By Libertad Gills
The first time that I, like many others, heard the name “Lola Arias” was in Ruben Ostlund’s The Square, where she is mentioned as the Argentine contemporary artist behind the titular installation. It turns out that Arias later sued the film for using her name without consent. In an interview, she expressed her displeasure at being associated to such a “banal” piece of art.
The real Lola Arias, not the fictional artist name-placed in the 2017 Palme D’Or winning film, has spent the past ten years making her first feature film titled Theatre of War, which premiered in 2018 at the 68 Berlinale Forum. The film brings together former Argentine and British soldiers to recreate the military dispute over the Falkland Islands or Las Malvinas, as they are called in Argentina and in the Spanish language.
As a bilingual (English-Spanish) native, the bilingual nature of the film was very close to how I experience language, and an exciting departure from how language is directed in most monolinguistic films. At the beginning, the men seem to need some help with the translation, when speaking to a soldier from the opposite side. But as the film progresses, they appear to be completely fluent in the other soldier’s language. This is obviously not something that occurred right away (the soldiers have been working with Arias on this project over ten years), but the film is not really trying about the soldiers and their comprehension of the other soldier’s language. That work, it appears, has already been done. The film is not a record of the investigation or the encounter, as it takes place, but rather a construction (not a reconstruction) of a film that tells the soldier’s stories, using the soldier’s bodies and voices, constructed now for the film spectator (which is not the same as the spectator of a play, the previous form of the project). The spectator does not need onscreen translations of what is said because the film will be and has been subtitled. The spectator then is placed in the privileged spot of being someone who understands both languages and, on the screen, this translates to also being sympathetic to both sides of the story.
That the director is clearly from one of these sides (Argentina) becomes a concern for some of the British soldiers in an entertaining nightclub scene, but the film does not return to this concern for bias and therefore does not develop this idea further. Arias does not seem interested in reassuring the viewer of her objectivity or subjectivity. Neither does her film explore the limits of what her perspective or her position, or the soldier’s, could have on the narrative. This is perceived as a certain freedom over the film material (the soldiers and their stories regarding the war, including a fragment of archive material), where anything and everything becomes possible. No feelings will be hurt in the process. Not even when, for example, a child simply asks, “Did you kill anyone during the war?” This question in another film could be a dark, heavy one, a question to lead to, but as Arias treats it, it is stripped of its emotional depth, delivered and responded to in the same way as if the child had asked “What is your name?”. Everything becomes possible here, the director seems to be free to ask and to probe and to have the soldiers respond professionally and on cue. She does not seem to be met with resistance from the collaborators.
When some of the soldiers complain in the nightclub scene mentioned earlier, they do so as workers may complain about their boss. There’s not much that they can do about it. They seem to be under contract. Later in the film, however, the same soldier (Lou) is presented with a young actor who will be playing him in a reenactment. “Do I remind you of yourself when you were a soldier?” asks the awkward young man. “Not really”, responds the former soldier bluntly, suggesting that he is not too sure of the director’s plan.
Lou is right; not of the young men cast look like soldiers. They look like actors, which is of course what they are. There’s a difference between the two. Here seems to be the first real limit for Arias’ film: the young actors will never look like real soldiers. The older soldiers, however, who are playing themselves (or something like themselves) do look the part. Not only do their stories and memories reveal where they have been, but so do their faces, their bodies, their tattoos and the sound of their voices. Then why are they replaced with younger actors? Why does Arias go through the trouble of finding younger actors to play them when they are so willing and able to play themselves?
The film does not hide its artificiality; just the contrary. And in doing so, the film becomes less about these soldiers and their experiences in the war, or the therapeutic possibility of re-enactment and the necessity for dialogue over an international conflict, and more about (a certain kind of) filmmaking itself. The artificiality of film, the plasticity of the set, the staging of the camera in relation to the subject, the mechanical movement of the boom operator as she follows the actor’s movements on stage (not at all concerned or interested in what is being said –because that is not her job), the lip-synching and the possibilities for indirect sound, the color-corrected image of real bodies, these are the aspects of filmmaking that Arias’ film reproduces and reveals.
“I could do the interview again without crying”, promises Lou, embarrassed because of a previous documentary for television in which speaking about his time in the war makes him break into tears. Essentially, that is what Arias has done for him: she has given him the opportunity to do it again, without crying. The spectator’s emotions will also be spared for this is not a film that elicits an out-right emotional response. Which is not to say that the film is not about pain.
Director and writer: Lola Arias
Cast: Lou Armour, David Jackson, Rubén Otero, Sukrim Rai, Gabriel Sagastume, Marcelo Vallejo
Producers: Gema Juárez Allen y Alejandra Grinschpun
Co-producers: Bettina Walter, Ingmar Trost, Pedro Saleh
Cinematography: Manuel Abramovich
Gaffer: Armin Marchesini Weihmuller
Film editing: Anita Remón, Alejo Hoijman