The Untruthful Reality of Mariana RondónJune 30, 2016
This is the third in a series of articles co-presented with Cinema Tropical, the leading presenter of Latin American cinema in the U.S. The series explores themes in contemporary culture and the overlap between the visual arts and film.
One of the most complicated aspects of film, having to do with its very essence, is the achievement of verisimilitude. Venezuelan film, excessively marked by a desire for the obvious, has frequently fallen over the edge into zealotry. Mariana Rondón is one of the few Venezuelan filmmakers making films that are realist, and even films that may denounce, but without attempting to replace reality with images—an operation that Plato attributed to sophists and demagogues. On the contrary, the image achieves its image-reality, while the contingency of human necessities joins the territory of the visual, without extortion or violence.
Generally, a bad film is one that we see as an artifice and not a reality; as an opaque membrane overtop of things and not a transparency that launches us into another possible world. Image, sound, text, space, and time have not been sufficiently interwoven. On the other hand, the films that we recognize as good, the ones we celebrate, are those that play tricks on us, allowing us to see the cat’s smile without the cat, and those that immerse us in a story that we see unfold in a very particular zone of objectivity. Whatever the genre, we end up forgetting about the screen and entering into it, passing into another dimension as if crossing through Alice’s looking glass.
Rondón’s films (almost always made in tandem with producer Marité Ugás) enable us to see that wonderland while at the same time alerting us to the fact that we are standing before a contrivance, a representation, a mimesis, an illusion. And in spite of this disillusionment, we do not find ourselves discouraged. This is patently manifest in Postcards from Leningrad (2007), in which we see the plot take place alongside the image. We simultaneously observe the film and what the film seeks to project: we distinguish not only the supposed reality being filmed but also appreciate the layers of illusion that compose our reality, all without boring us, without making us feel swindled or defrauded. In fact, this is the diametric opposite of fraud: seldom does cinema confess to the inauthenticity of its truth. Speaking of the legitimacy of the technical image, Fontcuberta notes that it can only be a lie; in fact it always signifies a lie, but one undertaken with an eye to “lying its truth well.”
This does not mean merely denouncing the strength of the image relative to the real by breaking down walls, juxtaposing illustrations, oversaturating colors or adding in filters. Discourse itself becomes a reflection of the image in the script; passing from the thoughts formulated in children’s heads to the visual form of their representation of the world. In this way, the story—which includes footage, archives and historical documents from the era—is constructed in such a subjective way that it pulls viewers out of the film and into their own imaginaries, where they find themselves suddenly immersed. When we see the film, we are seeing our own family photo album at the same time. Postcards from Leningrad is a story based on real events related to the subversive rebellions of the 1960s. This era of armed conflict is not treated as a mere historical occurrence, still abounding with controversies and resentments, but rather as an imaginary, impalpable, phantasmagorical event, one capable of settling even more firmly into our conscience and all of its incorporeal deaths.
Beyond cinema, this is what takes place in Rondón’s visual art works as well, as can be explicitly observed in her installation Super Block (2012). In this piece, the viewer crosses through the image of the 23 de enero [23rd of January], a famous residential mega-structure that represents Caracas’ well-known popular urbanism. Using sheets of paper, spectators can go about filtering and singling out the sounds that seem to emanate from each apartment, immersing themselves in the intimacy of a concrete block that almost perfectly represents not only the misery but also the anonymity of modern man. By way of this sound, spectators penetrate the image, not within the image itself, but in their own perceptions, within their own curiosity, at the core of their own anonymous being. The model of an imaginary city that simulates a synthesis of several port cities becomes a sequence in a film that converts it into a visual installation within the filmic plot (I’m Looking for You, 2000), perhaps following through on an earlier intuition—the one seen in At Midnight-Thirty (2000), directed by Marité Ugás. It's a map of an affective city that can only be seen as an abstract, metaphysical sequence shot superimposed over the film’s surface. In Super Block, however, the installation has come completely out of the screen, but the spectators remain in a darkened room, in their own internal theaters.
Super Block was conceived during the production of Rondón’s award-winning feature Bad Hair (2013), which takes place in the same working-class neighborhood where the 23 de enero is located. Beyond its plot—about a boy who wants to straighten his hair without us really understanding why, despite the circumstantial causes insinuated in the film—the film exposes the problem of an unfathomable intimacy. In the end, life is invisible, manifested only in the exteriority of the body and made evident by the insistence of desire. But revealing a human being’s invisible specialness is also the function of Mariana Rondón’s art.
As with her other productions, in Bad Hair the literary and visual reconstruction of childish subjectivity, with its inherent detachment, is the manner in which the critical, distant, almost skeptical spirit of the world is embodied. The surrounding world always appears old, weathered, ruined next to the primordial, inaugural vision of childhood. This is its form of subversion. For Rondón, children are tapped into the soul of the future in the same way that, for Cervantes, the insane could personify the knights of past eras. The children of Rondón’s world are responsible both for taking in the world that surrounds them as well as impartially inserting the author’s perspective into the script, without zealotry or arrogance. Therefore social and cultural themes like poverty, gender, sexuality, and racial conditions are certainly treated with a tone of “denunciation” in her films, but with an elegant distance that is akin to committed indifference, which also questions the assumptions, obfuscations and political corrections of this social denunciation. In her children, we see cinema turn a perplexed adult’s gaze back upon itself. That perplexity is the true story told in her creations. And in the end, perplexity is what brings us all together, whether we’re children or adults.