Unas preguntas

One or Two Questions
Kristina Konrad
2018

20.02. 16:30 Eng. subtitles Delphi Filmpalast
22.02. 12:30 Eng. subtitles Kino Arsenal 1
23.02. 19:15 Ger. subtitles CineStar 8

237 min. Spanish.

What does peace mean to you? And justice? Following 12 years of military rule (1973–1985) and the accompanying silence, it couldn’t be taken for granted that people in Uruguay at the end of the 1980s would discuss such questions in such lively fashion in public. Two women take to public spaces across the country a U-matic camera and ask these questions of countless passers-by. The reason is a controversial amnesty law passed in 1986 that grants impunity for human rights violations and crimes committed by the police and the military under the dictatorship. Enthusiastically conducted conversations on the street are at the heart of this stirring film, which documents the mobilisation of civil society from collecting signatures for a referendum to the day of the actual vote. TV ads and campaign spots from the time supplement the smartly edited video footage, which has never been used previously. One can hear a plurality of opinions, experience a society in upheaval and recognise the importance of the public sphere as a stage for political debate. An example of democracy in action, of the kind that once again needs defending in many places in the world today. (Birgit Kohler)

Kristina Konrad was born in Zug, Switzerland in 1953. In 1977, she completed studies in History at the Université Paris VII. She then worked for Swiss television until 1983. That same year, she lived in New York, and from 1984 to 1986 she lived in Nicaragua, where she made several documentaries with Gabrielle Baur. From 1987 to 1994, Konrad lived and worked in Montevideo, Uruguay. She is co-founder of the film production companies Girasolas and Producciones del Sur. Since 1994, Kristina Konrad has lived in Berlin, where she works as an author, director and producer. She and Christian Frosch founded the production company welt/film in 2002.

Uruguay, from a distance of thirty years

I moved to Montevideo, Uruguay at the end of 1986, entering a country that, after twenty years of repression and fear and after a twelve-year dictatorship (1973 to 1985), now heaved a sigh of relief and whose voluble residents now spoke loudly again after years of silence: it was a new beginning, everything was in motion and much seemed possible. Also conflicts and problems: many people returned from exile and no longer recognised the country they had missed so much; the encounter with those who had remained at home was often painful, and the differing experiences left their marks on both sides.
The most important theme at that time was the amnesty law passed in parliament in 1986 in the transition from dictatorship to democracy. It guaranteed immunity from prosecution for the human rights violations and crimes committed by the military and police during the dictatorship. A controversial law. Its proponents said we ought to let bygones be bygones, democracy needs peace for the country’s economic progress, while the relatives of the missing and dead and those affected by the state’s terrorism successfully fought for a referendum on this law.
Graffiti was on the walls, the pros and cons were discussed – on the street, in the media and at every meeting of friends and acquaintances.
I was new, still a stranger in Uruguay, and as a woman from Switzerland I was fascinated above all by the dynamism and vibrancy that dominated on the streets. I wanted to take part, grow closer to the country and its people and understand the political decisions and their background.
Together with my two best Uruguayan friends, and with a U-Matic camera on my shoulder, I kept setting off to take part and explore what moved people, how democracy functions, how opinions form, how elections are decided.
We were astonished by how willing most people were to agree to talk with us. Sometimes fear and cautious reserve were palpable; some of our interviewees were angry, almost aggressive, while others were glad to express their opinions. We heard and saw people finding words, after years of muteness, for what they consider peace. The arguments differed; in the balloting, the diverse shades of opinion on both sides were then summarised in a vote for or against the law.
Thirty years later, while clearing out my home in Montevideo, I stood in front of the closet with the U-Matic tapes I had never edited. At that time, we had found no way to edit the countless interviews into a film that would still be interesting after the result of the plebiscite. The material was no longer current, but still too recent. After thirty years, it no longer has to be ‘breaking news’ to be relevant. It has become historical in the meantime, and even today it says a lot about democratic processes.
Along with René Frölke, I was able to view the material with distance. His insistent questions and his precise gaze were decisive for the production of UNAS PREGUNTAS. Beyond the topic of the plebiscite, a fragmentary picture of Uruguay between 1987 and 1989 is the result. In these two years, my political awareness was lastingly shaped by the experience of how democracy and history are conveyed in an election campaign, what means were available to whom and how people dealt with it all. (Kristina Konrad)

Conversation with Kristina Konrad and René Frölke: “Today, hardly anything is political anymore”

Most of the interviews that make up the film were carried out by María Barhoum. It’s clear that she knows Uruguay’s political landscape and has a story of her own.

Kristina Konrad: María was an anarchist. She died a few years ago. Her parents were Syrian immigrants. María was the youngest of four daughters and had received a stipend to study art. In 1974, she had to go into exile practically over night. At first she lived for a while with her son in Sweden. Later she went to France and from there to Spain. In 1985, when it became possible for her again, she returned to Uruguay and began working as an artist. Back then we adjusted our shooting schedule to fit María’s work schedule.

What keeps the film going for long stretches is the special way María conducts the talks and how your team moves into the talk situation with the camera and recording device. It gives the impression that in these encounters you sometimes had to adjust very quickly to the sensitivities of whatever person you were talking to.

Kristina Konrad: The discussion situation was often ambivalent: on the one hand, people were very willing to speak with us. As women, we probably weren’t taken very seriously, but for the same reason people were less inhibited about talking with us. But some of them were still afraid to express something out loud in front of the camera. At that time, the military publicly threatened, including on television: ‘If Green [the opponents of the amnesty law] wins, we don’t know what we’ll do.’ The repressions had begun years before the dictatorship, and someone who has not been able to speak freely for twenty years will not lose their fear from one day to the next. María was afraid, too. The authorities had registered her prior history, and it certainly wasn’t the case that the villains were all in prison – rather, they walked around at liberty. When we addressed people, we didn’t know what side they were on, whether they had suffered under the dictatorship, if they were with the military, whether they had missing relatives or relatives with the military. For María, that was a difficult situation, but she was an empathetic person and soon sensed whom she was dealing with.

Your decision to put the key word ‘peace’ at the centre of the conversations apparently let everyone feel addressed and even a bit obligated to put their definition of this term into words. At the key word ‘peace’, those you asked visibly opened up – probably that wouldn’t have been the case as much with terms like justice or democracy.

Kristina Konrad: That was exactly our thought beforehand. In the framework of the election propaganda, the term ‘peace’ was omnipresent. It is often argued, and not only at that time in Uruguay: we need peace to advance economically. In the 1950s, this approach was seen in Germany, too. In some societal strata, not everyone can relate to the word ‘justice’, but everyone feels addressed by the theme of ‘peace’. It was actually interesting to learn how different the meaning of this term was for different individuals. For the poor, peace means being able to eat; for the rich, peace means primarily ‘calm and order’.
In the political debate, the topics of peace and justice were sometimes played off against one another: those on the right argued that those now demanding justice wanted to destroy the peace that had supposedly been achieved with the amnesty law. If we had insisted on the term ‘justice’, some doors probably would have closed on us faster.

Although the film is four hours long, it has no slow parts. In long, mostly unedited passages, the viewer sees how a conversation is initiated, how it develops and also how it atrophies when a barrier is not overcome.

René Frölke: These talks are interesting because of the things that happen on their margins. The length of the film makes the viewer learn things: about the country, its condition at that time, the time before, the time of the dictatorship. You have to acquire this knowledge bit by bit, and often a seemingly insignificant detail of an answer is important because, perhaps not until much later in the film, it interacts with another scene. Every scene in UNAS PREGUNTAS has its counterpart with which it can connect. We always regarded each conversation less as an interview than as an independent scene.

Because each shot makes it clear how it was created, it seems fitting that unfocused images and sometimes even the labels at the end of tapes have remained in the finished film. In this way, you understand that you really see the beginning and end of the talk situation, even in cases where talks end abruptly or even in the middle of a sentence.

René Frölke: We made a basic decision not to add any commentary in the film. Everything must derive from the scenes themselves. To do this, we had to leave the shots in their original form. If we had engaged in classical editing and placed value on clean beginnings and endings, that wouldn’t have been possible. The point here was not simply to line up monologues or to underscore the archival character of the material, which is more the means to an end. The visible work behind and beside the camera is necessary to keep the whole thing scene-centred: camera and interviewer are the dialogue partners of the respective interviewees. At the same time, a parallel plot plays out, telling how the film comes about: a ‘making of’, a film-within-the-film.

Almost all the situations and interviews in the film are shot on the street. On the one hand, the street is associated with poverty; it’s where you land when you hit bottom. But it is also the venue for public life and democracy. Those who suffered under the dictatorship associate the street with the arbitrary violence of state agencies. For those on the right, by contrast, lurking behind all the dangers of the street were still the guerrillas, the Tupamaros.

Kristina Konrad: At that time you could hardly have a conversation in which politics didn’t play a role. Back then, public space was also much more important than it is today. And the climate in Uruguay allows people to be outside a lot and to spend time on the street. The claim that it wasn’t safe to go out on the street in Montevideo was an instrument of right-wing propaganda. The aim was to frighten people; they shouldn’t gather outside, but remain at home and watch television. But it wasn’t really dangerous to be on the street in Montevideo back then. Even as a woman alone, I didn’t feel that the street was a threatening place. It is much more dangerous today than at that time. And today, hardly anything is political anymore. Today everything is private.

(Excerpted from an interview by Tobias Hering, January 2018)

Production Kristina Konrad. Production company weltfilm (Berlin, Germany). Written and directed by Kristina Konrad. Director of photography Kristina Konrad. Editing René Frölke. Dramaturgy René Frölke. Interviews María Barhoum, Graciela Salsamendi. Sound María Barhoum, Graciela Salsamendi.

Films

1986: Cada dia historia / everyday history (89 min.). 1988: Yo era de un lugar que en realidad no existía (85 min.). 1989: De la mar a la mesa (38 min.). 1990: Por centésima vez (75 min.). 1991: Los vecinos del barrio (34 min.). 1992: Comuna mujer ( 43 min.). 1995: Seasick on Solid Ground (15 min.). 2000: Greater Freedom Lesser Freedom (83 min.). 2005: Our America (84 min.). 2008: Far Away From Here (29 min.). 2011: When We Were Happy and Didn’t Know It (73 min.). 2015: Diego (45 min). 2017: Dos días en mayo (58 min.). 2018: Unas preguntas / One or Two Questions.