest in all of Latin America, lasting from 1954-89. His regime, like many in the region over a similar period, was characterised by the systematic torture and disappearance of dissenters. In his film Memory Exercises, Paz Encina hones in on the life of Doctor Agustín Goiburú, one of the many desaparecidos (‘disappeared people’), telling the medic’s story through memories recounted by his family.
Goiburú’s persecution and murder will be a tragic but familiar tale to those acquainted with modern Latin American history.
Leader of the movement MOPOCO (El Movimiento Popular Colorado), Goiburú was perhaps the most prominent opponent of the Stroessner government. Even when forced into exile in Argentina, Goiburú was unfaltering in his opposition to El Gringo (a derogatory term by which Stroessner was known, meaning ‘the westerner’), plotting one attempt after another on his life. A terrorist in the eyes of the regime, Goiburú’s ensuing persecution, kidnapping and murder, will be a tragic but familiar tale to those acquainted with modern Latin American history.
It’s a story you might expect to be told as a militantly political saga. Encina’s film instead delves tentatively into the memories of Goiburú’s three children. Audio recordings of their recollections are pasted together, one fading into another to form a hazy soundscape, evoking the fabric of memory itself. Rogelio, Jazmín and Roland, now adults, remember the sights, smells and sounds associated with their father, summoning a tender nostalgia for their childhood. One addresses the director personally: “one of the things etched in my memory, Paz,” he says, “is the smell of his skin. Never have I recognised it in someone else.”
This isn’t to say that the implications of their father’s political life aren’t a constant presence. One recalls, shortly after learning to read and write, being stationed by her father by a window and instructed to record the license plates of cars. Another, of being “trained for guerrilla warfare” before the age of ten. The threat of persecution first materialises, somewhat terrifyingly, with the family’s kidnapping at the hands of the Paraguayan navy: “They made me take off my clothes... tied Papa up with wire... and interrogated me.”
The uncertainty surrounding the death and burial site of the disappeared is often central to the struggle to begin a process of grieving and healing.
For the most part, these audio recordings run over scenes populated by actors. Far from providing the typical reconstruction you might expect of a documentary, the images are in many ways distinct from the spoken narrative. A shot of a Paraguayan interior – a kind of extended still life – moves into a woman sewing in muted pastel tones. Three men on horseback wade into reed-filled waters. Children wander barefoot through a forest. The scenes are sparse and slow-moving – at times to the point of sluggishness. This refusal to fall into crass dramatisation, however, allows Encina to blend uses of documentary and a more poetic reflection on the nature of loss.
How to memorialise and move on from the collective and personal traumas inflicted throughout a dictatorship is a problem with which many Latin American artists, activists and governments have grappled. A notable example is Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz, who creates portraits using only the most ephemeral of materials – breath on a mirror, water on a hot pavement. In the event of disappearances such as that of Goiburú, the uncertainty surrounding the death and burial site of the disappeared is often central to the struggle to begin a process of grieving and healing. Memory Exercises itself, as the title suggests, is an attempt to forge memorialisation, by shining a light on the shadowy ends of Goiburú and of countless others like him.
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