Burnt Oranges. The Stream of Life – Dimensions of Exile

By 18 November, 2011

“There are no statistics of the soul. There is no way to measure the depth of the cultural wound… we cannot know to what point we have been mutilated in our consciousness, our identity and our memory.”

— Eduardo Galeano

Like many of her contemporaries, Silvia Malagrino left Argentina in 1978 to escape the repressive military dictatorship. Three decades later, she filmed her return, reflecting her desire to know and remember her abandoned country, to find a way to be present and absent from the histories that haunt her. She needed “to tell,” as Hamid Naficy describes it,

“about the causes, experiences and consequences of disrupted personal and national histories” (Naficy, Home, House, Homeland: Film, Media, and the Politics of Place, p 105).

Her documentary Burnt Oranges (2005) situates her personal journey within the collective Argentine memory, building an autobiography very much linked to the social whole. In contrast and complement, Malagrino’s 2005 video installation, The Stream of Life, combines footage captured during the making of Burnt Oranges with x-rays of her own body to arrive at a very different kind of autobiography, an exploration of self-identity.

The existence of two videos from the same footage forces us to acknowledge that while her history is part of a collective, her need to relate it is part of a personal and complex narrative. In Burnt Oranges Malagrino negotiates her repositioning into a politically volatile past via a combination of self-reflexive documentary and experimental film forms, using her memories to discover what her “home” has become. In The Stream of Life, Malagrino’s connection to Argentina’s violence is at once visceral and haunting. With these two works, Malagrino navigates what Janet Walker terms the “fluid boundaries of memory and history (and fantasy)” to connect her autobiography to collective historical reality. Malagrino’s journey, with its twin filmic expressions, demonstrates that in the case of political exile, the personal and the political, the collective and the individual, and the public and the private are all inextricably intertwined.

Mapping the history of a collective memory: Burnt Oranges

Malagrino begins Burnt Oranges with an explanation, telling the viewer that she seeks simultaneously to recapture the Buenos Aires she left behind; to discover the truth of her friend Claudio’s disappearance; and to illuminate the aftermath of state terrorism and military rule in Argentina. Having fled Argentina as a university student, Malagrino has a lifetime of memories about her homeland; her project is to tell the history of this moment in Argentina to an audience that is not informed, but is active and wants to understand the role that individuals can play in repressive situations. Structured around a first-person narration speaking to a “tú” (you), the film relies on a complex combination of archival news footage, talking-head interviews, contemporary protest images, and lyrical image fragments to recreate the past.

As Patricia Aufderheide has noted of trends in first-person video storytelling, Burnt Oranges lies

“in between the essay, general reportage and the well-told tale”.

Malagrino’s documentary fits into this trend, furthered by the development of accessible digital media. Like the pieces Aufderheide studies, Burnt Oranges

“is marked not only by the first person voice in testimonial, but also by the bringing of the viewer into the world of the storyteller’s experience…Indeed, it typically does not make a direct argument, but an implicit request for the viewer to recognise the reality of the speaker and to incorporate that reality into his or her view of the world”.

In attempting to reconstruct the Buenos Aires of her youth and the history of the Argentina she left behind, Malagrino builds an imaginary Argentina, using her interviews and memories as alternating construction materials. Her subjectivity alternates, too, between witness and teacher, inserting itself in the discourse by refusing to let the history be forgotten. Neither a “talking-head” documentary nor a “personal essay,” Burnt Oranges entices the viewer with its poetic beauty even as it instructs us about a terrible moment in history. The very combination of beauty and politics enables us to understand Malagrino’s loss and her nostalgia. As she rediscovers her homeland, unraveling the role of its complex political history in her personal history, we begin to understand more deeply how Argentine identity must be affected by the aftermath of the military dictatorship. Malagrino draws on and contributes to a collective history and memory in documenting this personal journey because her individual experience cannot exist without the shared one. Since she cannot literally return to the past, she must travel there in her memory and that of Argentines who stayed when she left. Her nostalgia and her guilt demonstrate some of the personal toll taken by the military dictatorship.

The film opens with blurred, grainy, black and white images of Buenos Aires, the city in constant motion, as the narrator begins mid-thought, “Cómo cuando,” with a long list of “It’s like when” remembrances. The narrator seeks to establish her bearings, literally and metaphorically. She remembers that before she left, her interlocutor, her “tú,” wrote a poem, “La receta para no olvidar” (the recipe for not forgetting) and that she forgot “you had written it.” She explains that her grandfather believed that one’s inner map, one’s…

“intimate geography, can be inaccurate or distorted, but is always good enough to get a person home.”

Malagrino’s inner map sends her walking the streets of Buenos Aires to find an orange tree-lined street that she walked with her friend, a street she never does find. In attempting to trace her inner map onto the map of the city, she revisits in her mind a night spent walking and talking with a university friend whom she never saw again after the coup, a poignant reminder of Malagrino’s grandfather’s other admonition,

“that in telling our histories, the important things are not only what you remember, but what you cannot forget.”

Abdelrahman Munif has written (in Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing, 1991, p. 108-111) that the exiled writer…

“can spend too much time trying to reconstruct the details of his country as he remembers it.”

Malagrino immediately acknowledges the impossibility of such a reconstruction. Further, she understands that memory can be inaccurate and “home” may not be tangible. Influenced by Chris Marker’s ruminations on time and memory in Sans Soleil (1983), she looks at the city, the outside world, in order to address inner questions. Malagrino wants to use the camera as she perceives Marker to do,

“to witness an unfolding event, but to [address] issues that can be located anywhere else, other than the moment of recording”

Malagrino’s camera witnesses Argentina in the 1990s of her return even as the narration recreates the 1970s of her youth and the repressive 1980s of her exile. She must rely on the memory of other Argentines to recreate the history she did not witness. The combination of first-person narration with talking head interviews, archival footage, and sepia-toned subjective images enables the layering of these three moments as well as multiple subjectivities. Expository voice-over narration combines with letters written during the dictatorship, all woven together by contemporary and archival images. While Malagrino’s voice reads the narration, the letters she reads in first-person were written to her by a friend who remained in Argentina, writer and co-producer Monica Flores Correa. The result is what Malagrino calls an outsider-insider perspective — a complex tapestry in which past and present co-exist, coloring Malagrino’s identity as an exiled Argentine, forever conscious of the past she escaped.

From its deeply personal beginning, the film moves through archival North American newsreels to a series of interviews with witnesses to the March, 1976, military coup. In order to provide a multi-focal subjectivity, Malagrino interviews various witnesses:

  • Robert J. Cox, former editor-in-chief of the Buenos Aires Herald, who risked his life to report about the disappeared;
  • Vicente Massot, president of La Nueva Provincia, an Argentine newspaper which supported the coup;
  • General (retired) Ramón Genaro Díaz Bessone, who remains convinced that the disappearances were a necessary part of war;
  • Madres and Abuelas de la Plaza del Mayo and their attorney Alcira Ríos;
  • the writer Alicia Partnoy, who survived and testified about the concentration camps;
  • Esteban Santamaria, the son of a disappeared/assassinated activist.

From this first set of interviews, the film returns to Malagrino’s personal ruminations about the era. Alternating between first-person narration and the documentary footage, the timeline progresses from the coup to the rise of resistance staged by the Madres and international recognition of human rights violations to the return of constitutional rule in 1983 and the “truth trials” of the mid-nineties. In this way, the film connects individuals and institutions to the catastrophic events of La Guerra Sucia, the dirty war waged by the military regime against the people of Argentina.

Malagrino cannot escape the politics that led to her exile. Completed over a period of roughly five to seven years, Burnt Oranges did not originally pretend to a 360-degree view. Malagrino and Correa were inspired to collaborate on the film during a 1995 visit in New York City when Correa’s fax machine began buzzing with reports of Argentine Navy Captain Adolfo Francisco Scilingo’s admissions of crimes committed during the dictatorship. The events of 9/11/2001 stopped the process as Correa, who lives in New York City, and Malagrino absorbed “the enormity of the event.” Eventually, they decided that they had to give a full-circle view in order to “reconsider the big question of [global] terrorism” through the lens of state terrorism. It was at this point that Malagrino interviewed Robert Cox and General Díaz Bessone. The events of 9/11 thus evolved the film from a deeply personal piece to a personal film that seeks to represent all sides of the story.

Nonetheless, the interviews with Díaz Bessone and his wife seem ironic. He states that he was just doing what he was told to do for his country. He admits to a far lower number of disappeared than is commonly accepted. His wife shares scrapbooks. His deeply-felt nationalism seems, to a liberal viewer, both naïve and beyond the pale. In his unwillingness to admit guilt or wrongdoing, he echoes eerily and nearly word for word the confession of Adolfo Scilingo in 1995. At that time Scilingo said,

“I would be a hypocrite if I said that I am repentant for what I did. I don’t repent because I am convinced that I was acting under orders and that we were fighting a war”

Both Díaz Bessone and Scilingo refute the more-commonly understood truth, immortalised by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which called the disappearances

“a true form of torture for the victim’s family and friends, because of the uncertainty they experience as to the fate of the victim and because they feel powerless to provide legal, moral, and material assistance”.

Further, the inclusion of Díaz Bessone makes clear the generation gap between persecutors and most of the disappeared. As Malagrino told me,

“Most of the people who were tortured, murdered, and disappeared were young people”.

Most viewers will be familiar with the Madres and Abuelas de la Plaza del Mayo who have for years sought the truth behind their children’s disappearances. Now we must face that the perpetrators of the crimes were also parents of the missing generation. Despite Malagrino’s intellectual attempt at objectivity, the juxtaposition of voices — families of victims, victimisers, journalists — conveys a cause-and-effect narrative in which the general cannot escape culpability. Even Malagrino’s framing of the General, dressed in his Sunday best, seated in a beautifully appointed room, contrasts with the more casual settings of her other interviews, implicating him through studied contrast with the other witnesses.

What ultimately comes through is Díaz Bessone’s fear, a phenomenon discussed also by his wife and the journalist Massot. Malagrino says,

“We made a point to include that because [fear] was a big phenomenon. The fear of being hurt and the fear of losing power. And the fear they inflicted in the population. It was a reign of fear”.

As historian Thomas C. Wright notes in State Terrorism in Latin America (2007),

“Although the disappearances peaked in 1976-1977, the intense terror they produced remained. The military had deliberately created a climate of extreme fear in order to secure and extend its control”.

In light of 9/11, Malagrino adds, it was imperative to include the fear because

“that is what terrorism is, the infliction of fear, of terror”.

Implicitly connecting the fear inflicted on a people by its own government with the fear inflicted on the US, and the world, by terrorist groups, Malagrino emotionally drives home the corrosive effect such a deep-seated fear has on the fabric of society.

Letters from her university friends bear the weight of most of Malagrino’s memory, weaving her absence into the presence of those who remained. The letters allow Malagrino to discuss the difficulty of staying in touch over the years, their code name for censorship, and the danger that pervaded their lives. As Naficy has observed in An Accented Cinema (2001),

“The very fact of addressing someone in an epistle creates an illusion of presence that transforms the address from an absent figure into a presence, which hovers in the texts interstices”.

Malagrino understands this in a visceral way, discussing the spaces between the wide, curving lines of Claudio’s letters. We understand the danger that “this or any” correspondence might have created as she talks about censorship, fear, and disappearances. The letters go beyond what Naficy has called:

“the expression and inscription of exilic displacement, split subjectivity and multifocalism”.

As Janina Ciezadlo observes, they fuse poetry and politics in a manner that draws on Latin American literary tradition. They demonstrate Malagrino and Correa’s political engagement with the history as it unfolded. Ciezadlo notes,

“[Malagrino] has learned the lesson of Argentina well, she is not searching for a restoration of order”.

Knowing that she cannot go “home” because the Argentina she left no longer exists, Malagrino seeks instead to portray the details of an Argentine reality in which nothing is more important than political memory, individual action, and responsibility to a collective identity.

Part of Malagrino’s Argentine reality is her life in the United States. A full professor in the Department of Art and Architecture at University of Illinois-Chicago, Malagrino has two “homes” and her film speaks to both. To that end, there are two versions of the film, one in which she speaks her voice-over in English, the other in Spanish. Logistically, the choice to create two versions was economic. It allows the film to be screened to English-speaking or Spanish-speaking audiences without requiring extensive subtitling in either language. Textually, it allows Malagrino “to speak [her] voice” regardless of the screening venue. Philosophically, the existence of two versions acknowledges, as Malagrino has noted,

“the question of losing your own language as well as gaining a new language from which you can speak”.

While Malagrino is discussing learning to speak English, through Burnt Oranges we understand that in exile she lost her language in an even more traumatic way, through censorship and non-delivery of letters between herself, Correa, and other friends. Moreover, she lost her voice in the unfolding history — unable to bear first-person witness or to participate. In fleeing, she muted herself. In making Burnt Oranges, she seeks to insert herself once again in the life of her homeland, both its present and its past.

Malagrino intends for her film to become part of the telling of the story; she wants her viewers to remember the disappeared as individuals in order to understand the magnitude of the atrocities of La Guerra Sucia. In this way her work connects to the fundamental understanding in Latin American women’s film and videomaking that:

“both the process of telling and the process of experiencing the telling serve to build a collective identity and self-awareness”.

She has shown the film in the United States on university campuses and in human rights contexts, reaching audiences that sometimes know nothing about this history. More poignantly, perhaps, Malagrino showed the film in Buenos Aires in the summer of 2007. She observed,

“it was emotionally excruciating for people in the audience, too, because they relived memory in a very visceral, physical way”.

The presence in the audience of Esteban, one of Malagrino’s interviewees, and the family of her friend Claudio created for the audience a cathartic effect, allowing many of them, including Malagrino’s mother, to speak of events long-suppressed.

In the end, she admits that she cannot come to terms with “Claudio’s loss and the legacy of terror,” but that she has come to admire a new legacy of courage and capacity that she discovered in the Argentina to which she returned. In a final narration, she ruminates on her lifelong friendship with Monica Correa, the tú, while the camera lingers on an image of Claudio’s letters, his absence evoking all the film has sought to communicate. The ritual of the burnt orange is the metaphor that allows Malagrino to go “home” again. Having her mother reenact the burning of an orange on a gas stove conjures her personal memories of winter in Buenos Aires, inscribing her within the history she seeks to (re)discover. For the viewer, as Ciezadlo describes,

“burning oranges over a gas stove provides a complex, sensual symbol of family, Argentine identity, nourishment, taste, smell, and transformation, contrasting with the rhetorical discourse of the various authorities and bystanders”.

Video impressionism: The Stream of Life

In another context burning oranges, bleeding dark juices through their blistered skins, evoke the pain of remembering these cozy nights at home in Buenos Aires. This pain as well as the exquisite joy of memory underlies the images in Malagrino’s 2005 video installation The Stream of Life. From her earliest photographic exhibitions and video installations, Malagrino has incorporated memory, as she says,

“not just as a personal thing [rather] as a force pinching your nerves, cutting through your skin, you feel like there is something there but you don’t know exactly what it is. It has to do with the body, it is a visceral feeling”.

The Stream of Life was inspired by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s biographical novel Agua Viva (translated in English as The Stream of Life), and Malagrino quotes her in lines like, “It is such a Hallelujah,” “ the instant never ends,” “the word is my forth dimension.” Noting also the influence of Hélène Cixous, “about recreating a language just to challenge the voice,” Malagrino has created many works that focus on the embodiment of fear, violence, war, and memory. Specifically, The Stream of Life, a 3:53 minute video intended to be looped in an installation, utilises much of the atmospheric footage from Burnt Oranges to elicit a physical and emotional response. Where Burnt Oranges seeks to explain Argentina’s past and document Malagrino’s search for “home,” The Stream of Life attempts to recreate in the viewer the physicality of this past. Embodying the history, Malagrino makes it intensely individual, exploring the personal autobiography that was interrupted and altered by her exile.

The piece begins with Malagrino’s blood (collected during a medical exam) dripping down a stark white background. The words “This is a Hallelujah” flash on screen. The screen changes to an inset of a camera viewfinder, alerting us with text that the image was recorded on 12/24/2005 at midnight. A scroll tells us that

“the instant never ends.”

Quickly following are sped-up images whizzing us through Buenos Aires, lingering momentarily on women practicing Tai Chi in a park, and then continuing through the streets and buildings of the city. These images melt into words flashing across the screen, layered with x-rays of Malagrino’s body; finally pausing to announce that

“La palabra es mi cuarta dimension” (The word is my fourth dimension).

More actuality images follow, intercut with Argentines marching with a banner on which photographs of the disappeared are printed. And then, the image of an orange burning on a gas range. The burning orange is shown singularly, then in a grid of sixteen identical images, followed by Malagrino’s mother placing the orange on the blue fire of the range. As the fruit burns, its juices drip darkly, echoing the blood with which the piece began. The film returns to a montage of the city, this time lingering on elderly Porteños dancing tango in a park before returning to the images of the burning orange superimposed on the image of the dripping blood, reversing its path back through x-rays, text, the inset camera viewfinder, and, finally, a reminder that “the instant never ends.”

We are forced to ask what is a “Hallelujah’’? And, what instant never ends? Is the blood the blessing or praise? Streaming blood lets us know that we are still alive, the pain forcing us to recognise our humanity. Malagrino’s video acknowledges Buenos Aires’ “never-ending instant,” the continuation of its life despite her absence and in the face of state terrorism. Locating the images on Christmas Eve asks us to consider the miracle of faith in the face of hardship. In her images of anonymous Porteños we discover a feeling of the city, a sense of its energy and vitality. We cannot, and perhaps do not need to, identify locations or people. Malagrino’s “stream of life” is an impression of the city and her deep need to connect with it. She illustrates Munif’s assertion that:

“Country is not an objective fact, but an ephemeral idea—an ever-shifting memory of the past and dream of the future.”

Watch The Stream of Life:

With The Stream of Life, Malagrino makes visible the unseeable through the inclusion of her x-rays. These images metaphorically access Malagrino’s feelings of being an “insider looking in from the outside,” or an “outsider looking in”. They also remind us how deeply Malagrino must look within herself to make sense of her lost Argentine time. She has tried to explore the cultural and personal wounds created by her exile and by her country’s tortured history. But, like Galeano in the epigraph, she cannot measure the loss or damage inflicted by Argentina’s military government nor how her own consciousness might have been different had she stayed. However, she can learn, and teach, love of place and the role of memory in defining identity. Three decades after fleeing her homeland, Malagrino creates a poetic homage to Buenos Aires, a place that still resonates for her as “home” despite her long absence. If a viewer has not seen Burnt Oranges, The Stream of Life conveys that love of place and a desire to belong. And, if one recognises the footage from Burnt Oranges, the layers of meaning are profoundly deeper as these images evoke the history told in the documentary even while eliciting an emotional response.

Never-ending instant: going home

Through Burnt Oranges, Malagrino has tried to prevent forgetting, both her own and ours. The terror of disappearances lay in the erasure of the victims from public record and the subsequent attempt by officials to cover up all traces of their crimes. Malagrino attempts to reconstruct the history to combat dilution of memory. In this way her films continue the Argentine ideal of preservation, a necessity stemming from the reality that that Argentine native people disappeared completely after the land was conquered by the Spanish.

As Abdelrahmin Munif has written,

“The truth is that most people never discover their country in the true sense of the word until they lose it or are forced out.”

Malagrino discovered one truth about her country in the 1970s; it was an ugly, frightening truth from which many of her peers and friends were unable to escape. Decades later she seeks to reconcile that truth with Argentina’s present and with her heart — she longs to find “home” again in Argentina. To do so, she must navigate historical fact, personal memory, nostalgia, and absence. We understand implicitly that the home Malagrino seeks is within herself, her friends and family, and her memories. Her inner map may not be able to locate the street of the orange trees, but it has unfailingly brought her home. Through her we remember that our home can be, to paraphrase Naficy, any place because we carry it in our memory and recreate it in our acts of imagination.

This article was origially published in Jump Cut 51.

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