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In January 2021, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF, Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense) began an aerial survey of the 5000-hectare military garrison known as Campo de Mayo. A vast green space nestled incongruously in the urban sprawl of Greater Buenos Aires, Campo de Mayo represented a major locus of power in Argentine political life throughout the 20th century as the armed forces periodically intervened in the democratic governance of the country. During the last military dictatorship of 1976-83, the site also hosted four Clandestine Detention Centres within which between 3,500 and 5,000 people were held and tortured, prior to being murdered and “disappeared”. While four previous excavations had failed to locate the unmarked graves of disappeared prisoners, the EAAF survey sought to identify anomalies for further ground-level investigation.

Yet it is perhaps the aerial scan itself which best serves as metaphor for Jonathan Perel’s CAMUFLAJE (Camouflage). In the film, as in the survey, a meticulous visual investigation of Campo de Mayo conducted from a distance seeks to uncover something of the truth buried in the site. Nonetheless, as CAMUFLAJE proceeds, following those who live on the site’s edge, or who transgress the prohibition to enter and explore the decaying military installations gradually being reabsorbed into nature, Campo de Mayo becomes somewhat akin to the forbidden “Zone" at the centre of Andrei Tarkovksy’s STALKER (1979); a source of fascination which exerts an almost gravitational pull on those in its environs precisely because its underlying truth cannot be discovered. While Perel’s protagonist, the author (and son of disappeared parents) Félix Bruzzone, certainly shares this obsession, his easy manner and warmth towards the people he encounters and with whom he speaks, serves to substitute Tarkovsky’s pervading sense of dread with a persistent disquiet.

Scenes of quiet contestation

Since April 2019, the Campo de Mayo "mega-trial" has slowly been seeking justice for around 350 of the victims disappeared from the military garrison. For longer still, debates have persisted as to what should be done with the site. Without ever bringing their interlocutors into direct disagreement with each other, allowing each to reveal their connection to the space individually, with compassion and without judgement, it is ultimately these debates which Bruzzone and Perel quietly visualize. Thus, Bruzzone talks with survivors and family members of those disappeared (including his own), their conversations subtly revealing the conflicts they face both internally and externally. As regards the former, in one of the most affective scenes in the film, Bruzzone and his aunt Inés discuss family debates at the end of his grandmother’s life regarding whether she should be admitted to hospital in Campo de Mayo, the very site from which her daughter, Bruzzone’s mother, was “disappeared“. Regarding the latter, Bruzzone speaks with Iris Avellaneda, a survivor who has tirelessly campaigned for the former Detention Centre to become an official memorial site recognised and supported by the government. (2)

Across the film, each story deftly echoes the last, visually, sonically, or thematically, pulling the narrative strands into a loose order which circles around the “black hole” (agujero negro) at its centre.

Yet Bruzzone also talks with those drawn to the site for the diversity of its flora and fauna, those who have made the paradoxical discovery that the military use of the site has preserved it as an extensive urban wildscape. The film thus follows these explorers in their furtive incursions into the site, or records their plans to construct a nature reserve alongside a natural history museum within the same space. And there are those intrusions which are rather more commercial in nature, ranging from the visitor who collects and sells vials of earth from the notorious Detention Centre, to those who organise military-style obstacle course races through abandoned army installations. Across the film, each story deftly echoes the last, visually, sonically, or thematically, pulling the narrative strands into a loose order which circles around the “black hole” (agujero negro) at its centre, as Bruzzone refers to Campo de Mayo. That the entire enterprise remains underpinned by danger and potential conflict is revealed when the military arrive and interrupt the film, breaking the fourth wall and revealing the risks the filmmakers have also undertaken.

The conflation of form and content

Bruzzone is arguably best known for his 2008 novel “Los topos”, an iconoclastic tale centred on the son of disappeared parents that concludes with the protagonist entering into a relationship with a former torturer who may have murdered them. Quieter and more sombre in tone, CAMUFLAJE is closest, however, to Bruzzone’s performative lecture “Campo de Mayo“ (2013) produced as part of a series curated by the theatre director Lola Arias. In both “Campo de Mayo" and CAMUFLAJE, obsession with the site where Bruzzone’s mother was last seen alive is converted into a compulsion to run, a compulsion which then serves as a framing device.

While Bruzzone’s earlier work may serve as urtext for CAMUFLAJE, Perel and his cinematographer Joaquín Neira create something entirely new by masterfully transforming this compulsive motricity into a visual experience: throughout its entire running time, Perel’s camera is in perpetual motion. Nonetheless, these movement shots can be further subdivided. First, there are the tracking shots which follow Bruzzone as he runs around the perimeter of Campo de Mayo while the soundtrack relays his meditations on the site and the activity of running. Second, there are the persistent but subtle movements of the handheld camera which records Bruzzone’s episodic exchanges with his interlocutors; those other people obsessively drawn toward Campo de Mayo. These two movement shots, then, appear to alternatively capture Bruzzone’s inner agitation, and its exteriorization through exercise.

By way of contrast, this stylistic choice also situates the film within Perel’s wider oeuvre. Having made eight previous films which meticulously record objects and spaces associated with the last military dictatorship in Argentina, there is no question that Perel shares Bruzzone’s obsession. Until the release of CAMUFLAJE, however, Perel has always worked alone, and his films have entirely consisted of fixed camera shots of protracted duration.  The continual movement of the camera, then, represents a perfect conflation of form and content, a persistent visual trace of the uneasy obsession shared by director, protagonist, and interlocutors that lies at the film’s core, and which they in turn seek to transmit to the audience.

Niall HD Geraghty is Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies at University College London.

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