A Life One Does Not Dare to Live: The Cinema of Jorge Acha
Jorge Luis Acha is, in the words of Roger Koza, “one of the greatest secrets of Argentinian cinema.” A multidisciplinary artist (he was also a painter, photographer, and writer), Acha is a marginal figure in his homeland, and is not well-known outside of relatively small circles — and even more so abroad. This year’s edition of the Viennale — the first one helmed by Eva Sangiorgi, who aims to add more Latin American voices to the festival’s roster — hosted a full retrospective of the late filmmaker’s major works. The recent restoration and digitalization of the Argentine author’s brief cinematic oeuvre — only three feature-length films survive — along with a 2017 documentary constructed around one video interview with the director (Gustavo Bernstein, Carlos Oscar García, and Alfredo Slavutsky’s Thálassa, un autorretrato de Jorge Acha), seems to be one of the driving forces behind the recent retrospective, keeping in line with the main curatorial goal in Viennale’s retrospectives: to recover the works of authors that have been unfairly neglected across time.
Acha’s first serious forays into cinema began a few years after the fall of Argentina’s extremely violent military regime, one that killed countless artists (or forced them into exile) across various artforms — enjoying the newly established democratic rule under President Raúl Alfonsín, Acha created a series of exceptionally allegorical yet intensely political features: Habeas Corpus (1986), Standard (1989), and Mburucuyá, cuadros de la naturaleza (1991). He utilized a highly surreal and kinesthetic cinematic vocabulary, combining imagery that occasionally verges on the grotesque but remains (somehow morbidly) fascinating throughout. Acha sought a way to expose the cruelty of the ruling classes and its lasting effects on regular citizens by constantly investigating and questioning topics such as torture, nationalism, and colonialism.
Simultaneously, his sensuous and languid portrayal of young, oftentimes nude, male bodies adds a distinctively queer tinge to his oeuvre, as the protagonists are on the receiving end of the worst manifestations of the larger social phenomena at play. The male body is seen here as a locus onto which social aggression is reflected and accumulated — be it the (political) prisoner in Habeas Corpus, the lumpen construction workers in Standard, or the captive indigenous man put on display in Mburucuyá. These bodies are virile and youthful yet tragically powerless.
Another central metaphor in Acha’s oeuvre is water, insofar that it is referenced in the title of the documentary — Thálassa being the name of a primeval sea spirit. Ranging from an object of endlessly self-renewing fascination, a metaphor for purity (the sea), to a symbol of malaise and filth (rain and water drops), Acha uses water, along with other natural elements and phenomena as a metaphoric description of his protagonists’ inner characteristics, be they victims or oppressors. With the exception of Mburucuyá, which uses a polyphonic voiceover in both Spanish and English that acts as a subversion of both language and cultural exchanges, his cinema lacks dialogue, using abstract imagery and specific historical contexts to convey his acute political observations.
Acha’s first feature is arguably his darkest and most experimental. Habeas Corpus, almost a literal interpretation of the title, follows four days in the life of a captive young man kept in a dank cellar. Set during Pope Paul II’s visit to Argentina in 1982 in the midst of the junta’s bloodiest years, and with the Falklands War raging on in the distant background, we witness the slow decay of the unnamed protagonist’s mind into madness, as impressionistic shots show his fantasies of spending a day at the beach with another man. The figure in his hallucinatory dreams is his captor, a bureaucrat who mostly wanders the outskirts of Buenos Aires and skims through bodybuilding magazines — but their encounters, save for the final minutes of the film, take place exclusively on the imaginary landscape of the beach, where their sublimated attractions are rendered visible in what is Acha’s most overtly homoerotic film.
Although the film is non-narrative, it’s a rather deeply atmospheric piece that explores a state of suspension concentrated. The Pope’s visit is not only a means to criticize the deep rift between the official discourse of the Argentinian state and its hidden atrocity, but it’s also a means to create a network of metaphors. As the pontiff’s disembodied voice rings out from a radio underneath a Spanish translation, it becomes clear that the nameless protagonist is a messianic figure, his protracted suffering a reference to the Passion of Christ. “This is my body, which is given to you,” the otherworldly voice rings, indicating the film’s main motif — corporeality — as Acha juxtaposes these with the fetishistic bodies in the magazines (one title reads “El culto al cuerpo”) and with lingering close-ups of the nude protagonist. Using these sexually charged elements with the hallucinatory dreamspace of the scenes at the beach, interrupted by occasional shots of fish trapped in a tank, he creates a claustrophobic experience that encapsulates the sentiments of Argentina in the 1980s.
Acha followed Habeas Corpus with Standard — arguably, his most famous piece — which also grapples with the inheritance of the junta, this time concentrating on the regime’s nationalistic ideology. The film loosely centers on the construction of a towering, megalomaniac monument, referencing the scrapped plans for the Altar de la Patria (The Homeland Altar), a gigantic mausoleum that was to be built to honor the “glory of the Argentinian fatherland” at the command of José Lopez Rega, the country’s far-right de facto leader after the death of Juan Peron, up until the military coup. The film heavily features Argentine sex symbol Libertad Leblanc, a mainstay in raunchy South American flicks of the 1960s and ‘70s, now past her prime, as the leader of the construction project. She is a grotesque figure smeared in makeup, an Evita Perón returning from hell. She’s featured in numerous intercuts in which she dances in various states of undress, a nod towards the decadence and obscenity of the construction project.
The role of the female body as an object of pleasure is subverted — rather, it’s the male body that is fetishized, as in Habeas Corpus. The male body is seen as free, untamed, and wild — the constructors seem to do anything but work, roaming across the worksite, playing cards, dancing wildly, and, in one scene, masturbating. Their preoccupations are base, organic, and a complete contrast to the monument’s immaculate appearance — a stark distinction between a high culture that is subsidized by the corrupt, and the life of those forced to follow the orders of the ruling class. Here, Acha’s fast-paced montage of seemingly unrelated objects reaches its peak in Standard, as he creates a dizzying collage of Christian icons, architectural shots, and images of classical sculptures that offer a counterpoint to the grizzly imagery of the main plotline.
Only the youngest worker in the group seems to be aware of the situation they are in, acting as a purveyor of Acha’s conscience. He is the one who is sexually assaulted by the female figure and ends up the lone survivor of a bloody scuffle between the woman and the workers, pointing his finger at the camera in the film’s final shot, engaging the viewer directly. Another striking moment arrives halfway through the film, as a soot-covered figure emerges from underneath a pile of coal and debris. Rather than capitalizing on the moment to create a narrative twist, the man walks around his surroundings for a few minutes before burying himself back in the pile, an act of profound disillusionment that speaks volumes about Acha’s bleak outlook on society.
To tie the retrospective up, Thálassa, un autorretrato de Jorge Acha shines a light on his philosophies, thus offering a peak into the inner workings of his art. Thálassa opens with the director reminiscing about his frequent childhood visits to Cine Astral, the main cinema in his native Miramar. Meanwhile, in the background, set hands change a series of paintings — the director’s own — while the interview goes on. Citing Robert Bresson and Jack Kerouac as profound influences, Acha slams certain traditional conceptions about cinema, especially those based on synesthesia and realism, musing on the difference between what he calls a “cinema state of mind” and a “life state of mind.” “Cinema is a lie, it makes me feel bad,” he says. “It’s a life people don’t dare to live. In the cinema, I spent my life living the lives of others. Art itself is harmful… a signal of man’s failure. Man recreates what he cannot achieve.” For a filmmaker with such an unyieldingly oblique mode of expression, the majority of cinema must seem inane. As “cinema [began to] replace dreams”, Acha created a body of work that is oneiric yet simultaneously more politically articulate than most directors’.
The documentary itself, however, relies too heavily on its collaged source materials to pay attention to itself. For example, its opening sequence (which Acha himself would have probably detested) is strident: the title rises from a non-descript shot of the sea, written in — of all fonts — Papyrus. Aside from unearthing a fascinating interview in which Acha challenges closely guarded beliefs about cinema even in its most hermetic circles, Thálassa succeeds at showing how Acha slowly began to articulate his artistic voice over time. Archival footage of the few short films Acha shot before his feature-length debut are extensively used, most of them naive attempts at creating a pastiche of more commonplace narratives — like two boys vying for the same girl — but they are indicative of the recurrent elements and motifs in his work: the beaches of Miramar appear in his very first attempts (1982’s “Apuntes sobre el mar”), while homoerotic undertones and gazes slowly begin to crystalize, along with his preference towards political subjects.
Jorge Acha’s cinema is truly a hidden gem, and a product of one of the bloodiest, most savage periods in Argentinian (and Latin American) history. His body of work, in comparison to those of other local cineastes, such as Fernando Solanas, Luis Puenzo, or Héctor Olivera (who were exploring the trauma of the junta-led period using approaches that were largely narrative and dialogue-driven) is unique in its insistence on using figurative and metaphorical means of expression. Acha’s films were ahead of their time; their violent and nightmarish imagery hinted at the malaise that would dominate the cinematographic landscape in the 1990s – from the French New Extremity and its various offshoots, to the visual approach in grunge-era music videos.
Thálassa, un autorretrato de Jorge Acha can be viewed on Vimeo.
A special sidebar dedicated to the films of Jorge Acha was programmed at the 2018 Viennale, which took place between October 25 and November 8.