You Capture So Little
“The most important historical event of my life is an event that I have lived without direct experience,” says artist Francesco Torres. “I’m a direct result of the Spanish Civil War, even though I was born nine years later. It has conditioned my life it has made me who I am.” As Torres alludes to the importance of memory—collective as much as individual—you become aware of the many ways that memory takes shape. It is passed down through generations as stories, in history books, in museums. Precious and consequential, it is formed and re-formed by those who tell it or frame it, it is perpetually changing, accommodating political or emotional needs of a moment.
Memory is at the center of The Mexican Suitcase (La Maleta Mexicana), Trisha Ziff’s magnificent, complex documentary about the Mexican Suitcase, that is, three lost boxes of images of the Spanish Civil that were discovered in Mexico in 2007. Screening in DocuWeeks, the film’s particular assembly of the images represents another way of remembering, as the photos constitute memories, instants of life and death captured by photographers Robert Capa, David Seymour “Chim,” and Gerda Taro. The film includes as well another set of memories, as curators and photographers, academics and survivors of the war sort through their recollections. As their pieces come together to form the film, they’re much like the contact sheets produced from the negatives—each separate and all connected.
Their connections can be imposed, as an expert explains the significance of a photo or elucidates a context. Thus, Lorna Arroyo notes that what we now know as the “war correspondent” was only beginning to come into being during the Spanish Civil War, when these three photographers and others traveled to the battleground and recorded what they saw. “They’re foreigners,” says Arroyo, “who come for the Spanish Civil War.” The concept is remarkable once you get past what has become so seemingly normal, that reporters would immerse themselves in battle in order to show people—“the public”—what they would never see firsthand, risking their lives in order to do so.
The film also examines the pieces embodied by the artists themselves, their stories and their legacies. Juan Villoro notes of Capa in particular, the most famous of these three: “He was the Indiana Jones of photography, he was a lot of fun, friendly, and self-made. He was a Hungarian boy who reached the top as a world class photographer.” He was also married to Taro, who was equally fearless and committed to her work, and who was killed during this war. Irene Golden, the nurse who looked after her that last night, remembers that Taro had “one of those massive wounds that are absolutely lethal, you know,” as the film shows another sort of remembering, a headline pronouncing, “Spanish Civil War Kills First Woman Photographer.”
Each of these bits is a memory that builds a story, each granting a different context for the same event - Taro’s death—that had repercussions. Cap suffered a personal loss you can only imagine, of course, as did Taro’s coworkers and friends (Golden’s face, even 70 years later, indicates the effect of Taro’s death on her. The bits of Taro’s story of Taro confirm what you think you know or might anticipate, and also, refract what’s been handed down. The contents of the Mexican Suitcase reveal at least in part how Capa’s legend has absorbed the work of his wife and also his colleague Chim, their photos attributed to him, their names less well known than his. Rightly remembered as an extraordinary photographer, Capa (“If your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough”) is also a man who worked with others, whose art is a function of his relationships—with associates, friends, and of course, photographic subjects.
The subjects too have stories to tell. Even those who are long gone, like Capa and Taro and Chim, and seemingly lost “to history,” might be rediscovered. Sometimes these finds are brutally material: the film shows relatives and archeologists digging for remains in mass graves, looking to recover personal histories but also the story of a people. Archeologist Amelia Barreiro observes, “We might not like it, it might hurt, we may feel angry, but we can’t forget what happened and we shouldn’t try to forget.” She sits on a dirt ridge, near a site where still more lost lives might be retrieved. So many Spanish civilians went to Mexico during and after the war, to escape Franco and to have families. In Spain, surrounded by nations like France who refused to help, survivors of the war learned that Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas was welcoming refugees. And so they traveled, by ship, to gain their freedom. Historian Sebastian Faber notes that the “intellectual life of the Spanish Republic ended up in Mexico.”
At the same time, the photographs in the Suitcase allude to the experiences of war—this one and also war more universally. The photos are stunning, and the film’s camera tends to rest on each for long seconds. It doesn’t pan to mobilize viewers’ emotions, but remains still, so you might contemplate: a man leaps at or over a dead horse, a child looks directly into the lens, a teenager lies dead on a pile of bricks, a building wall reduced to bits of experience, its meaning transformed in its reshaping. “There’s so much sense of fragmentation, you capture so little of all that’s going on. I mean it’s not just the nature of the photograph or the filmic experience,” photographer Susan Meislas notes. “There are so many layers of what lies beneath any moment that you might capture. How do you speak to injustice? How do you document the conditions?”
Impossible as it sounds, this is what war photographers struggle to do, to “document the conditions,” the events and even the feelings of those involved. If the images are incomplete, if the frame omits another part of what happened, and if the emotional portraits are fleeting and imperfect, they are also components of a larger story, of multiple stories. And if these stories don’t find their way into “history,” they might, in some instances be salvaged and reintegrated into a next layer. “Remembering works not so as to open wounds for revenge,” says Juan Villoro, “to get some loot to grab something. No. It is to know what’s there, to close a chapter. There is a redemption that remembering offers.” The Mexican Suitcase also insists that remembering evokes more questions, about what’s not “there.”