More than the dictatorship's accomplices
This ﬁlm is based on the book “Corporate Accountability in Crimes Against Humanity”, the ﬁrst report made by the Argentine state, systematising 25 cases in which there is evidence of corporate involvement in the repression during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. The book consists of two volumes of 500 pages each, published on November 2015 by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, and only a few printed copies exist. This ﬁlm aims to make the book visible, to provide it with an image and a physical existence.
The progress made in recent court cases was focused on the direct perpetrators: military, police, and security forces. The dictatorship's economic accomplices are still a pending issue. However, we should be able to think in terms of accountability, and not complicity. The accountability of these companies must be seen as an active role given the way in which they took part in the repression, facilitating assets and information to the dictatorship and obtaining beneﬁts while providing this support. It is not enough to think of this in terms of complicity: that would imply understanding it merely as backing an action that is carried out by others.
The ruling paradigm in Argentine justice is focused within the state itself, and not outside of it. The challenge today is to broaden the accountability, to demonstrate that it wasn't only a political plan but an economic one as well. Many of these companies are currently important economic players and in many cases their links to the dictatorship remain unknown.
The ﬁlm itself is meant to be a work of cartography, the creation of a catalogue that aims to exhibit the full scope, in order to transcend individual cases and expose common patterns. A sort of site-speciﬁc performance piece that views space as testimony and ﬁlm as a space-constructing device. But if a map refers to that omniscient, distant, motionless point of static view that tends towards homogenisation, what this ﬁlm aspires to is to create a path that will challenge the idea of a map with the notion of an itinerary, a journey that creates space as it moves, from the inevitable subjectivity of its unique and unrepeatable point of view. This ﬁlm is built on the route itself, visiting and shooting the factories in one unique, spontaneous, performance-driven, urgent gesture. Creating an atlas of all the cases detailed in the book, tearing out an image from these sites of memory, ﬁnding a voice to narrate them.
My work method, which I also used in my previous ﬁlms, allows me to approach this in a solitary way, travelling to the sites with no crew, just me and the camera. The theme and the places that inhabit my ﬁlms demand such an intimate approach. They are places visited by ghosts, sites that require you to go through the experience of waiting in order to hear them. It is about looking not only at the past but also at the present, the future past. To create images in which the present becomes history. (Jonathan Perel)
An imperfect variation
In his previous seven ﬁlms, Jonathan Perel demonstrated strict adherence to a unique aesthetic programme. Each ﬁlm has been constructed from ﬁxed shots of extended duration of architectural spaces and objects closely associated with the most recent Argentine dictatorship (1976–1983) and attempts to memorialise the atrocities they committed. In their composition, all of Perel’s ﬁlms have tended towards an extreme naturalism. Shot in real time, they have featured only natural light and diegetic sounds and minimal contextual information has accompanied the visual text. Each ﬁlm has thus represented a subtle variation on a theme and Perel has carefully tracked the development of memory discourse in Argentina over the last ten years. Perel’s new ﬁlm, however, represents a radical change in the director’s technique. In all his previous work, Perel experimented only with silence, yet his latest work is saturated with sound. And this formal shift unveils the ethico-political imperative which underpins the ﬁlm.
Incessant stream of information
RESPONSABILIDAD EMPRESARIAL immediately breaks with the formal devices employed throughout Perel’s entire oeuvre. Prior to the appearance of the ﬁrst visual image, a voice-over begins and reads the copyright statement for a formal report produced by Argentina’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. It is made clear that the text is to be distributed without charge and that it can be reproduced without restriction. (1)
The two-volume book which serves as source material for Perel’s ﬁlm provides a meticulous account of the role played by private enterprise in facilitating the crimes against humanity committed by the country’s last military government. Clearly, the subject matter is thematically consistent with Perel’s existing body of work, but the aberrant voice-over continues unabated for the entire length of the ﬁlm, accompanying every recorded shot. It seems, then, that in the ﬁlm’s opening section, Perel reads the copyright statement as a challenge, and his insistent voice provides the text with a new corporeal existence, just as the ﬁlm disseminates its contents to new audiences as yet unaware of the information it contains.
Perel’s unquestionable talent for the composition of cinematic landscapes ensures that every shot in his body of work is exquisitely beautiful, and RESPONSABILIDAD EMPRESARIAL is no different. Up until this moment, however, Perel’s sonic minimalism had encouraged silent meditation through its own meditation on the nature of silence. (2) While his new ﬁlm is just as visually evocative as before, the voice-over now distracts from the contemplation of environmental sounds, and the viewer struggles to absorb the incessant stream of information. Nonetheless, common features gradually emerge from each subsequent case study: the companies’ sharing of information and resources with the military; the persecution of union ofﬁcials; the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars of private debt to the state; the torture, murder and disappearance of employees. If previously Perel’s work provided space for reﬂection on the construction of an ofﬁcial memory politics by the administrations of Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2003-2015) from details which were well-known in Argentina, the surfeit of information contained in his new ﬁlm seems to suggest that the source material has not received the attention that it deserves during the government of President Mauricio Macri (2015-2019). (3)
Each individual must assume responsibility
Featuring an implied journey visually represented by a series of 32 static shots recorded outside each factory mentioned in the report produced by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, RESPONSABILIDAD EMPRESARIAL is immediately evocative of Perel’s earlier ﬁlm 17 MONUMENTOS (2012), which featured real time recordings of the then 17 monuments constructed throughout Argentina to mark the sites of former detention and torture centres. (4) Yet the fundamental change in the form of the later ﬁlm, that is to say, the presence of a voice-over, is suggestive of an important contextual shift in the intervening years. If 17 MONUMENTOS insisted that each individual must continually strive to remember the crimes of the past even when the state assumes responsibility for memorialisation, RESPONSABILIDAD EMPRESARIAL would seem to insist that each individual must assume responsibility to remember that which is at risk of being overlooked due to a lack of attention afforded by the state. In a similar way, the ﬁlm also deliberately includes audiovisual imperfections that constitute a performative trace of its production, and gesture towards a theoretical understanding of the text as a whole.
Due to an almost total absence of contextual information, and the repetition of 17 nearly identical shots, the viewer of 17 MONUMENTOS found that their attention would wander across the screen, drawn by incidental and insigniﬁcant action. In contrast, the surfeit of aural information in Perel’s newest ﬁlm distracts the viewer from the screen, and draws their attention to the subtle alterations in the audiovisual frame which contains the image.
The aesthetics of necessity
Unlike the perfectly intonated, authoritative voice-over one might expect from a documentary examining historical atrocities, the attentive viewer is acutely aware that Perel’s narration occasionally hesitates or falters, as if it were recorded simultaneously with the visual image. And where previously Perel’s individual images have been deﬁned by stillness and aesthetic precision, in RESPONSABILIDAD EMPRESARIAL the viewer becomes aware that his shots intermittently, almost imperceptibly, tremble and shudder. In addition, each shot is framed by a car dashboard or doorframe, and the viewer is distracted by reﬂected images in a wing mirror or by raindrops that fall on the intermediary glass. Given that Perel is always positioned outside the premises in question, and frequently records at daybreak, these elements combine to give the ﬁlm a conspiratorial atmosphere.
Suggestive of the difﬁculties Perel encountered producing the ﬁlm, RESPONSABILIDAD EMPRESARIAL presents an aesthetics of necessity, driven by an ethical imperative. In this way Perel’s ﬁlm is reminiscent of Latin American Third Cinema; indeed, it appears like a new variation of Julio García Espinosa’s “imperfect cinema”. (5) Certainly, having dedicated his cinematic output (and some ten years of his life) to examining the crimes of Argentina’s last dictatorship, there can be no doubt as to Perel’s political commitment.
And just as the proponents of Third Cinema in the 1960s were acutely concerned with neo-colonialism and international exploitation, so, too, Perel’s latest ﬁlm testiﬁes to transnational responsibility, highlighting, for example, the participation of Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and Fiat in the dictatorship’s murderous crimes. Perhaps, for an international audience, this is the most striking revelation contained in the ﬁlm. (Niall H. D. Geraghty)*
(1) The book, entitled “Responsabilidad empresarial en delitos de lesa humanidad. Represión a trabajadores durante el terrorismo de Estado” (2015), can be downloaded here.
(2) See, Niall H.D. Geraghty “Sonorous Memory in Jonathan Perel’s EL PREDIO (2010) and LOS MURALES (2011)”, Memory Studies, Aug. 2018.
(3) While the report was commissioned in 2014, during the presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, it was not published until November 2015, one month before President Macri assumed ofﬁce.
(4) In recent years, Perel has consistently worked in series. TOPONIMIA (2015), for example, featured four chapters constructed from identical shot sequences recorded at distinct sites. Each of these ﬁlms is also reminiscent of the cinema of James Benning – EASY RIDER (2012), for example – which Perel has cited as an inﬂuence on his own work.
(5) See, Julio García Espinosa, “For an Imperfect Cinema” , in “Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures”: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Scott MacKenzie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), pp. 220-30.
*Niall H. D. Geraghty, Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies University College London.