May: Toponymy

“Ecologies of Depth and Disorder”

Brian R. Jacobson (University of Toronto)

“To give a name, is that still to give? Is that to give some thing?”
– Jacques Derrida, Sauf le nom (1993)

Given names give more than just names. Names give relations. Names bind namer with named and place boundaries around them. Place names make the relations spatial and the boundaries literal. They define territories and jurisdictions; they encode laws and authority. To place names on places is to construct sites and systems of control. Challenge the names and you challenge the systems.

Jonathan Perel’s Toponymy, the title of which refers to the practice or study of naming places, takes up precisely these naming questions: What do names do? What systems do they create? What modes of life do they produce? Perel directs these questions at a specific history of naming, one tied to brutal conflict in the Argentine province Tucumán. During the 1970s, Tucumán’s western hills sheltered a guerilla insurgency waged by the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, or People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). In an effort to quell the insurrection by controlling the local population, the Argentine state established townships on land donated by private landowners and the sugarcane corporations that cultivate the province’s eastern flatlands.

Each named for a member of the anti-ERP military operations, the new towns were laid out with rigorous order. Schools, markets, community centers, and sporting facilities fanned out from central surveillance towers—monuments to the towns and their soldiers’ names—that offered panoramic (or panoptic) views. In place of the decentralized communities that had engendered insurrection, the state substituted the order of the grid—an ordered space for law and order. It’s what Deleuze and Guattari called striation.

It is this order that interests Perel, and he encodes it into Toponymy’s formal structure. The film begins with a brief prologue in which archival documents and photos of the towns’ dedication ceremonies provide brief historical context. The four ensuing “chapters” perform a kind of cinematic mapping, using 15-second shots—carefully composed, typically medium-long, the camera always frozen in place—to record the places behind the names.

Everywhere he looks, Perel finds order. Straight lines, rectangles, and other shapes recur again and again, contributing to a sense of abstraction. Each town, Perel shows by repeating similar shots in each chapter, contains the same monuments, the same buildings, the same shapes and forms. Each town, in other words, embodies an abstract idea imposed by the state. The goal and result, Perel seems to suggest, are the suppression of vitality.

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We might name this suppression “flattening,” for what the state sought was to remove the contingency of the hills by imposing the order of the plantations. Perel suggests as much in the aerial photos that begin each chapter. The aerial view erases vertical depth, turning topographic variations into only so many 2D lines (for more on this, see this article by Jason Weems). Juxtaposed here with abstract planning documents, these photos evoke the state’s plans to “flatten” the insurrection and, in doing so, to replace it with depthless order.

Can this order, this flatness, be challenged? In one sense, Perel’s film suggests the opposite—that these towns are indeed lifeless. We see humans here and there, but little social interaction. More often, spaces—even designated sites of sociability—appear empty. Empty soccer fields, empty basketball courts, empty community centers. Humanity appears to have been removed.

But there’s more than meets the eye here. For despite the strictness of Perel’s framed images, it’s what resists the frame that matters more. The soundtrack, in particular, reveals a vital world. Everywhere we hear sounds of life—music, talking, children yelling, and especially a largely unseen animal kingdom that often overwhelms the senses. Close your eyes while “watching” this film, and you’ll hear the shots change and the order dissolve. It is in this sense that Perel’s film—like the life forms forced to make these towns home—resists the order and the flatness by reconstituting depth. In place of abstract aerial views and blueprints, Perel draws vertical lines and emphasizes depth of field. Reversing, one might argue, the Renaissance imperative to translate three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional representation, Perel encourages us to look (and listen) through the picture plane, past the flatness, and into what could still be a lively, multi-dimensional world—often a natural world that fills the margins around the abstract shapes.

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The film’s epilogue suggests such a movement by leaving the townships and returning to the hills. Having ended each chapter at the towns’ margins, where the streets end, Perel ends the film with the world that continues to exist without the order of the state. In these landscapes—shaped by streams, hills, and trees—we find an alternative ecology of curves and curlicues: the shapes of a different order. This isn’t some false vision of a “virgin” wilderness. It’s a place with a bloody past; a space with visible scars of history. Perel brings the camera close to the ground—people lived and died here. In this epilogue, we find traces of alternative modes of life: histories meant to be forgotten and futures meant to be foreclosed. In shots of old infrastructure overtaken by lush vegetation, we find signs of a world that could still exist, off the grid. This is a world lived with the land, a world with depth. It neither has nor needs a name.

“Mapping the Towns of ‘Operation Independence’”

Jennifer Peterson (Woodbury University)

Jonathan Perel’s quiet, structurally rigorous, and deeply political film Toponymy is a model of how landscape can be used in film. Rather than staging a series of talking heads, as a more conventional documentary would do, this film shows only exterior shots of landscapes – interspersed with maps, aerial views, and archival documents – to illustrate its point about how spaces, buildings, and towns can be organized to keep people under control.

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Toponymy portrays four tiny pueblos in rural Argentina that are rarely visited by outsiders, let alone made into the subject of a feature-length film. But these villages are hardly premodern – rather, upon first glance (and without knowledge of their context), they might appear as models of civilization, with parks, plazas, schools, sports complexes, and commemorative statues. In fact, the true story of these villages – a story that is presented to us with magnifying-glass precision in the film’s prologue through a series of archival documents – is chilling to the bone. The towns were created out of whole cloth by the Argentine state in 1976-77 as part of an effort to stamp out an armed rebellion of indigenous campesinos in the province of Tucumán. The Argentinian military dubbed the action, perversely, “Operation Independence.” Those who were not killed were forcibly removed from the mountains and made to live in these master-planned mini-experiments in urban planning. The towns that were created each have virtually the same layout, and were designed for the same purpose: to “completely eradicate subversion.” Forty years later, this film documents what these four villages look like today.

Formally, the film uses landscape film techniques developed by James Benning (and subsequently explored by filmmakers such as Lee Anne Schmitt, Travis Wilkerson, Jenni Olson, Laida Lertxundi, and others) such as static camera, straight-on shots, and a refusal of narrative. The film uses only ambient sound. All shots are held for a 15-second duration, and each of the film’s four parts repeats a sequence of shots (the gates of the town, the plaza, the bus depot, and so forth) in the same order each time. This tightly-held structure renders each town’s similarities and slight variations utterly striking – as when, in the third town (Pueblo Sargento Moya) we see the expected maudlin statue of a mother and child, but this time the baby has been ripped away to reveal a gaping hole! It is hard to describe the affective power of these repetitions and variations across the film; suffice it to say that Toponymy provides rich rewards for the attentive spectator. In focusing on exteriors – streets, public spaces, buildings – the film makes its landscapes bear the burden of representation, and it is through repetition that these landscapes take on deeper meaning.

The word “toponymy” means the study of place names. These towns, we learn, have been named after Argentine soldiers killed during the counterinsurgency. The people living here – always shown at a distance – have been living in towns named after the heroes of the state that quashed their uprising. The placid exterior of these villages therefore takes on a hollow resonance; the slogans painted on each town’s water tower (such as “peace and harmony”) read as statist kitsch.

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These landscapes are remarkably vacant. A few children play in the streets, and numerous chickens and dogs appear. But three of the four soccer fields lie unused, and the plazas and parks (each with an identical picnic umbrella) are uniformly empty. Many of the houses have TV satellite dishes, and one wonders if watching television is how the residents spend their days. We may be curious about the people living here – their psychologies, their beliefs, their internal struggles – but the film’s refreshing interdiction of first-person anecdotes has the twofold benefit of granting these people their privacy and dignity and also demanding that the viewer do the work of coming up with her own interpretations. The landscapes of these nearly identical towns emerge as deceptive containers for a much more complex truth about the all-powerful state and its ability to control its subjects through a form of city planning that literally inscribes war propaganda into the streets.

Toponymy’s own grid-like repetitions mimic the formal structure of these towns, but in presenting the four towns in four chapters, these repetitions also turn into a method of critique produced by the spectator’s continual activity of comparing and contrasting. Finally, the film’s epilogue, which moves into the surrounding natural landscapes and ends in the jungle where the insurgency began, provides an escape hatch beyond the seemingly airless territories of these four villages. The film had been flirting with this all along, ending each chapter with a tantalizing few shots of the roads that abruptly end at the edge of each town. Just as the Argentinian state feared that revolution is fomented in the mountains, Perel’s film finally returns us there, leaving us with a sense of the potentiality located in the (very old) idea of nature as space of freedom.

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One thought on “May: Toponymy

  1. I love the way both responses/reviews unpack the tension between the rigid structure and the sense of psychology, of lived life, and of chance in the film. Toponomy stuck with me since my first viewing.

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