April: Luz Obscura

“Archive, Memory, Forgetting”

Malin Wahlberg (Stockholm University)

Luz Obscura opens in silence with a black frame. A preface in white letters conveys the historical context of Portuguese fascism (1926-1974), the horrific results of Salazar’s dictatorship (1932-1970), including the long-term incarceration of generations of “Communists,” and the transnational trauma of the colonial war (1961-1974). Similar to the previous two films, Natureza Morta. Visages d’une Dictature (2005) and 48 (2010), Luz Obscura (2017) involves the viewer in a material, critical and poetic enactment of rare archival images and fragments of oral history to invoke a complex time period that is painfully present and therefore rarely addressed in public life. This time, de Sousa Dias closes in on the history of a single Portuguese family and the memories of three siblings. The childhood of Isabel, Rui, and Álvaro Pato was marked by the longing for their absent parents and the ever-present threat of the PIDE/DGS. The blurred PIDE record of their younger selves in prison yards suggest a horrific replacement for missing family albums and domestic relations that never happened. Telling moments of silence and the voice as sound become prominent features in de Sousa Dias’ “montage of temporal depth,” a method she developed for the previous film 48 and has commented on in her own writings. The constraints of looking back, of engaging with material vestiges such as photographs or ruins are expressed cinematographically through conveyed gestures of emotional struggle. The time-space assigned to each testimonial fragment depends on these extra-discursive articulations when speech is halted, when the filmed body is at the center of the cinematic record, or when hesitation and pauses convey their own sonic traces.

Luz Obscura stands out as a cinematic allegory of memory and forgetting and, as such, it aligns with Caterina Albano’s recognition of “amnestic traces” in documentary art. Forgetting calls for a different kind of temporal representation that adds to the overall conceptualization of cinematic time and cultural memory. In de Sousa Dias’ film, forgetting corresponds with “cultural oblivion” in relation to colonial history and political oppression, and with the sense of mourning. “Mourning is a form of forgetting,” Elizabeth Cowie argues in Recording Reality, Desiring the Real, and personal experiences of loss can be enacted through cinematic gestures of embodied memory work (156). Luz Obscura forges an imaginary realm of actual suffering, with special focus on the history and trauma triggered by the photographs and the subjects’ emotional struggle to recall details of their past.

Luz Obscura Rui and Albina#1
Rui with his imprisoned mother Albina. Courtesy of Susana de Sousa Dias

Each voice has been recorded along with the noises and nuances of hesitation and grief. Occasionally, natural sounds of birds, sheep, or a barking dog mark the interval when speech is halted. Cinematic duration, manipulated speed, and the sounding of silence are characteristic stylistic features of de Sousa Dias’ strategy of attentive listening, which seems to extend to, and involve, my affective response to the images. In the first part of the film, a black and white sequence showing sea waves in slow motion appears with Isabel’s hesitant speech and emotional phrasing: ‘PIDE was always part of our lives, even when they were not in our home…’ In three different scenes shot in the ruins of their grandparent’s home, Villa Franca, Isabel, Rui, and Álvaro pose quietly in profile, or in frontal shots returning the camera’s gaze.

The materiality of place and vestiges contrasts with the non-place and presence of the sea as a visual leitmotif. The Atlantic Ocean is of course immanent to the history of Portugal, to its colonial past and to its national identity. In Luz Obscura, the abstracted seascape turns into an imaginary vista of memory and forgetting.

Luz Obscura Abstracted Waves#2
Waves. Courtesy of Susana de Sousa Dias

In the final part of the film, palm trees are reflected upside down in waves rolling backwards. Originally, the sequence was shot by the Portuguese army somewhere in Angola. Re-used and reversed, the footage of ocean waves in slow motion combines with Álvaro’s memory of an argument he once had with his grandfather, who “maintained that the youth should go to war, to defend the fatherland; just what the regime was saying. If you would say anything else, you would immediately fall under suspicion.” Music follows Álvaro’s statement to infuse the lingering view of sea waves with a symbolic reference to the silenced voices of the colonial war. Eventually, the image dissolves into a black frame to the sudden roar of the wind. The noise intensifies before fading out to the sound of Álvaro’s invisible but tangible presence. With mouth sounds and audible pauses of great fatigue, he concludes: “I was arrested in May 25.” Luz Obscura forges an image of private loss and shared mourning, where the attention is directed toward the painful struggle to remember. The reframed PIDE photographs, and the constant bridging between the present and the past, result in, as it were, breathing sequences of “lived time.” The film resists narrative closure to suggest an imaginary vista of conflicted memory work that alerts us to the specter of Fascism and its reappearance in the politics of our times.

“Shade and Light”

Raquel Schefer (CEC/University of Lisbon and University of Western Cape)

From Natureza Morta (Still Life, 2005) to 48 (2010) and Luz Obscura (Obscure Light, 2017), Susana de Sousa Dias carries out a remarkable work with the archives of Estado Novo (New State, 1933-1974), the Portuguese fascist, authoritarian, colonial, and corporate dictatorship, institutionalized by the Constitution of 1933, and initiated seven years after the 1926 military coup d’état. The political and critical usage of archive images along with the mise en tension of the multitemporal layers of history and memory inscribe this trilogy in a film genealogy comprising works by Harun Farocki, Yervant Gianikian, and Angela Ricci Lucchi, and Eyal Sivan, among others. Sousa Dias’ trilogy addresses the possibility of representing the history of political repression and torture in Portugal through a dialectical approach to memory, problematizing the entanglement between collective and subjective history/memory, in line with recent literary and scholarly work. Moreover, the organization of reality, in particular in 48 and Luz Obscura, arises from a singular modality of sensory reenactment, breaking the time horizon through narrative and aesthetic invention, and raising issues linked to film’s performativity. The formal procedures, especially the friction between image, sound, voice-over and the work of anti-figurativity within a figurative system, problematize the historical immanence of the archives, pointing to their material, discursive, and ideological itineraries. These formal procedures create the possibility of reactivating the sensory memory, the perceptive conditions and the cognitive perspectives of the victims of fascism, and of making them sensible to the spectator. The sensory reenactment is here linked to a formal and epistemic system that seeks to recreate the traumatic experience of the past in the present, producing, therefore, more complex narratives and counter-perspectives on history. Following 48, Luz Obscura’s formal and epistemic system may be described, as suggested by the film’s title and the long fades, as a transition from shade to light, as a process of enlightening the obscure layers of memory (in a cognitive and in a figurative sense, even if outside the rigid binary framework of modern rationality). The political strength of Sousa Dias’ cinema lies in this aesthetic-historiographical operation, exemplifying a perfect balance between content, form, and function – understood not in a formalist way, but as the effect produced in the spectator.

In 48, the production of memory and the sensory reenactment of the historical experience emerge from the confrontation between image, voice-over, and sound. The articulation of judicial archives (anthropometric photographs of political prisoners and victims of torture, specters that gaze upon and question the spectator) and testimonies engenders a complex relationship to time, an intricate interweaving between past and present, and the possibility of reactivating trauma along a new temporal horizon. The images’ resignification through the testimonies of the victims fifty years after the related events and the work of duration (silences, murmurs, sighs, fades in and out that evoke mnemonic processes) comes along with a profanation of the archives of fascism, its visual figures of authority. The film’s formal system seeks to reproduce the oppressive experience of the victims, a powerful political gesture. Sousa Dias not only addresses the political history of twentieth-century Portugal but also innovates the modalities of historical representation.

Like 48, Luz Obscura reactivates, through a system of shade and light, the perceptive situations and emotional conditions of the victims of fascism – in this case, the members (through three generations) of the Family Pato, militants of the Portuguese Communist Party. Nevertheless, there is an expansion of the modalities of representation of history and memory. Luz Obscura forges, in the same way as 48, counter-perspectives on history through the organization of a regime of visibility that reveals the persistent invisible traces of torture and pain, as well as via synesthetic memory (the remembrance of odors and sounds, as emphasized by the sound design). However, it also combines sophisticated analytical editing of archives and voice-over testimonies with the production of new images, archives for the future. These are allegorical images, such as the shot of the waves in slow-motion, or the crepuscular sequence of the river with palm trees, evoking the fascist and colonial systems as indissociable from one another. There are also images of bodies in the enunciative present – Álvaro, Isabel and Rui Pato, Octávio Pato’s children – bodies that crystallize, through pathos and gesture, the oppression of the fascist-colonial regime.

Luz Obscura is a film about the possibility of organizing and constructing an embodied point of view vis-à-vis the traumatic experience of the past. The film evokes the processes of organization and construction of a point of view on several occasions. Isabel, for instance, describes the experience of clandestine life as seeing the outside from the inside, “to see from the window.” The shots inside and outside the grandparents’ house, now in ruins, and the procedures of framing and reframing the archive images may also be read according to this perspective. However, the variations, differences, and repetitions suggest more. If 48’s rigorous formal system recreates the biopolitics of fascism, in Luz Obscura, the variations (in the articulation of image and voice-over, the different temporal layers, the relationship between champ and hors champ, fixed and moving camera positions), differences (night and day, shade and light, black and white and color) and repetitions (of archive and new images, fades) suggest the possibility of renegotiating the legacy of the past, reactivating, in parallel, its experience in the field of reception. As they provoke an aperture, a release from the repressive and enclosed structure of fascism, a passage from shade to light, those elements point to a process of renegotiation of traumatic memory.

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