In 2007 Paulo Cherchi Usai apocalyptically announced ‘The Death of Cinema’, a startling reaction to a receding cultural history threatened by the loss of celluloid and the advancement of the digital. The text itself is framed by the question its author poses in the introduction, “Why is our culture so keen on accepting the questionable benefits of digital technology as the vehicle for a new sense of history?” (1) The films En construcción (José Luis Guerín, 2001), Bucarest, la memòria perduda (Albert Solé, 2008), Nedar (Carla Subirana, 2008) and Tren de sombras (Guerín, Train of Shadows, 1997) tentatively explore this changing status of the moving image and its capacity to explore and engage with this “new sense of history” posited by Usai.

The celebration of objects in these moving image texts speaks to a wider concern with the effacement of material history which encompasses the loss of those images that rely on their material basis for preservation and transmission. This speaks to the social and political context of contemporary Spain which seeks to recollect through a process of re-collection; gathering together the material artefacts of a troubled past in order to construct a new archive and explore the potential for new memorial practises to honour those whose memories have been effaced. I argue that these films propose and explore an aesthetic practice which is sensitive to the rich cultural history of the moving image (in this case in its original documentary form) yet which can celebrate the expanded democratic potential of digital recording technology and its ability to access the affective power of the material and the mortal, thereby, resisting the effacement of memory and seeking the disruptive and mutable presence of objects within the films.

To speak of the aesthetic capacities of documentary is problematic, as the classification is inevitably tinged with the distraction of truth, authenticity and the representation of reality. (2) If we adopt a Deleuzian approach to reality then documentary becomes an aesthetic form capable of a return to its initial and oft-cited project to offer us the world anew, to provoke an alternative encounter with the world we think we know, an encounter that lies beyond mere representation. (3) That thing which makes us think is not the recognition of the world we inhabit but the encounter with it in new and strange ways. In these films we make contact with matter through its material qualities and the objects that embody memories and experiences. This type of phenomenological encounter disrupts a neatly understood binary between fact and fiction, subject and object and complicates the sense of history in a fraught political and social context. The material status of the cinematic image, then, is thought through by an encounter with these works that engages that image as object in a process of becoming understood here in the terms set out by Elizabeth Grosz following Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Bergson:

“Life (mind, memory, consciousness in varying degrees) is inserted into the world of material objects only to the extent that it partakes of them and can utilize them for its own purposes: both at its surface, through perception and in its depth, through intuition, life brushes up against matter as its inner core.” (4)

The Catalan (5) documentaries I analyse here engage with their own materiality, the material objects that they represent, the material conditions of the spaces in which they are filmed and with the disruptive and productive potential that these material conditions have for the representation of loss, absence, silence and marginalisation. They do so, following Grosz, through a combination of surface and depth. The first film I analyse, En construcción, does so in allusive oblique ways engaging with marginal and very local areas. Bucarest, la memòria perduda and Nedar engage with this troubled history and tackle the erasure of Catalan history much more directly. Finally, Tren de sombras draws the themes of materiality and loss around the aesthetic potential of the material in a digital age.

Cinema’s Objects

The theoretical turn towards the material coincides with the aforementioned preoccupation with the disappearing cinematic image, both the literal decay of celluloid film stock coupled with the move to digital as the medium of choice for contemporary moving image productions. This preference attests to the expanded possibilities afforded by this cheaper and commercially friendly medium, but where does this move to digital leave the object-hood of the cinematic artefact? The anxiety that this presumed loss gives rise to is frequently couched in terms of a loss of indexicality; that is, the physical link between the representation and the object that it represents, a legacy of its descendance from photography. Mary Ann Doane explores the perceived loss of indexicality that drives the discussion of this development as a disruption to an imaginary continuity in which the legacy of photography as an originary art form is ruptured by this move to the “non-material”. She points to the difficulty of locating the object whose absence is mourned in a medium whose production, existence and projection depends on numerous mechanical supports. What is the lost object here, the celluloid strip itself or the projection apparatus and that of the screen?

“The emphasis upon film’s chemical photographic base now serves to differentiate the cinema from digital media and repeatedly invokes indexicality as a guarantee of a privileged relation to the real, to referentiality, and to materiality.” (6)

She goes on to extend this notion of the material to the importance of contact: our traditional understanding of the cinematic is that “something of the object leaves a legible residue through the medium of touch.” (7) This perceived threat of loss or destruction combined with concern for diminished contact with material spaces and objects begets a need to collect and accumulate, to archive and protect the object under threat of extinction, a tendency Hal Foster observes in contemporary artworks which he believes seek “to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present.” (8) Furthermore, this archival impulse addresses Doane’s concern about the “privileged relation to the real” which is tethered to documentary’s project and throws into question the possibility of new technology and its truth value.

In the case of the documentaries under scrutiny here, I believe the aesthetic and theoretical concerns surrounding a perceived demise of the material can be mapped onto a similar preoccupation with a desire to recuperate the physical object. Furthermore, this desire manifests itself in an attempt to access an affective relationship with that object, that allows access to its embedded memory through cinematic contact, drawing together the Deleuzian reading of a movement through matter that acknowledges its political implications and investigates its artistic possibilities.

In the case of Catalonia and Spain the absence of the material represents a political and social reality, and the creation and ownership of the archive is a hotly contested issue. In the years that immediately followed the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) the Francoist dictatorship did all it could to erase the record of the atrocities committed by the Nationalist forces, now supporting the regime, as well as the record of the strength of resistance and opposition to these forces by the Republic and its supporters. The end of a 36 year dictatorship in 1975 saw a further repression of this memory, as politicians instigated the “Pacto del Olvido”:a collective pact of amnesia, wilfully effacing a violent and troubled past in an attempt to establish a superficially stable democracy. (9) In 2007 Spain passed the “Law for the Recuperation of Historical Memory”, and began the difficult process of constructing a past that had been silenced.

The films described above, En construcción, Bucarest, la memòria perduda, Nedar and Tren de sombras undertake a process of recuperation as they focus on the material and its effacement. This has as its corollary: an implicit (at times explicit) examination of the potential of the digital moving image to archive absence, when the technology itself is apparently no longer indexical or indeed present. It is an archiving of absence that has for years been a reality for many Catalans and Spaniards. The link between materiality and mortality as it relates to the material decay of things and of film highlights a productive tension; cinema is capable of extracting new meaning from these dispersed and decaying and often sparse objects if it partakes in a new relationship that is not solely visual and aural but exploits its material dimension as an embodied repository of collective, individual and material memories. Both film as object and the objects depicted within these films participate in intertwined modes of materiality through their sensory appeal and their mutable relationship to the construction of obliterated memory. The representational capacity of documentary as a genre is subordinated here to the nebulous and enfolded affective capacity of cinema’s embodied materiality, through its objects and as an object. This access to artefacts that can transmit something of their substance to us is made possible by an understanding of matter described by Terri Bird as a “complex site of activity” which can be navigated: “This movement entails a transposition of one material force to another as interchanges of form, surface and affect.” (10)

The political and social significance of the material archive in a Catalan context finds further redolence in a cinematic trope which is also linked to death, memory and disappearance, and that is the persistent presence of ghosts. In Spain the inability to remember or to mourn has been directly linked to a need for the physical presence of the bodies of the victims of Civil War and its violent aftermath to be acknowledged; recognition that the power of the absent yet ghostly presence exercises a powerful hold over the country’s collective memory.

The 2007 law has taken in hand the recuperation of the material of the past, precipitating the excavation of previously unrecognized burial sites. Retrieval of the literal matter of death and this disinterment (as the past is quite literally brought to the surface) subtends a wider concern with the objects of memory. Alongside these exhumations the recovery of photographs and documents is of concern first and foremost because they are tangible objects with a link to the past; the knowledge they may provide access to becomes less important than their affective and symbolic power as material possessions. (11)

The first “memory material” that this article will turn to, emerges as precisely these ossified reminders of mortality and an inescapably traumatic past. Human remains are problematic objects in many respects: their liminality is a reminder of the human and the link between the living and the dead. These missing corpses represent a gap in the narrative of a nation, or more precisely the narrative of a nation has spuriously eliminated the local, specific and marginalised histories in the search for (false) stability.

Buried Matter

The capacity of bodies as material remains to interrupt the present and to physically alter the environment is the concern of the director José Luis Guerín in the documentary En construcción(“Work in Progress”), an evocative cinematic essay described by Catalan scholar Joan Ramon Resina as “deeply invested in the materiality of the image.” (12) This documentary follows the renovation of one of Barcelona’s most famously diverse areas, “El Raval”, next to the port. This area has a tradition of immigrant communities, ethnic diversity and for years represented the seamier side of life in the Catalan capital.

The bodies that disrupt the filming of this documentary are not those of the Civil War dead, but unexpectedly of a medieval burial site, the discovery of which stalls the construction work and creates a significant rupture in the planned remodelling of the area. For a brief period the bulldozers are still and the tools of demolition are replaced by the manual tools of the archaeologists who painstakingly work to preserve their findings. The attempt to ideologically remodel space by altering the material conditions of the lived environment is halted by the material objects contained by that space. In this case the material human remains present a visual, and ideological, counterpoint to the contemporary concern (not given voice in this film but I would argue invoked through these scenes) for the actual recovery of forgotten bodies. The emphasis on the characters of this film as they observe and comment upon the discovery gestures towards the dissonance between this retrieval and the simultaneous development of the material environment which attempts to obliterate the trace of these residents. The commentary that the bystanders offer elucidates the process of observation and interaction in which the camera participates, and which alters the significance of these objects in this scenario, as humorous asides wonder at the national provenance of these buried remains: are they Catalan or Spanish? One man ponders that they may be the result of an “ethnic massacre” perhaps invoking the discourse of those actively seeking the restitution of bones of the Civil War dead, or, the contemporary actualities which would have used the phrase with some frequency in relation to the Bosnian Serb conflict. These bones provide a material link to the past and, as the camera records them, they open up the possibility for an interaction with the cinematic image, underlining its participation in material history. The image enables a dynamic relationship with these material products of the past in which their meaning is mobilised through a combination of cinematic and sensory recall. (13)

The disruptive effect of these objects, and our affective relationship with them, relies on a renewed understanding of the potential of the cinematic image to navigate the intricate nexus of experience, imagination, memory and history. Laura Marks moves beyond the metaphorical significance of filmed objects by recognising their power to disrupt and their transmission of meaning through contact. This relies on a reading of our engagement with the moving image that removes us from the ocular centric model and embraces the potential for an inter-subjective mode of viewing that incorporates these objects as subjects within that space. These are affective readings of these objects, that recognise their power and potential to fill in the gaps of silenced stories. Marks’ work centres on the transcultural value of objects and their encoded meanings and memories across these cultural boundaries. The frontiers that are straddled in the films I look at are in the main temporal and social but they do dwell on displacement and the role of objects as a means to resist displacement and the effacement of experience. The “fossils”, a term that Marks lifts from Deleuze, that are produced by collisions between these different regimes of knowledge are those stubborn objects that disrupt the order of things and cannot be regulated by humans. They “tell stories and describe trajectories” and like the bones that are uncovered by Guerín they are adamant sticking points, determined to make their presence felt. (14)

Marks argues that it is through contact with these objects that memories can be allowed to unfold, and this too makes an important contribution to the debate on the materiality of the cinematic image. The move to digital has effaced the imprint of “contact” that typifies film. One response to this altered media seems to be a desire to enable other types of contact at the moment of our engagement with the image. Lingering shots of surfaces, detritus and the minutiae of building materials in En construcción all contribute to a dispersed look, which spreads itself over the surface of the image and in doing so permits the contact required for these objects to unfold their embedded meaning. Such a technique also celebrates the physical qualities of the objects in an aesthetic capacity. The objects thus represented are celebrated in a Proustian mode, they trigger affective memory responses for the spectator and the protagonists of the documentary. Patrick Ffrench explains this Proustian affective response via Deleuze and with recourse to objects in film to illuminate the works of Chris Marker, a filmmaker whose technique and style seem to have influenced Guerín. Ffrench explains:

“In Proust’s novel, the madeleine is the object, or one of the objects, that holds enclosed within it, or more precisely within the sensation that the object offers, the past as it is conserved in itself, the virtual past, in its pure state, of the present.” (15)

This affective and individual relationship to the Proustian object resonates in the following section of En construcción.

One of Guerín’s “real-life” characters in this piece is the elderly Antonio Atar, a resident of the area who looks on in bemusement as the barrio (neighbourhood) is changed almost beyond recognition. One scene sees him in a bar talking to another elderly resident about the commodification of culture and the price of goods. He has by this stage in the film established himself as a philosopher and flâneur and this type of musing is typical of his operational mode, a familiarity that Guerín’s skilful direction establishes without the need for further information such as voiceover or biographical detail. As the two men converse Antonio proceeds to unpack his chattels from the bag that is his perennial accessory. As the bizarre collection is displayed on the table in front of them, he explains the importance of each piece from mantelpiece carriage clock to hot-pink snorkelling goggles. The humour, which is a feature of the piece, is evidenced when he continues in earnest justification of these things as he holds the goggles to his face, describing their particular features. These objects speak to the trope of displacement which is a wider theme of the piece; they become an extension of self for this man as his home is bulldozed and the identification he felt with his particular part of this city is eroded along with the building works. They are celebrated for their particular physical properties and of value to him even though they are the detritus of other people’s lives.

If the enchantment that can be found in the material is a by-product of the lack of memorial objects in the Catalan context, or an anxiety about technology’s non-material yet ubiquitous presence in our lives, then their auratic quality is celebrated in this scene. Antonio’s childlike possessiveness of the objects recalls the theorist of the aura, and his writing on the ‘Construction Site’ is apposite here. Benjamin makes a claim for children’s attraction to certain objects which could equally apply to Antonio Atar (the ex-sailor) in this sequence: “They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, house-work, tailoring, or carpentry. In waste products they recognize the face that the world of things turns directly and solely to them.” (16) They are waste products here not in the sense that they are useless or unwanted but because they bear an excess of meaning in this context, like the fossils that Marks describes. This man is a bricoleur in the proper sense designated by Marks as one of those “people who take the rubble of another time or place, invest it with a new significance, and put it to new purposes – create the possibilities of a new history.” (17) Like the fossils they are stubbornly resistant to regulation and become the “peculiar objects” found when “two or more material discourses crash together”. (18)

Recalling a Material Past.

Mortality is both a thematic and a formal concern of all of the texts treated within this article. The process of recuperation in which they are involved also becomes one of resuscitation. It has been posited that the trauma of loss can, in part, be assuaged by the cinema’s ability to make present that which we thought was absent, as Christian Metz has elaborated on. (19) However, this is a double-edged sword as the existence of that cinematic image is also marked by the potential for loss that it embodies. Just as Layla Renshaw, in her anthropological study of the process of disinterment in Spain, argues that once the bodies are discovered and have been dug up they lose some of their significance, are diminished in importance by becoming material as if they had actually undergone a second death. This is part of a process of haptic or tactile appreciation according to Marks: “Materiality is mortality.” She goes on to explain:

“If every object and event is irreducible in its materiality, then part of learning to touch it is to come to love its particularity its strangeness, its precious and inimitable place in the world. […] Part of materialism, then, is celebrating the uniqueness of the other. Things, people and moments pass, they age and die and can never be duplicated; so material’s close corollary is cherishing.” (20)

This mode of representation, in its acknowledgment of the material’s tendency towards obsolescence is constitutive of the documentaries Bucarest, la memòria perduda (“Bucarest, The Lost Memory”) and Nedar (“Swimming”). These documentaries extend this concern with the material but do so by tackling explicitly the memorial function of film. They seek out the material as a stand-in for memories that have perished with the people who were not allowed to voice them. These material objects are interstitial in that they are part of their family history and yet they are also totally other and strange because they are from another time and, in some cases, another place. They have not been allowed to exist as heirlooms in the traditional sense, that of a treasured object passed on through generations of a family with an accompanying narrative that designates its value (monetary or sentimental) but they are cherished precisely because of their existence, they have survived when so many things were violently effaced. In these films it is the lack of a means by which to narrate the past that is the central concern. They are intensely personal, semi-autobiographical works which trace hidden family histories. The eradication of certain elements of a nation’s past has left families with secret histories and gaps in the narrative of their lives. These films explore the potential of cinema to frame these ellipses, to invoke an alternative presence within an image that reveals the stratified and sedimented versions of the past.

In their interrogation of the construction and transmission of memory, these productions concentrate on layers of the past which are revealed through a combination of the virtual space of film and the material spaces and objects it records. The transmission of meaning, that is made possible through contact, is based in both texts on the premise of family members delving into the troubled history of families (in the case of these two directors the pasts of their families are inextricably linked to Catalonia’s politically tumultuous past). The imperative to reconstruct an account of events is intensified by the added amnesiac layer of family members suffering from Alzheimer’s. In the case of Bucarest, la memòria perduda,it is the Catalan politician whose life is the subject of his son’s film, and in Nedar both the director’s grandmother and mother succumb to the disease during the course of the film’s production. This degenerative illness captures the fragility of memory; Spain’s attitude to its past is frequently configured as amnesiac in nature. The recourse to memory loss as a trope for these new films – coinciding with Spain’s recovery of the past through legislative change – configure amnesia as unstable but draw out its productive relationship to memory by creating the gaps that can be creatively encountered through the moving image text and the objects it records. They also emphasise the urgency of the political process at work as temporal distance from the events under scrutiny increases.

The material objects that are filmed here are involved in a process of production and (re)construction as their meaning has to be extracted by, respectively, Albert Solé and Carla Subirana in their role as directors but also as they are implicated within these narratives, they are physically present in the frame and provide voiceover narration. Cinema is traditionally viewed as a means of visual narrative: the moving image and its auditory accompaniment conform to an epistemological grammar that relies on a shared understanding of these encoded meanings to create stories. The films Nedar and Bucarest, la memòria perduda self reflexively explore this process of narration and expose the sticking points, the gaps and elisions which they attempt to fill with objects of recollection; spaces that they hope may reveal their hidden memories, documents and photographs that they want to archive, but from which they are distanced from precisely because of these gaps in their comprehension. In this sense the object-hood of the image outlined at the beginning of this article resonates here in an alternative sense. The image itself becomes one of the mnemonic objects in Bucarest, la memòria perduda:the archive footage functions as the traditionally understood vision of history that permits us access to the temporal regime of the ‘historical documentary’.

In order that death can be integrated and understood as a part of life, social practices have been established which deal with the material aspect of the dead and use materiality as a tool of remembrance. This assumes a shared understanding of the processes and the objects involved. Both films struggle with mourning the unknown and adopt strategies of invention that become cinematic memorial practices. Carla Subirana, in Nedar, pieces together the unspoken history of her family and seeks the identity of her grandfather, seemingly a victim of the Civil War. The family knows that he died but very little else about him; the act of recuperation is problematised by the demise of her grandmother’s, and later her mother’s, memories. In this respect there is a complex interplay of presence and absence at work, reflected by a similar play of evocation and recuperation. The filmmaker’s desire to portray a past that she feels a part of, and yet, frustratingly invisible to her, pushes her to create an inventive space in which she renders the ghost of her grandfather visible in the present. Both the demands of the index, as a marker of photographic realism and documentary’s strictures with regards to mimesis – as raised earlier in this article – are creatively undermined as Subirana preferences affective spatio-temporal structures and an encounter with the image as one object amongst many, enmeshed within this account of the past.

Death marks this text from the outset as the director shows us film made of her grandmother before her death, spectrality thus pervading the diegesis. The premise of Nedar is absence, the director’s voiceover tells us that her father left for Puerto Rico when she was a child and to her knowledge there exists no photo of him, neither is there a photograph of her grandfather, as she tells us, “not a trace”. Thus begin her imagined reconstructions, creative inserts that interrupt the “factual” matter of the main piece, filmed in black and white with 1940s noir style dress, and the inevitable plume of cigarette smoke surrounding the silent and enigmatic men and women. These are the director’s glamorous imaginings of a shady Catalan underworld, hidden from view during the repressive period of Civil War and its fascist aftermath. They perform cinema’s spectrality on several levels: they represent a time and place from which we are doubly disconnected; it no longer exists but it also never existed, possible only through the cinematic image. They can also be acknowledged as a debt to the semiotic codes of the cinematic image, the generic conventions of noir and their reimagining here points to the function of that image as a mnemonic device or object in its own right, in this case it fills the space left by an absent and intangible past.

Handling the Past.

The desire to connect with the past is a desire to revisit its spaces and uncover its objects, the frustrations arise when these objects permit only a partial access to that past or refuse to give away their meaning. The re-enacting of the absent figures and the objects that represent them mark the absences of the missing people even as they evoke their presence. This material substitution and recollection of the dead disturbs the past as much as the presence of corpses did in En construcción. In Nedar, Subirana finds a memorial to her grandfather which she films on two separate occasions: on the first occasion she visits it with her grandmother and on the second she accompanies her mother to show her the grandfather/father’s name. When they find his name in the stone pillars they both dwell on its tactility, touching the grooves made by the letters engraved in the stone, as thought it is through touch that this person and the past will become real.

This first scene begins with the car journey to the monuments, the landscape shot through its windows as it passes by at speed. This is accompanied by the director’s voiceover explaining the absence of knowledge, of biographical detail about her grandfather. She says, “The only thing we knew was that he was shot in 1940, along with so many others.” The hand-held camera follows the grandmother’s unsteady footsteps as she approaches the engraved stone pillars. The shot from behind with the grandmother always in the frame epitomises both the desire of the filmmaker to share and understand this past and the inability to do so, we are not granted the grandmother’s point-of-view and she blocks our vision. This inscrutability is underscored by the contact with the name on the pillar, promising more than it can deliver, evinced in the director’s excited exclamation from behind the camera, “Have you found it?” to which the grandmother responds with a series of unfinished sentences, this object unsettles her but proves inadequate as a means of access to her memories. The final statement, “Well, he’s dead, he’s dead”, is followed by a shot of her hands, fingers interlocking and the thumbs moving over one another repeatedly. The low resolution of the digital video highlights the muted wintery palette and the age of the grandmother emphasised by the wrinkled skin on the hands pre-empts the death of which we are already aware. This resists the narrative revelation that was set up by the expedition, we do not find anything, instead we come up against the discrepancy between the attempt to create an official memorial practice and the personal engagement with this object that reveals little more than its opacity in this instance. The decision to focus on her grandmother in the final moments of this scene rather than the object renders the incommensurability of the personal and the political in this moment of incomprehension on the face of an old woman.

A similar preoccupation with handling the artefacts that might yield these valuable segments of the past is discernible in Bucarest, la memòria perduda as the director along with his father and his father’s wife, search through boxes of letters and photographs, hoping that his father, now suffering from Alzheimer’s might begin to remember this fragmented past. Jordi Solé Tura, the director’s father, grapples with locating a past that had to be obliterated as it was lived. This family history has not been obscured through any personal desire to hide but due to the nature of this clandestine living that meant until recently the director was unsure as to his true place of birth.

In one scene the director and his family search through boxes of documents and photographs as the camera focuses on them in succession. As the camera scrutinises them they become transparent, allowing the family photograph to overlay a (falsified?) birth certificate. Of course this transparency is what is sought from these objects and situations, possible here only as a result of the creative cinematic lens. Once more the inscrutability of objects persists, they are significant because they have survived and are affective objects, particularly, in this scene, for Jordi Solé Tura, whose fading memory is prompted by some of these material remnants.

The Image as Object

Thus far I have approached the filmed objects as vehicles of cinematic affect, metaphorical and metonymic commodities whose persistent and disruptive presence mimics the unspoken, yet irreducibly present, past. In my opening paragraphs I posited the loss of celluloid as intrinsic to an artistic representation of artefacts, illustrated by these documentaries. I put forward a reading of disruptive matter according to Deleuze. I conclude by returning to this concern through my final example, this time a film that attempts to rematerialize the image, to make present that which never was.

The title of Guerín’s film, Tren de sombras (Train of Shadows) references Maxim Gorky’s description of a program of the Lumière brothers early productions, inclusive of L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, 1896). Guerín’s film makes the medium (photographs and the celluloid of the home movies), the image and the means of representation into the material object, and in doing so interrogates the status of that image as material and the primacy of the index in this context.

As with En construcción, Guerín selects a very specific, local subject matter: the mystery that surrounds the disappearance of a man in the French town of Thuit. The film opens with an explanation of its premise in the form of rather lengthy pre-titles. According to this explanation, in 1930 Gerard Fleury disappeared after a trip to a lake to photograph it at dawn. The reconstruction of his final amateur family footage is restored and reviewed in the film that follows, and the family is thanked for their cooperation with this project. The final line of these pre-titles states the relationship of such footage to the history of the moving image as “primitive but moving images that recall the birth of cinema”.

Tren de sombras foregrounds absence and mortality on several narrative and formal levels. Guerín once again alludes to the marginality of memory and its problematic depiction through the use of fading and decaying footage that follows the pre-titles, after a production credit to Pere Portobella which marks the stylised division between directorial explanation and intervention and the subsequent “authentic” images. These are artificially aged film reels and the whole film is in fact a fabrication of a life lived through photography and film. No less concerned with mortality, as the sub-title – ‘the ghost of Thuit’ – indicates, this film invokes the material presence of the moving images as objects that might permit the process of reordering and recollecting. The premise of an auto-fictional narrative is secondary (as becomes clear in the course of the film) to the potential for the re-materialisation of the past and a concern with the “texture of the image”. (21)

The premise of a film that moves between a replaying of historical footage and photographs and the contemporary footage of empty spaces and significant objects (interspersed with the decaying images are long takes of the same village in the present, which observe interior and exterior spaces with diegetic sound and few human subjects), complicates and expands upon the differing kinds of materiality that can, and are, involved in a re-enacting of the past in this case. The problematic notion of ‘truth’ or even transparent meaning brought to the fore by the analysis of the preceding documentaries is reiterated as Guerín undermines the possibility of authentic objects of memory, the possibility of an original is undermined. As is typical of Guerín, the question of authenticity, or at least of the representation of reality is sidestepped. The affective capacity of the image and its ability to partake in the inter-subjective encounter with memory and history is mobilised, the phenomenological encounter that I posited earlier in the introduction.

The disappearing image, in the form of the damaged filmstrip, is made visible by its insertion in this new context. The black and white patches that mar the clarity of these images are imbued with a dual function. They are not only representations of decay but they are aesthetically interesting in their own right, abstract shapes evoking rich colours and textures, and invite a contemplation of surface. On the one hand, they are indices, in as far as they are the celluloid strip that bears the imprint of the original, on the other, in their abstraction they are available to further layers of interpretation and offered as images with their own inherent visual interest. Resina claims that in this work Guerín, “manipulated mimetic illusionism in order to destroy the belief in a primary object made visible though the image.” (22) In this way he interrogates the hierarchy of veracity which has established documentary, like celluloid, as the means by which the image can transmit a readily encoded meaning through its mimetic reproduction of reality. Instead it has become an example, as Darren Hughes points out, “of technical command of the medium necessary to transcend cliché and reinvigorate discussions about the relationship between image-making and meaning-making”. (23)

The image is a problematic object in this context, hovering as it does between index, representation and medium. Just as the effaced histories have to be recreated, revived and collated into a new (more dynamic) archive, the decaying film stock is the object made dynamic and constantly renewed in this process of becoming, enfolding various meanings and memories offered anew on each viewing. The film’s reels and family photographs are decaying artefacts that become more than (counterfeit) archival images.

The death of a medium exposes the tensions surrounding materiality as a permanent ideal in an age of impermanence. Paolo Cherchi Usai reminds us that, “moving images arise out of an intent to transform into an object whatever is forgettable and therefore doomed to decay and oblivion. The impermanence of these events finds its empirical counterpart in the moving image and determines its status as artefact.” (24) Nonetheless, this permanence is of course illusory and at times inconvenient, as these objects, both film and filmed objects, are a reminder of what it is that cannot be obliterated despite our best efforts. At the same time the objects are significant in their material and affective associations and encounters; they are dynamic and at times resistant and inscrutable to human attempts at containment and organisation. These films acknowledge mortality, and, in their disintegration of the object and the image, they acknowledge the dual bind of memory objects, both their material value and their enigmatic and disruptive presence.

The decay of bodily remains, the mind (through the trope of dementia and memory loss) and film stock are a timely reminder of the inevitable and unstoppable progression of time. These filmmakers have found a way to recuperate the affective and enfolding memory of things, which is a means by which they can contact those silenced memories, thus allowing them to be rediscovered and redefined. Rather than being fossilised in the traditional sense of the word they are made into Marks’ living filmic fossils.

Perhaps, in this context it has a political corollary in Spain’s troubled past, recognising the need for acknowledgement but refusing to return to an ossified past. If the bones must be raked over then they need to be incorporated into this dynamic archive and put to rest as their presence and their multiple meanings are allowed to speak to the present and the future.

This article has been peer reviewed.


  1. Paolo Cherchi Usai, The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age (London: British Film Institute, 2001), p. 1.
  2. For further discussion of representation, reality and authenticity see Bill Nichols, Representing Reality (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991).
  3. For a comprehensive approach to this facet of Deleuze’s work and its use in our approach to art see Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters: Deleuze and Guattari Thought beyond Representation, ed. by Gary Banham, Renewing Philosophy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
  4. Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Bergson, Deleuze and the Becoming of Unbecoming’, Parallax, 11, No. 2 2005, p.10.
  5. The use of ‘Catalan’ as a marker of national provenance is a slippery signifier. Language has long been assumed to be the defining feature of those cultural products designated as Catalan. Nonetheless, and in line with a more inclusive ideological and political project, I define as Catalan those works produced within Catalonia or which are funded (wholly or in part) by Catalan cultural organisations.
  6. Mary Ann Doane, ‘The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity’, Differences, 18, No. 1 2007, p.132.
  7. Doane, ‘The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity’, p.136.
  8. Hal Foster, ‘An Archival Impulse’, October, 110, No. Autumn 2004, p.4.
  9. Michael Richards, A Time of Silence: Civil War and the Culture of Repression in Franco’s Spain, 1936-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  10. Terri Bird, ‘Figuring Materiality’, Angelaki, 16, No. 1 2011, p.6.
  11. For further information on this process and its symbolic importance see Layla Renshaw, ‘Missing Bodies Near-at-Hand: The Dissonant Memory and Dormant Graves of the Spanish Civil War’, in An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of Transcendence and Loss., ed. by M. Bille, F. Hastrup and T. Flohr Sørensen, (New York: Springer, 2010).
  12. Joan Ramon Resina, ‘The Construction of the Cinematic Image: En construcción (José Luis Guerin, 2001)’, in Burning Darkness: Half a Century of Spanish Cinema, (New York: State University of New York, 2008), pp. 255-276 (p. 256).
  13. For more on a reading of the haptic appreciation of the materiality of space in this film see Abigail Loxham, ‘Barcelona under construction: The democratic potential of touch and vision in city cinema as depicted in En construcciión (2001)’, Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 3, No. 1 2006.
  14. Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 80.
  15. Patrick Ffrench, ‘The Immanent Ethnography of Chris Marker, Reader of Proust’, Film Studies, No. 6 2005, p.88.
  16. Walter Benjamin, One Way Street and Other Writings (London; NewYork: Verso, 1997), p. 53.
  17. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses pp. 88-89.
  18. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses p. 89.
  19. Christian Metz, Psychoanalysis and Cinema : the Imaginary Signifier, Language, discourse, society series (London: Macmillan, 1982).
  20. Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. xii.
  21. Darren Hughes, ‘Tren de sombras’, Senses of Cinema, No. 50 29/07/2011 2009.http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/cteq/tren-de-sombras/.
  22. Resina, ‘The Construction of the Cinematic Image: En construcción (José Luis Guerin, 2001)’, in, (p. 259).
  23. Hughes, ‘Tren de sombras’.
  24. Cherchi Usai, The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age, p. 65.

About The Author

Abigail Loxham holds degrees from the University of Cambridge, has worked as a lecturer at the University of Hull and is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia.

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