What has the witness seen ? Both the question and its answer may seem obvious : the witness saw what happened. He witnessed an incident and has seen with his own eyes what he is now in condition to tell us. The question, however, becomes complex in the terms in which Primo Levi presents the problem. As an Auschwitz survivor and author of three works of non-fiction that are mandatory reading in order to understand most of how the extermination camps operated, we wouldn’t hesitate to place him as one of the greatest witnesses to this horror. Nevertheless, he sustains that he is not the real witness and suggests that we should look for the witness among “those who have seen the Gorgon”. He refers to those who, on the verge of death by famine, were incapable of any form of reaction, with no will and deprived of any response to what was around them. These robot-like beings were known in the camp jargon, as Muslims. In the crudest possible way, Levi has defined the witness as he who has seen, but who has seen something that is not available to the senses. He who has seen the Gorgon is in presence of a vision of himself in a universe closed to the world and which preludes death.
Giorgio Agamben, in his investigation of the figure of the witness, lucidly stops at the paradox that represents what Primo Levi himself sustains : the true witness cannot bear testimony and testimony comes from he who says he is not the real witness. As of this division, Agamben singles out Primo Levi as the perfect witness because he is the one who gives testimony of the impossibility of testifying.
It has been said that the cinema is a witness of its time. In this context, however the expression becomes insufficient. Because when the intention is to portray the horror, it is the beholder who is questioned The intention of the formula the witness of the cinema, despite the semantic discomfort, is to render an account of that structural violence. However, it no longer is “the cinema as witness”, it is now the spectator who sees him who saw through the testimony he is offered projected on the screen. And he, the spectator, is also the producer, now turned into an indirect witness of his own work, which returns to him inverted and multiplied in different ways in each and every mirror into which he sees himself reflected.
The banner that identifies this edition of Aesthethika plunges us into this complexity. It refers to a detail of Antonio Pezzino’s 1959 illustration made for a series of films by Alain Resnais to be screened in April of that year at the Cine Club of Uruguay. Among them, Guernica. A moving short film in which Resnais portrays the German bombing of the Basque city, and he does so as seen through the eyes of Pablo Picasso. Pezzino illustrates Resnais who in turn films a Picasso, summoned to give testimony of the horrors of Guernica.
Antonio Pezzino’s story is that of a person who, without seeing the film must even so portray it. For this he uses fragmentary reviews and photograms, but above all he makes use of the images that storm his imagination. In other words, he sees through eyes that are not wholly his own. The creation he gives shape to, on a zinc sheet, shows an observant eye. This one eye is not in Resnais’ film as such, but is there nevertheless. Because, seen from this curious perspective, Pezzino embodies another version of the witness in cinema.
On these same lines, the comments on films that make up this number have been selected for their remarkable testimonial role. They refer to three classical scenarios of genocide, which took place during the 20th century.
The first one, the Armenian genocide, as seen depicted in the film “Ararat” (Egoyan, 2002), lends new meaning to “a film within a film”, as Eduardo Laso and Carlos Gutiérrez’s texts so clearly express. Laso’s text was written five years ago for the first Ethics and Cinema Congress (UBA,2005) and presents the problem in these terms : Atom Egovan, the director, knows that genocide is ethically unfilmable. The solution he found was to reveal the artifice used to film it, and on so doing show its impossibility. Ararat is therefore, a film that tells of the filming of a film called Ararat that attempts to narrate the Armenian genocide. (…) Egovan in this way artfully obtains the paradox that by exposing the very artifice of the filming you can obtain the effect of transmitting that would not have been obtained had he told the narrative as an epic or realistic film. Carlos Gutiérrez’s text, especially written for this edition of Aesthethika, takes this same approach and shows how powerful and thought-provoking this aesthetic resource becomes.
The second scenario is the State terrorism in Argentina, which strictly speaking took place between 1974 and 1983, beginning with the creation of the Triple A (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance) and ending with the echoes of defeat of the Malvinas war. Hundreds of films have been made on this subject, including the only two Argentine films to have received an Academy Award. “The Official Story” (Puenzo, 1985) and “The Secret in their Eyes” (Campanella, 2009). In loyalty to the cinema in its condition of witness, we prefer to again take two films by young film-makers, who are also sons of disappeared parents (desaparecidos) –with all the weight of meaning this entails. Both films come to us by means of texts which have already been published, and revised by their authors for this edition. The first one,“The Blonds” (Albertina Carri, 2003), through comments by Armando Kletnicki and the second, “Tales of Everyday” (h) (Historias Cotidianas), Andrés Habbeger 2001), through the pen of Eduardo Laso.
The third scenario is the Nazi extermination. In this case we have chosen a different method : we have taken two cinema classics but presented as seen through simultaneous, contrasting views of the same event -different witnesses of the cinema who offer varied perspectives for the narration of one same event. The first, “Life is Beautiful” (Benigni, 1999), which received first prize in Cannes 10 years ago and which at the time caused a controversy that has never been settled. Testimony to this are the texts written by Carlos Gutiérrez, Débora Nakache and Laurent Meyer, two of which were written a decade ago, but have never seen the light of day. The second, “Sophie’s Choice”, (Alan Pakula, 1982) presents in all its brutality the impossible choice to which a woman is submitted, and it comes to us as seen through the eyes of Alejandro Ariel and Oscar D’Amore.
And finally, it is absolutely necessary to explain that the choice of the subject Genocides is doubly deliberate. In the first place because this issue of Aesthethika is contemporary to the trials of the military accused of genocide that are taking place in Argentina at the moment, made possible by the revoking of the laws of impunity. On the 14th June, 2005, in an historic verdict, the Supreme Court of Justice declared the laws of Full Stop and Due Obedience unconstitutional, thus opening a judicial, social and subjective process that does not stop. As we suggest in the introduction to Alejandro Ariel’s article : (…) the” three phases of the exculpation”, in chronological order were to be called Full Stop, Due Obedience, Pardon. But which due to logical times should be written inversely, because the whole series had been anticipated in the horizon of exculpation and impunity.
On declaring these laws unconstitutional, its effect, in retrospect, is put to question. In this way a series of cultural manifestations give an account of the après coup that presupposes the process, the collective horror. Maybe, the possibility for the witnesses to include their word in the public field should be placed in the front line of these effects, in a scenario in which their word takes on the value of accusation – in the legal field- of those responsible for the horror.
On the other hand and in parallel, Aesthethika enters its sixth year of existence and as of 2010 is an integral part of the publications of the Department of Ethics, Politics and Technology within the Institute of Investigations of the Faculty of Psychology, of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). Having been conceived in the heart of the department of Ethics and Human Rights, we thought it appropriate to dedicate a whole edition to these valuable texts, thus promoting the reflexive thought which characterizes the public university.
1) Eduardo Laso’s work, including this text, makes up a quartet of recommended writings on the subject of genocide read through the cinema. To the comments on Ararat and Tales of Everyday (in this number), we should add the article on Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek concerning the film Cabaret (Aesthethika, Vol 3 Nº 1) and the comment on ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the film Before the Rains (Aesthethika, Vol 5 Nº 2).
2 This proyect should incluye Baldosas de la memoria y la justicia, (Tiles of Memory and Justice), neighbourhood murals, the many films made by secondary school students in the “Hacelo Corto” (Make it Short) competition, the many performances to a full audience of the play Potestad, by Eduardo Pavlovsky, the resounding success of the soap opera Montecristo, the phenomenum of Theatre for Identity – to name but a few “witnesses” of the horror thus resignified.