By Robert Koehler
It’s a bit surprising that the Guadalajara International Film Festival isn’t screening the competing non-fiction films for the press, especially at a time when non-fiction programming is proving to be the life blood of many festivals, and when festivals devoted to non-fiction—from IDFA to True-False—are on the rise. So, naturally, on the first day of screenings, I sought out the non-fiction.
After dipping in for tastes of Carlos Manuel Aguilar’s Curb Creatures (with Aguilar’s video camera allowed into the often drug-addled lives of homeless people in Hollywood) and Renzo Martens’ subversive-looking Episode III—Enjoy Poverty (in which he begins to propose that Africa “market” poverty as a natural resource)—both of which I must reserve judgments on after a mere 30 minutes’ each of viewing, and both of which aren’t in a designated non-fiction category, but the more generally-titled “Sin Fronteras” section—I rested on Leandro Listorti’s Los jóvenes muertos (Dead Youth), and this proved to be a good move. It’s the second Argentine non-fiction work seen today, and in contrast to the sometimes roughly assembled if genuinely felt Fragments of a Search by Pablo Milstein and Norberto Ludin (about a mom’s dogged quest for her daughter, kidnapped by human traffickers), Listorti’s feature debut is an elegantly made ghost film.
That’s to say that Los jóvenes muertos takes the subject of a bizarre wave of young people committing suicide in the small town of Las Heras and refuses to explain it; instead, it ponders the traces left behind by the dead. The thirty suicides are individually noted on screen by the youth’s name, the date of their death and their age; rarely is it even noted how they died. (In one case near the film’s end, a quiet shot of a strange-looking observation tower is enough to suggest one kind of suicide.) Each suicide is separated by a blackout. Some are accompanied by voice-overs of parents and loved ones reflecting on the lost child, rarely even coming near a sense of comprehending their actions. Some are presented in silence, with only the sound of the places which Listorti films with a consistently still and stoic camera. The empty classrooms, school hallways, gyms, pools and places that young people can call their own become a haunted world, where traces of a past seem to hover and nearly become tangible.
There’s something ingenious about how Listorti encounters a carnival playground (empty of people, as is every shot in the film) where swings and other rides move and rock under a fierce wind off the nearby plains. Are those children on those swings, and we simply can’t see them? Are our eyes weak? Is the camera unable to see further? Los jóvenes muertos becomes a film about seeing, and then about seeing beyond surfaces, as much as or more than it is about death.
Why then did the audience applaud and laugh at it in mock scorn when the credits began rolling? (Many had been loudly talking during the screening, as a precursor of the rudeness to come.) Perhaps they came expecting a film filled with—what? dead people?—and got a film they weren’t expecting: A film trained on life after the dead have gone, and what it looks and feels like. And Los jovenes muertos is rigorous, so that was probably no good with this crowd either. It belongs in a stream of non-fiction that I’ve written about lately here, both the landscape/space-time continuum/epic cinema of James Benning, and the observational cinema of the Pompeu Fabra school of documentary filmmaking in Barcelona. (One thinks here of Mercedes Alvarez’ Tiger-winning El cielo gira.) It’s a cinema that asks for the audience to rise to the occasion. Guadalajara’s tonight failed.