[20 March 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“What do you imagine?”, Renate Costa asks her father. Pedro stands with his hand on his broom, in front of his workshop, where he and his brothers have labored since they inherited the business from their father. That is, all the brothers save for one, the one Renate here asks about. What did Rodolfo do, she wonders. Her father hesitates: “He wanted to be an artist.”
As you come to see in Renate’s extraordinary documentary, 108 (Cuchillo de Palo), screening this week at Maysles Cinema, both Renate’s question and Pedro’s answer are complicated by the fact Rodolfo was found dead and naked in his home in 1999, a loss that deeply affects the family to this day, but has never been quite explained. At the time of his death, Rodolfo had accumulated a bank account of some 32 million Paraguayan guaraní, an astounding amount: “I’ve worked hard all my life,” says Pedro, “But even now, I don’t have savings.” Standing before the dark, wide door to his shop, Pedro has his hand on a broom in front of him, his arm forming a long diagonal across the screen as he leans his head back into shadows. “I don’t want to imagine anything,” he says.
And yet, as 108 reveals, Pedro and many other people who knew Rodolfo have and continue to imagine what he did and how he lived. Renate recalls that when she was a little girl, her father forbade her to spend time with her uncle; she saw Rodolfo anyway, sometimes following him, sometime peeping in at him through his window. She was intrigued, but had no understanding why. As the film reveals, her interest had to do with the fact that he was “forbidden”, that he was homosexual at a time when this identity was punishable by arrest, torture, and death, in Paraguay during Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship.
Renate remembers her uncle as a treat, as an adult who was fun. Her father does his best not to remember him at all. As she tries to recover Rodolfo’s past, she speaks with his colleagues, neighbors, and friends. Several of them greet her, much like her father in this early scene, from a doorway or from behind a gate. This repetition of image is a function of the neighborhood housing in Asunción, but it also establishes a visual motif, shadows and gates, doors opening into darkness, and people standing in a literal thresholds, not quite in or out. Again and again, her interview subjects smile and share photos and stories with Renate, remembering her uncle and the difficulties he faced as a gay man.
As Renate peers into her uncle’s lost life, she discovers what she hadn’t quite imagined, that he was a vibrant, beloved personality, that he was a dancer and a dance instructor, that he was, one neighbor underlines, very attentive to his appearance and the state of his apartment. This is especially striking to Renate, for she remembers that when he died, she was assigned the task of finding an outfit for his corpse at the wake. When she walked into his home, however, she found nothing. “I walked to his wardrobe, to his memories,” she narrates, “but it was empty.”
As she speaks, you see the room, dimly lit, and the closet door, another threshold, so resonant with meaning, so daunting. Renate goes on to discover that Rodolfo suffered a particular kind of difficulty, both personal and widespread. She finds his name on a “108” list, the designation for homosexuals, and learns that he was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. When he emerged from prison, his friends say vaguely, he wasn’t the same, that “He started to keep himself locked up.” If we might find it hard to imagine what he was, or how he changed, Renate asks her father, who insists that this couldn’t have happened to his brother. “I don’t think they ever beat him up,” he says.
As Renate and her father clash over what they are able or willing to imagine about Rodolfo, about the regime’s practices or Stroesser’s orders, the film reveals how such history comes to be repressed. It’s frightening to contemplate, certainly, and also shapes your understanding of the world, your place in it, and your capacity to affect it.
Renate collects images of her uncle, family photos and a birthday party home movie, as well as a picture taken with his friends, a photo that shows a young, vibrant Rodolfo in a flamboyant dance costume. He was an artist, a dancer and instructor. He had friends, who here remember him tearfully, and with regrets. Pedro remains unable to answer many of her questions. “If you loved him,” Pedro says of Rodolfo, “you have to set him straight, because you think what he’s doing is wrong.” And when that setting doesn’t take, it appears that forgetting suffices—at least until Renate begins asking questions, looking back into the past, peeping over a threshold, to begin to piece together how her uncle came to be so alone.
Renate opens the film with another sort of threshold, a boat on the river that flows by Asunción. This is the city, she says, where her father and his brothers grew up, where she grew up as well. “I come to the river often,” Renate says as you see distant lights reflected on lapping water, “to turn my back on the city and look at what she doesn’t see.” Her film helps you to see and even as it helps her to remember.