Tuesday, August 8, 2017 at 7:30pm
Thomas Harlan's Torre Bela

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Torre Bela, Thomas Harlan, 1975, digital projection, 106 mins

Fredric Jameson on Torre Bela

...process and production take on a rather different meaning when the very object of the documentary is itself in perpetual change and when, as in some unexpected new form of the Heisenberg principle, the very operation of recording and representing it intervenes to change the outcome before our very eyes. So it was that an enterprising West German production team sought (in a film called Torre Bela, after the name of the latifundia in question) to seize the Portuguese revolution of 1974 sur le vif: arriving in time to witness the first tentative moment of agrarian self-determination in which the peasants piously continue to stand guard over the mansion from which their lords have fled, tilling the fields in the old way, in stewardship, against the day on which reckoning will be demanded. The great house, meanwhile, scrupulously cleaned and respected, is filed with the trophies and mementos of a virtually ancien-régime aristocracy of pre-World-War-I style: photos of hunts in Poland, souvenirs of English manors and French estates, and the armorial and genealogical intermarriages of a still pan-European dynastic culture. We are therefore also able to witness the moment in which the bewildered peasants—whose lords have unaccountably still not returned—consult the revolutionary military councils these last fled from in the first place, only to receive the even more bewildering doctrine of a "higher law" of the people and of production, and the advice to seize the lands and work them for themselves.

At this point, we are told, the crew began to follow the revolutionary process with a vengeance, screening the rushes once a week so that the peasants could themselves observe their own praxis and comment on it, as well as on its representation. What happened was that, with such exposure, the "peasants" now became recognizable individuals, whom the camera began to follow selectively, lingering on the more dramatic or the more photogenic, and also on the more articulate—now thereby lifted up formally to the status of "spokespeople" and ideologues. The peasants' self-consciousness of this process took, however, and unexpected turn; and the filming itself becomes an exemplary fable at the point in which the participant-viewers became aware that their documentary had already acquired a "star" (and the revolution its "ideologue" and "leader") in the person of a young and handsome city lumpen, distantly related to one of the families on the estate, who, returning to the land during the upheaval, imperceptibly came to exercise authority by virtue of the camera alone. His subsequent expulsion, which marks a significant new moment in collective praxis and self-consciousness, would also have been a more interesting story than anything the final version of the film actually told: but a story that now transforms an objective documentary into a dialectical one and a whole new conception of documentary form.

Serge Daney on Torre Bela

Torre Bela is first of all an extraordinary document, of a type that emerges occasionally from the heart of a struggle or from boundary situations, when the determination to “keep on filming” surpasses the ideas—whether common or not, committed or not—of the person who films. Enthusiasts of the “real” and cannibals of the “direct action” (among which we count ourselves) will be flabbergasted by the film of Thomas Harlan. Rarely have we so clearly seen the making and unmaking of a singular collectivity, itself composed of singularities, caught in a political process through which it is the blind truth, the point of utopia.

But there is more. Torre Bela shows—materialized, embodied—all the key ideas of political and theoretical leftism from the past decade. “As if we were there”—but precisely, we are no longer there: no one is. We see the flesh which ostensibly nourished yesterday’s discourses, the images in which the sound was “turned up too loud”: voices speaking up (chaotic: one day the film will be used for the study of farmers’ jargon and the Portuguese language), popular language (and its stammering), people in arms (the strange soldiers of the MFA), popular memory (with its tales of bitterness), the fabrication of a mass leader (Wilson) and the distrust of heroes (Wilson again), contradictions among the people (men/women...), cynical and silly discourse of the enemies of class (amazing interview with the Duke of Lafões), etc.

Of course, all of this arrives late. In all of this we have believed, but it has come undone, and suddenly, this film appears, in hyper-realistic precision, both as a sonogram of the heart of what has been and as the hallucinatory spectacle of what we believed in (the people, autonomy, revolt). Surely, one doesn’t have to blindly believe in it to begin to see it, just as one didn’t have to see it at all to continue to believe in it. This “gap” between what is believed in and what has come undone—“le cru et le cuit”—is perhaps the truth of the few “good militant films.” One had to wait until the mottos and slogans stopped reassuring before the images finally arrived... though to a devastated landscape. The experience of the popular commune of Torre Bela (1975-1979) ended the year when the movie was finally finished and “released.” We—neither us nor Harlan or anyone else—no longer have a relationship to these images except one of ethnographic cannibalism (and isn’t ethnography our cannibalism of us?) or of perverse aestheticism (Torre Bela as utopia, another utopia).

That is how it goes with cinema. Cinema is never on time. Let alone the cinema of intervention: the only one that, in order to exist, must take time establishing its material; the one that is never finished fast enough. The filmmaker finds himself in an impossible, even seamy situation in which he can dwell, in spite of the conventional piousness of his discourse. Whether it is Moullet paying himself the luxury to finally pull off a militant-didactic-and-third-worldist film at a moment when nobody knows what to do with it (whereas before, everyone wanted to but nobody knew how); or the strange temporality of the Ogawa experience, redoubling the atrocity of the real with a neverending and equally atrocious film, or Godard spending five years editing a film on Palestine. It’s the same point of arrival, the same Pyrrhic victory, the same Parthian arrow, the same revenge of the artists on the political chiefs and the militants: here is the flesh of the ideas you thought you had, here is the referent to the words you have misused, the proof that what you talked about (without having seen it) has indeed existed: it is shown to you only because it’s over. This perverse dialectic of what is believed in and what has come undone is today the last word of so-called “documentary” cinema (from Flaherty to Ogawa, from Rouch to Harlan, from Ivens to Van der Keuken): a look all the more acute—even abrasive—for it establishes the trace of that which has no future.

Daney text translated by Stoffel Debuysere and Charles Fairbanks.

Tickets - $8, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.