Credit: Art of the Real / Film at Lincoln Center
by Daniel Gorman Film

Camouflage — Jonathan Perel

April 6, 2022

How exactly to represent historical atrocities on screen has been an overriding ethical and formal concern for filmmakers for almost as long as the medium has existed. Major works like Night and Fog, Shoah, the films of Patricio Guzman, and more recent examples like The Act of Killing all share at least one common trait — what to show, or not show, and why. Archival footage, essayistic assemblages, talking head interviews, and dramatic reenactments all come under consideration. With his new film Camouflage (Camuflaje), documentarian Jonathan Perel opts for a kind of symbolic absence, crafting a circuitous quasi-narrative that dances around the edges of an ultimately unknowable void. His subject is Argentinian author Felix Bruzzone, who lives and works mere blocks away from the Campo de Mayo military base in Buenos Aires. Campo de Mayo served as the largest detention center during the Dirty War period of 1976 to 1983, and it’s where Bruzzone’s mother was disappeared to when he was only an infant. It’s not until years later that an adult Bruzzone discovers definitively that his mother also died there, along with thousands of others, and he becomes increasingly determined to investigate and research the facility. In the decades since the military junta was finally ousted, there’s been a gradual unveiling of information about the atrocities of the era (including the involvement of the United States government). But viewers with little or no knowledge of the era won’t learn much about it here. There are no talking heads imparting facts, no on-screen graphics or archival footage. Instead, the film consists entirely of Bruzzone jogging around the perimeter of Campo de Mayo (a massive area that covers something like 80 square kilometers) and meeting people that also live or work nearby. It’s a conceptually fascinating choice that nonetheless gets bogged down in uninteresting, repetitive conversations. There’s no enlightenment here, just a kind of wheel-spinning.

The film features numerous scenes of Bruzzone jogging, an action that functions as a kind of organizing structural device and as interstitial segments that cordon off Bruzzone’s various encounters. He has a long conversation with his grandmother, who raised him after his mother was taken away. Then Bruzzone speaks to a realtor who sells properties around Campo de Mayo and who is thrilled that property values keep going up — no one here seems particularly put-off by the detention center or its violent history. Bruzzone then visits the son of an old family friend who runs a restaurant, afterwards encountering an archaeologist and then an extreme sports enthusiast. All of them have some connection to Campo de Mayo, either literal — the sportsman rides his bicycle through the site, despite guards frequently stopping and threatening him — or metaphorical — the archaeologist digs up the past, finding as many human remains as prehistoric ones. There’s a sense that if Perel and Bruzzone can simply accumulate enough information, or meet the right person, that some kind of truth will reveal itself. It’s a noble goal, but every scene lasts for what feels like an eternity, and none of these conversations are interesting or emotionally edifying. Worse, the film is visually bland, content to roll camera and observe people talking with little regard for framing or editing rhythms. It all gets very monotonous very quickly. One hopes that Bruzzone found some closure in the process of filming this work, but there’s just not enough here to engage anyone who doesn’t already have a vested interest in this material. It’s almost too personal, too myopic in scope.

Published as part of Art of the Real 2022 — Dispatch 2.