Almost exactly half-way through Manuel Correa’s fascinating and important new documentary, The Shape of Now (La forma del presente, 2018), we hear Philosopher of Mathematics, Fernando Zalamea, tell us that politics is like “the surface of the sea [. . .] the waves, which overwhelm us, overpower us, while we should try to seek something deeper that might allow us to escape these waves. It’s a struggle between surface and depth. It’s on the surface that you find, particularly, ‘post-truth’ [. . .]. In fact, truth is to be found in the depths.” Here the film image, which had been a shot of noisy, rushing waters, shifts to the silent depiction of torchlight playing over what seem to be trees or undergrowth, picking out branches or patches of foliage without ever stopping atill in any one place. Is this meant to illustrate what it means to search for a truth found somewhere below? If so, it is not obvious in fact that any greater clarity is achieved by means of this restless highlighting of particulars that emerge from and just as quickly recede back again into the darkness.
Indeed, taken as a whole Correa’s film can be seen almost as a systematic refutation of Zalamea’s thesis. For this is a movie that is for long periods captivated by what appear to be superficial details. The camera, almost always static, lingers on exteriors (a café, an apartment building, a street scene, some kind of government palace) or on the everyday activities around or within (kids playing in a churchyard, a cook kneading dough in a kitchen, a woman sewing, a man having his haircut, a rather lugubrious birthday dance, a bubble rising in a water cooler). Interviewees are presented in long shot and wide angle, with long takes giving the viewer’s eye time to wander and examine the objects that surround them (newspapers, books, teacups, an elaborate candleholder, tables and chairs). What they have to say often threatens to be drowned out by ambient noise that seems at first to be a distraction but then comes to be an object of interest in its own right. At the very end of the film, in fact, there are a couple of shots in which we see people speaking, as they dismantle a stage set, but we don’t hear their voices, which have been replaced entirely by incidental sound that may or may not correspond to the scene before us. There are no depths here, just more surfaces that overlap in parts and at times but never quite coincide.
The topic that the movie addresses is the legacy of Colombia’s decades-long civil war, which began in the 1960s and nominally came to an end in 2016 with the signing of peace accords between the government and the main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. In all (the film tells us at the outset) some 260,000 people died in the conflict at the hands of the rebels, the state, paramilitary forces, or drug traffickers. A further 82,000 were forcibly disappeared. Now that there is some kind of peace in the country–a “partial peace” as someone in the film notes, which is better at least than all-out hostilities–people are trying to come to terms with what happened, and to come to terms with each other, as they embark on what the movie calls “the impossible task of agreeing on a shared past.” In some sense, then, the waves are the entire point: an endless set of singularities, of histories that may have a common root but ceaselessly collide. Any sense of calm is simply an illusion of scale, like the long shot of a lake that also illustrates the professor’s disquisition: from a distance the turbulence disappears, but this movie is fascinated by the ways in which larger forces are expressed and play out on a small scale, in a bar or an office, in a scientific study or a theatre troupe.
The theatre troupe is perhaps the central piece in this fragmented montage of disparate elements. The players are all survivors of the war (they claim to refuse the labels of either victims of perpetrators) who have lost relatives to forced disappearance. They act out their own histories, or histories that could have been theirs: panicked attempts to escape when word has it the military or the guerrilla are coming to town; anxious conversations when a loved one doesn’t return from a trip or an errand. Their performances are decidedly amateur, but in a way that’s the point; they don’t want to be lost in their characters, but to maintain their distance from the trauma that they are re-enacting. They take their show to the jails, to perform in front of prisoners who may have been sentenced for the very crimes that they somewhat ham-fistedly represent. To some extent the play is a ruse: they simply want to meet the “other side,” whether to understand them or to be understood by them is not entirely clear; they also suggest that this may be a good way to have the inmates confess informally to the location of clandestine burial sites. Either way, the entire exercise surely demonstrates what we might call the “powers of the false.” Everyone is trying out new roles, with more or less conviction. Meanwhile, an inmate eyes the camera suspiciously, as if to ask what the film is registering. Unblinking, patient, mostly unmoved, the apparatus takes in these surface events and challenges us to do something with them.