Credits: Martin Zellerhoff

By Tomáš Hudák

Manuel Correa’s The Shape of Now is a documentary essay about reconciliation after the sixty-year Colombian civil war. However, with philosophers and neuroscientists among the main characters, the film is not so much about the war itself; it is rather a case study of different historical narratives and their co-existence, of possibility of multiple truths, and how the past is constructed.

Last September, I met with Correa during Cinematik IFF in Piestany, Slovakia where he came to present his film and take a few days off his current work with Forensic Architecture.

Desistfilm: In the first scene, one of the protagonists says that even though there is only one war, people have different experience of it which means it’s difficult to find one narrative. In the second scene another protagonist says the country cannot be divided into perpetrators and victims, they are all survivors. Did you start to make the film with these two positions?

Manuel Correa: It started in my family. I was always in favour of the 2016 peace agreement which was meant to end the war – or at least to take one fraction out of the conflict. But some of the people I spoke with were really against it; they thought any form of amnesty was too much a price to pay for potential peace. Talking to other people, to war victims and people who had experienced the war, I found there is a lot of antagonism in Colombia about what we would like our collective future to be. It is probably natural that if you are victim of one group, you tend to hate that group, but how do we start creating a shared vision of the future understanding that our visions of the past would not necessarily match? We will always have different visions of the past. I wanted to make a film as an invitation to think about different memories.

Desistfilm: Why did you decide to include scientists and philosophers? We don’t usually see them in such films.

Manuel Correa: I wanted to involve scientists because I believe their research could provide the film with a different perspective. Even though these people didn’t necessarily live through the war – of course, the war was very near, but they are not considered victims in the traditional sense – their research certainly adds an important layer to our current understanding of the Colombian war.

One of the key characters of the film is philosopher of mathematics Fernando Zalamea. I came across his book Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics where I learned that in contemporary mathematics there is a very complex and multi-layered idea of what truth is. Things are no longer true or false, but there are many intermediate truths.

The Shape of Now

Desistfilm: If we agree that there are multiple truths, it needs to be said that it doesn’t mean anything can be true.

Manuel Correa: Yes, it was something that was very much on my mind while working on The Shape of Now. And this is actually where the film started. The first person I interviewed for this project was Canadian neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Lindsay. In 2000, he discovered the existence of false memories which means things other people told you, or things you saw in the movies can be remembered as your own memories. In this sense, it is possible to believe false memories can be implanted or created on a constant basis.

The film started as an exploration of what it means to be able to create the past – and the role of verification. Because if you accept that you can implant false memories into people then how is our own autobiographical memory a reliable source for testimonies and truth-claims? In this sense, it is evident that we have no access to the past. We can remember the past, but every time you may remember something differently and memories may change. I am interested in the idea that the memory of the past is always created in the future. The past is ground for experimentation.

Desistfilm: Even though these ideas are not new, it seems like some three years ago they were everywhere and we were talking about the post-truth era and echo chambers. Your film seems to be addressing that while trying to give it some theoretical background.

Manuel Correa: When I started working on the film, it was the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency – and then a year later, post-truth was the word of the year. Of course, I was influenced by this context

But there is another thing I noticed in Colombia at the time. There are a lot of different WhatsApp groups, on the whole political spectrum from far-right to far-left, that are constantly spreading lies just to get a political gain. Of course, people identify with things they want to believe. The post-truth works that way – you see something you want to believe so you believe it and you think it’s true. People often don’t take the time to verify pieces of “information” they agree with.

Desistfilm: Your film is structured the same way; we see separate scenes with no direct confrontation between the various points of view. We feel like everyone has their own version of truth and people are not talking to each other.

Manuel Correa: For example, soldiers that appear in the film feel they are the least listened to. Of course, the military committed considerable atrocities during the war, as did all the factions, but the middle-range soldiers also self-identify as victims – they feel they were used by the powers that carry out a war they did not create, to which they were conscripted by the force of law. They had to endure terrible things while in the army; they even talk openly about being brainwashed during military training. Perhaps them identifying as victims can offer a productive way to bring them into dialogue with other people who suffered the consequences of the armed conflict.

Desistfilm: Your film is about the present situation and different narratives, but why don’t we learn basically anything about the conflict and its history? Were you not afraid it would become hard to understand especially for international audiences?

Manuel Correa: Other filmmakers are doing great job in talking about what the conflict is, how it happened, and how it developed. But from the beginning that was not my goal; I wanted to make something that was unique and I wanted to contribute my personal perspective to the conversation. I realize the film is not very generous in explaining the conflict to the audience, but I was not interested in producing a journalistic film about the conflict, since the focus of the project was the writing of post-conflict memory.

The construction and assertion of truth in cinema is one aspect of documentary filmmaking I am very self-conscious of. In her contribution to Documentary Across Disciplines theorist Stella Bruzzi compares documentary films to trials. In trials, a judge collects all the information that is given by the two parties and constructs what they think is the most convincing narrative – and this becomes a verdict “with a reasonable degree of certainty”. Similarly, in documentary films, an editor would weave the material into what they might interpret as the most convincing narrative. Truth claims naturally do not play out in the same way in documentaries, nevertheless.

I thought this would not be necessarily very helpful for the process of filmmaking that wants to deal with reconciliation. I didn’t want to “judge” people’s testimonies and verify them, since that was not the objective I set out to carry. This is also the reason why the film has a rhizomatic structure and not a traditional linear narrative.

The Shape of Now

Desistfilm: Are Mothers of Candelaria a sort of blueprint of how to work on building the shared experience?

Manuel Correa: Mothers of Candelaria is a social movement of bereaved relatives who are looking for people who were disappeared by force during the Colombian armed conflict. When I met them and started to talk extensively with them, they always refused to tell me who were the suspects behind the disappearances – I don’t mean names, but if they believed they were killed by government or paramilitary groups or guerrillas. After a while I understood the reason why they refuse to say who did what is because they want to avoid being instrumentalized for political gain. If you say your kid was killed by the guerrillas, immediately the right-wing military people reach you and try to convince you to join them.

Another important thing is that the Madres de la Candelaria are trying to deconstruct the social labels “victim vs. perpetrator” in order to reduce the agency of individual perpetrators and thus engage them on their own terms. They are saying: “You did not create this conflict – you are being used by this conflict. There might be somebody more powerful than you, either a corporation, or a government, or a drug cartel which is using you. We don’t consider you a perpetrator, we consider you a victim.” And from this common ground, they can share a vision of the future. Because if you say, this person is a perpetrator and this person did that and that, you immediately create antagonistic situations. It’s very difficult to engage a productive dialogue in these scenarios. Every conflict is very different, but in Colombia, I think the time is ripe to pursue the opportunity of reconciliation.

Desistfilm: Why are there no politicians or heads of army in the film?

Manuel Correa: I interviewed many politicians, including senators and a minister and I had booked appointments with high-rank people in the military.  After reviewing the material, I felt it played out much like the political speeches we constantly hear on the radio or TV: memorized and rehearsed scripts closely following party lines. I removed all the politicians of the film entirely and replaced them with scientists and historians and people who were not directly involved in war – excerpt for the academic who was a peace negotiator. In this sense, it was evident that the politicians were probably the most responsible for keeping the war going, and it felt inadequate to give them yet another forum where they could share their opinion.

Desistfilm: You work with Forensic Architecture now. The group also investigates the past, but in a somewhat different manner than you did in the film. Could you describe the two approaches?

Manuel Correa: In the work carried out inside Forensic Architecture, there is a clear emphasis on procuring counter-forensic evidence for use in courts or in other types of forums, in order to ascertain different kinds of public truths concerning human and environmental rights violations. In order to be able to produce truth claims, Forensic Architecture uses innovative methods such as architectural modelling, 3D animation, photogrammetry, situated testimonies, satellite image analysis in order to verify violations and produce accountability. The process of verification requires the correlation of multiple points of view (or sources), in order to construct what is the most likely truth – which is similar, as I told you earlier, to the role of judge.

While the work in Forensic Architecture is of great importance and my colleagues have taught me a wealth of things that are invaluable in my future work, The Shape of Now is about expanding the possibility of truth in a post-conflict scenario where reconciliation has proven to be more important than accountability (and often, reconciliation has facilitated the confessions of perpetrators and hence accountability) to rebuild the social fabric. The work of Forensic Architecture and my personal one are different, but not contradictory, both can sit alongside and complement each other.