The French film festival version of the poster lightens the background behind Maria's blindfolded face, but keeps the red lettering.

In the context of the Argentine "Proceso," Maria's work teaching illiterate adults to read is what justifies her arrest as a subversive.

Early in the film a self-possessed Maria drinks a beer and refuses Felix's advances.

The opulence of her mother's house contrasts with the image of a half-naked Maria rummaging through the clothes Felix has brought home from the prisoners being held at the garage.

Maria is arrested. The overhead shot emphasizes the vulnerability of both Maria and her mother Diane.

Combining painful realism with Christian iconography, director Marco Bechis casts himself in the role of the torture victim.

Maria's torture scene is rendered less vivid on the black and white, grainy video monitor. It is seen as the commandant does, via video camera.

However, Maria's tortured body cannot escape being fetishized as well.

This dark overhead shot of Maria in her cell expresses her isolation, despair, and vulnerability.

In the darkness of the cell Maria writes on the wall, trying to retain some control and maintain her sanity.

Maria becomes emotionally dependent on Felix, who is both her torturer, and her protector.

Felix brings Maria food from outside and they eat it together.

Felix's gaze, at Maria in her cell, reveals both his desire for her and his own sense of vulnerability.

Felix carries his torture instruments down the corridor of the clandestine prison.

The image emphasizes Felix's isolation as he eats alone at a busy Buenos Aires lunch counter. This through-the-window composition in the brightly lit outside world parallels similar camera placement inside the dark garage.

Bechis similarly shoots Tigre, Maria and Felix through the window bars separating  in Tigre's office from the rest of the clandestine prison.

In a kind of anti-establishing shot, the screen is filled with an ugly brown roiling mass that only later becomes intelligible as the river.

The close-up of the radio serves as a visual cue indicating the importance of the auditory for blindfolded prisoners.  In Argentina's secret prisons, radios at full volume were often used to mask the sounds of torture.

The blindfolded Maria talks to her comrade as they clutch the metal grating that marks their imprisonment..

In the clandestine prison, the guards as well as the prisoners are under video surveillance. Some mug for the camera while others play ping-pong, their attention turned away from the corridors and cells.

Maria's own sight is cut off by a blindfold as the viewer strains to make out the corridor of the torture center.

This shot of the surveillance cameras imparts content, including a torture session and the guards' break room, as well as create a squalid atmosphere. The monitors are identical and pristine in contrast to the disorder that surrounds them.


Marco Bechis’ Garage Olimpo
Cinema of witness

by Amy Kaminsky

Rafa: “Yo, el cine argentino no lo veo.” […]
Juan Carlos: “Yo, la realidad argentina, no la veo.”
(El hijo de la novia/Son of the Bride)

[Rafa: “Me, I don’t see Argentine movies.” (…)
Juan Carlos: Me, I don’t see Argentine reality] [1]

Although Garage Olimpo was nominated for awards at festivals all over Europe and Latin America, Marco Bechis' film never had a commercial release in the United States, and it had very limited success in Argentina. Before it opened in Buenos Aires in September 1999, the city’s fashionable shopping malls were plastered with the film’s compelling poster: the face of its star, Antonella Costa, blindfolded, beneath blood-red lettering on a black background. The Australian owner of the malls was perfectly happy to sell advertising space to display this image (Gallotta, “Entrevista”). However, during the first week of the run, box office workers in the upscale cineplexes showing the movie told patrons that the film was sold out (Beladrich). This meant not only that those who wanted to see Garage Olimpo did not get in, but that first-week receipts were so low that the film was largely withdrawn from circulation. By the time I got to Buenos Aires in late December, the only theater showing Garage Olimpo was a small downtown cinema devoted to national films.[2]

Residual censorship and the
ethics of silence

This box office censorship, oddly tempered by the free speech of the marketplace (or at least of the shopping malls) echoes the censorship of the period of the Argentine Proceso (1976-1984), during which time state control of discourse made it virtually impossible for anyone other than those sanctioned by the state to name national reality and to write national history.[3] After 1984, many feared that repression would return if the history of the Proceso from the perspective of its victims were too boldly written. As Nelly Richard points out in the similar case of post-Pinochet Chile, the transition to democracy was marked by an intense focus on the present that turned the recent past into a blur inimical to the formation of memory. Bechis encountered not only this residual censorship, but also an expectation of reverential silence: representing the pain of the victims might well trivialize it. Beginning famously with Adorno, who said that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, and continuing to the present with Berel Lang’s concern about who has the authority to write the story of the victims of the Holocaust, we are confronted with the possibility that the great evils of the 20th century might be sublimated into art, or, worse, be converted into mass entertainment (Lang, 2000). By these lights, Bechis treads dangerously, deliberately fictionalizing events and using popular cinema's techniques and tropes to engage his audience. Yet in the end, Berel Lang grants the authentic voice permission to speak, and even Adorno reconsidered his famous dictum, saying: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems” (362). Or make films.

Perhaps most important, the writers, artists, and filmmakers who are engaging with the question of memory of the Argentine Dirty War are those who have been touched by the events themselves, directly or indirectly. Certainly the contributors to the influential Argentine cultural review Punto de Vista [Point of View] believe that remembering is vital, and that however problematic, representations and memorializations of the abuse of power during the Dirty War are necessary.[4] As a filmmaker bearing witness, Bechis strains against obstacles, ultimately refusing to be silenced. Nevertheless, as his marginal success in dealing with the barriers he encountered at the level of distribution indicate, Bechis' ability to overcome these obstacles is limited. Ironically, one of the most obstinate is the sense of exhaustion on the part of Argentineans who claim that they have heard enough about the Dirty War.[5]

In addition to the limits on representation imposed by residual censorship, economic roadblocks, ethical injunctions against turning other people’s misery into entertainment, and emotional exhaustion at being repeatedly confronted with scenes of brutalization, Bechis faces constraints intrinsic to film itself. Narrative cinema cannot seem to escape the reinscription of the female body as fetish or those discourses of power that in the end seem to be about, or symbolized by, heterosexual, patriarchal gender arrangements.

Garage Olimpo

As one of the thousands of the detained and disappeared, whose Italian passport apparently saved him (after ten days in a torture center in 1976 he was expelled from the country), Marco Bechis can lay claim to the authority of personal experience from which to make his movie. He thus sidesteps the proscription against an outsider speaking for the victims of atrocity. His film, however, is not overtly autobiographical. It tells two interconnected stories, one of Maria, a young literacy worker living in genteel poverty with her French mother, who rents rooms to make ends meet. Their tenant, Felix, is in love with Maria, but she, his social superior, spurns him. Maria is subsequently kidnapped and taken to Garage Olimpo, a Buenos Aires car repair shop outfitted as a torture center, in which bored guards eat sandwiches, play ping pong, and listen to soccer matches between torture sessions and raids to round up more detainees. There Maria discovers that Felix is one of the torturers, and suddenly the power relation between them is inverted. The film follows Maria’s psychological disintegration under conditions of relative isolation and (implied) torture, in which Felix is her only link to her former world. He protects her from mass rape, brings her decent food and even fresh flowers. She becomes utterly dependent upon him and accepts him as her lover.

Toward the end of the film he orders her to shower and dress: he is taking her out of the garage on a parody of a date: they walk together, and she clings to his arm, in a kind of forced lock-step he imposes on her. She seems to try to escape, momentarily, unsuccessfully. He watches her on a child’s swing in a playground, they go to eat in a cheap cafeteria, and he takes her to a hotel, where they make love. She tries to call home, also unsuccessfully. When he returns her to the detention center, she is incorporated into a group of new prisoners.

The story of Maria and Felix, which takes place over a period of weeks, is framed by another story that takes place on the single day of their grotesque outing. The first image of the film, before the title, is an aerial shot that appears abstract — a roiling brown aqueous substance fills the screen. As the camera pans, the spectator recognizes the Río de la Plata, with Buenos Aires in the distance. The camera approaches the city and begins to track the progress of a bus. Bechis then cuts to the interior of the bus, following a young man who gets on, finds a seat, and hands the backpack he is carrying to a young woman sitting alone. She leaves the bus with the backpack, and the camera follows her into a well-appointed apartment building. Cut to the young woman bantering with two armed men guarding the apartment she is about to enter. She greets the school friend who is expecting her, and excuses herself to go to the bathroom. Instead, she enters a bedroom and places a bomb underneath the bed. We see the bomb being armed as if we were ourselves under the bed looking out. The young woman returns to her friend and tells her they must go out to go to a movie, but her friend says no — she has to get permission from her father first.

Very late in the film we will return to this scene: the intended target of the bomb returns home, and we recognize him as el Tigre (the Tiger), the commandant of the torture center. After a tense scene in which his daughter cajoles him with a flirtatious, quasi-incestuous promise of a foot massage when she returns, the two young women leave the house. He makes arrangements for dinner, and the camera follows him down the hallway to the bedroom, to return to the same tight low shot: focused on the bomb under the bed. After some tension-producing foreplay, the commandant walks past the bomb, sits on the bed to take off his boots; the bed and the bomb under it creak; he lies down and the bomb explodes.

This second narrative, taken from a real-life event, in which the school friend of the daughter of a police chief assassinated him with a home-made bomb, neatly frames the main story. But as we recall, the opening shots depicted not this intimate political murder, but rather the aerial view of the city. And indeed, Bechis closes with a return to the aerial shot. When the bomb goes off, we hear a load roar, but it is not the sound of the bomb exploding. It is the sound of still another weapon of death: the engine of a military airplane about to drop its cargo of drugged political prisoners into the river of the film’s opening shot. The camera cuts to what we can finally identify as an Argentine military plane. With this shift first via sound and then via sight, the viewer’s attention is immediately diverted from one scene of death to another. Cause and effect are confounded: el Tigre is killed because of these death flights — and the detentions and torture — that occur under his direction; and a new load of detainees is taken to be tossed out of a planes to their deaths. In the logic of the film's manifest chronology, Maria’s murder, together with that of the latest group of detainees, follows on el Tigre’s assassination.

The film’s grip of inevitability, created in part by its circular structure and its careful symmetry, is further tightened by a series of scenes threaded through the main narrative depicting the sequence of events leading toward the death flights. Each such scene represents a fragment of the process, each builds on the previous one, until we fully understand just what the procedure is that we are seeing. In the first of these scenes, Maria witnesses a group of detainees being given injections, told they are bound for transfer, and loaded onto a truck. A fellow prisoner tells her that, despite what the detainees are being told, he does not believe they are being transferred to another prison, nor that they will be released. In a later scene, the camera follows the prisoners into the truck, and each subsequent scene of this sort takes us closer to the final destination of the truck’s drugged passengers.

This slow repetition/progression reaches its apotheosis when Maria and Felix return from their grim date and Maria is incorporated into the line of incoming prisoners being loaded onto the truck. Felix is reprimanded for breaking the security of the detention center — he is no longer able to protect Maria. And the film ends with the death flight in the airplane whose engine we heard as the explosion of the bomb, thus linking the one with the other, not causally but metonymically.

The film’s chronology implies causality without asserting it, but Bechis ultimately withholds the narrative of a logic of causality. It appears that Maria is caught up in the machinery of torture because she rejects Felix, and that she is incorporated into the death flight because el Tigre has been assassinated. On closer scrutiny, we realize that any relation of causality is that of the larger system, the terrible coincidences that are inevitable in the regime of state terror.

The film’s elegant structure is complemented by its carefully designed and executed cinematography and use of sound. Bechis uses a hand-held camera and available light for the scenes in the garage, resulting in a documentary-style effect that intensifies the sense of lack of control experienced by the prisoners. It is hard to see all of what is happening in that half-light, and it is disconcerting to be visually jerked around by an unsteady camera. The film maintains a documentary stance in many of its scenes. The commandant’s office is almost always shot from outside, through an interior window, giving the partially obstructed view available to an unwelcome camera. In addition, the film’s single most graphic depiction of torture makes recourse to autobiography. Not only does Bechis cast himself in the role of the naked victim on the torture table, he also depicts the scenes of torture primarily through sound, remembering for the spectator that during his own 10-day detention he was kept blindfolded. Bechis' own witnessing was not visual but aural. Autobiography, the witnessing that might be thought as the most trustworthy, in fact demands the honesty of the limits of vision. Still, the only exact reproduction in the film is visual — the brief glance Bechis had of the prison corridor:

"The sound is what is autobiographical. I was held, for about ten days, in the Club Atlético, one of the camps they had in the city. […] Since I was blindfolded I didn’t see anything, only once did I lift the blindfold and through some bars I saw a corridor. When I was freed and I went to Italy I sketched that corridor and with that sketch I made the stage set. The set is exactly what that sketch looked like; I gave it to a set designer and I said I want this. It’s an exact reconstruction of what I saw from under my blindfold. And as for the sound, it’s not that I listened to those exact songs, that radio, it’s not that I heard those exact things, but what is exact is the thickness and the quality of the sound of that place, that is very much like what I remember" (Gallotta, “Entrevista”).[6]

Bechis makes judicious use of crane shots of prisoners in cells, under torture, and threatened with imminent death. Just after her attempted escape, Maria is forced to her knees as the guard named Texas, whom we already have seen kill her mother, holds a gun to her head and slowly counts. The overhead shot increases the tension, which is released with the juxtaposition of the sound of the gun firing (into the floor as it turns out), and a cut to a frontal shot of Maria. The crane shots, together with images of the action seen indirectly, through the grainy, black and white closed-circuit cameras that allow for constant surveillance of both prisoners and guards, heighten the sense of claustrophobia. They reinforce the dictum that from this place there is no escape, a line that Felix repeats to Maria.

In contrast, Bechis shoots the scenes he refers to as “above ground” using conventional filmmaking equipment. The dollies and fixed cameras that do not call attention to their own artifice, and the panoramic aerial shots of an over-lit Buenos Aires, contrast strongly with the claustrophobia of the garage footage. Bechis shot the exterior scenes on very sunny days, creating an extreme contrast between the hidden, dark world of the detention center and the overly bright, almost blinding shots of the city and the conventionally lit interiors of the world aboveground. Thus the metaphors of above and below are actualized by the nature of the cinematography. The irony is that the scenes that are truly “above” — the aerial shots of the city — seem not to forward the narrative, but rather to interrupt it. The aerial shots of Buenos Aires that punctuate the film evoke the interior surveillance of the torture center; we observe the city from above.

These aerial shots, which promise a god’s eye view, or a bird’s, one beyond the realm of human ethics and the other not able to aspire to it, turn out to be about the death flights. The implication, which we come to draw only at the end of the film, is that day and night these planes dropped their human cargo. Until then, the multiple fragmentary scenes from the air seem disconnected from Maria’s story and the intermittent narrative of the detainees on the many trucks that blend into one. In the end, these scenes fall into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which, when completed, reveals the terrible secret of the death flights. To emphasize the centrality of this particular outrage, among the many depicted in the film, the movie ends with a postscript that informs the viewer that thousands were killed in this manner.

Light and dark, vision and deprivation of sight, are central themes of the film. Bechis intensifies the unrelenting, dark horrors of the torture center by contrasting them with the ordinariness of life that goes on right outside its doors. When Maria manages to make her way out, it is into a blinding light that others must find commonplace, but that from inside the garage looks like the gates of heaven. She is quickly found and returned to darkness and the blindfold. The control that the guards have over the ability of their prisoners to see or not see is central to the film’s insistence on the scopic: who sees, and under what conditions.

It is striking how often the prisoners are told to remove their blindfolds, permitted to see — and therefore potentially identify — their torturers. But here were are beyond the realm of the purely narrative and in the realm of the symbolic, so we note that the bright light of the city blinds the people in the streets to what is going on around them; giving them, perhaps a false sense of vision. Along the same lines, but in a return to the literal, the aerial shots of the city that impart the feeling of surveillance in fact do not permit us to see the details of what is occurring there. Paradoxically, light does not illuminate. Indeed, one of the horrors of the film is the way the life of the city continues. The Buenos Aires of the film is crowded, anonymous, rushed, and somewhat squalid — no one makes eye contact, there is a cacophony of sounds, the streets are run-down, and the people seem to be in a state of anomie.

Once Maria is kidnapped, the only human connection portrayed on the outside is the society of women trying to find their disappeared relatives. Maria’s mother, Diane, trying to locate her daughter, goes to the police station, where she meets a woman looking for her husband. In a later scene, in which a military priest hears the confession of women looking for their missing children and spouses — an apparent reference to the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo — she finds an underground community of desperate relatives who are neither part of the normal world of the outside, nor (yet) disappeared themselves. They are utterly isolated from the rest of society. Diane approaches one powerful man, an old friend, who says he cannot help her. She finally agrees to hand her house over to Texas, the guard who will later hold the gun to Maria’s head, in return for her daughter, or at least for the ability to see her. The transaction completed, Texas murders Diane. Maria, of course, never learns of her mother’s death, which makes her fruitless phone calls home all the more piteous.

(Continued: Cinema of witness)

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