By Ela Bittencourt
Commemorating 15 years of É Tudo Verdade (It’s All True), the festival’s founder and director Amir Labaki remarked in the introduction to his book, É Tudo Cinema (It’s All Cinema), that he never believed in the facile distinction between feature and documentary films. Now in its seventeenth edition, the festival remains true to its founder’s ethos: among documentaries that treat historical and sociopolitical themes in more traditional expository formats, there’s a slew of ambitious films whose very aims seem to be testing and expanding cinematic genres. (...)
The most (quietly) audacious in the lineup of this year’s experiments has been Blows of the Axe (Hachazos) by Argentine Andrés di Tella, who was given a special festival retrospective. Blows of the Axe, di Tella’s latest project, could be called a “portrait” only if we ask, whose portrait? On some level, di Tella pays homage to another Argentine filmmaker, Claudio Caldini. Caldini’s experimental films, shot in the seventies with a video camera attached to a string that gyrated, were seen by a very small audience. As the political situation worsened, Caldini fled Argentina. The two filmmakers didn’t reconnect until 2004, when the shooting of Blows began. The result of their re-encounter is di Tella’s attempt at a reconstruction, both of Caldini the man, and of the filmmaker he captures with his camera’s viewfinder. But which of these two is the “real” Caldini, and which a dramatic persona? As in di Tella’s earlier films, no single “truth” emerges. Caldini believes that di Tella can only find what he seeks: the act of filming shapes the story, and reinvents it. Upon his return to Argentina, Caldini lacks geographic or psychological bearing. He returns to filming reluctantly; when we finally see his new footage, flashing on three screens simultaneously from three projectors, Caldini’s shadowy figure hovers before di Tella’s camera lens, like a phantom. Rather than offering a cohesive portrait, the documentary seems consumed by chimeras, and fantastical projections of self, drawing power from obscurity and darkness: partial views of Caldini’s face, distant figures bordered by a doorframe, muffled voices. There are tales of a mysterious suitcase, in which Caldini may or may not have carried his films; and of his penchant for burning his old clothes, his typewriter, and then the suitcase itself. Di Tella’s own take on Caldini is that he tries “to hide behind the story he’s telling.”
Hanging over the film is the question of what happened to Caldini when he left Argentina for India. By most accounts, he seems to have suffered a hallucinatory breakdown. His footage from India, particularly of a man in a trance, seems somewhat prophetic. There’s an unaccounted gap in Caldini’s memory, which di Tella doesn’t attempt to fill in. Rather, he conveys the sense of almost Cubist fragmentation: the biographical elements may all be present, but they resist being fitted back into a naturalistic whole. In a Sebaldian manner, di Tella gives us a Caldini haunted by the traces of the past: espying in material objects and in the landscape the very proof of his own displacement. Displacement as both a physical and a metaphysical condition—these are the cognitive limits towards which di Tella seems to be working. In the context of the festival, he is the clearest example of Labaki’s theory that fiction and nonfiction, particularly in the more subjective first-person films, may not be so easily parsed.