You hear numbers like the 220,000 estimated dead in the thresher of the fifty-year-long, cocaine-fueled Colombian civil conflict, and your attention can drift. Even hearing individuals’ stories from this litany of atrocities and we can become subsumed by compassion fatigue. Back in the 1960s, political documentary filmmakers could make sociopolitical waves by simply recording facts and disseminating images. But today any one film, regardless of the scorch of its veracity and righteousness, is just one car horn in thousand-mile freeway traffic jam of manic honkers.
What you need is a particular, even idiosyncratic angle. And so Manuel Correa’s new film, The Shape of Now (now streaming on Amazon, Vudu and Google), takes on the gore-soaked mess that is Colombia’s civil war in a sly and inventive way: by casting a cool eye on the oddly surreal social landscape of the country as it is now, with the war officially over and the entire society attempting to move on.
As Correa’s opening title cards explain, the opposing sides, and everyone in the middle, must “now face the impossible task of agreeing on a shared past”—after decades of barbarities on all sides, and an institutional effort on everyone’s part to obscure guilt and casualty figures, going back to the 1960s. (Older Colombians who remember back that far may have also grown up in the warring-parties bloodshed era of La Violencia, from 1948 to 1958, in which another 200,000 people were killed.)
But is “healing” a realistic goal? If not, then what?
Correa squints sideways at the often strange ways that Colombia is attempting to normalize itself —to essentially fold the scar tissue and grief into each new sunny day. We meet psychologists and neuroscientists working on medical rehab for both perpetrators and victims of the war, whose detectable levels of brain trauma and PTSD outcomes are essentially equal.
We meet Madres de la Candelaria, the victims’-rights protest group of mothers who have evolved from simply truth-seeking—literally finding out where their disappeared sons are buried—to visiting prisons and reconciling with ex-paramilitaries. (In some cases, the Madres have adopted prisoners released from prison but with no family left.) We meet an amateur theatrical troupe made of victims’ families, who perform traumatic scenarios based on their own experiences as prison inmates (and sometimes for Correa’s camera).
In its dodgy, elliptical way, Correa’s film is all about the evasiveness of blame and memory—or is it evasive in and of itself?
We hear in Correa’s film of the army’s brutal actions, but don’t meet many citizens interested in reconciling with the state. This is a possible result of either the filmmaker’s anti-FARC prejudices the citizenry’s similar leanings, or the simple fact that the nation’s politicians, military, and plethora of paramilitary adjuncts haven’t really been held accountable for their part in the carnage. It’s somewhat like probing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by exploring the possibility of forgiving the Palestinians. In any case, in Colombia, who killed how many is still a known unknown.
In fact, in its dodgy, elliptical way, Correa’s film is all about the evasiveness of blame and memory—or is it evasive in and of itself? Is the Colombian situation so fraught with tangled bitternesses and responsibilities and unknowables that ordinary ideas of culpability and justice have no place on the ground?
Correa seems to think so; he gives prime interview space to a number of experts and scholars espousing a kind of sociopolitical relativism that struggles to erase moral certainty.
A mathematician contends that no single perspective can be absolutely true—”as in math,” a multiplicity of vectors (or perspectives) aggregates into a kind of truth, and reliance on a “polarity,” like right and wrong, is simply false. Similarly, a historian maintains that since history is a manufacture of the present, out of memory, perspectives, incomplete facts, and moral subjectivity, it too must be considered suspect, in flux, and inconclusive. A peace negotiator echoes the sentiment, claiming that a single, agreed-on historical narrative would be a “serious mistake”—as it would divide the people, not bind them together, as might a more holistic, free-form (and presumably contradictory) mesh of memories and story.
Which would look like what, exactly? You can see why the country’s more philosophical citizens would find this kind of thinking useful, even hopeful. The rest of the population, particularly the rural villages which one journalist describes as not even knowing that there is a government to rebel against, may well be flummoxed by the dismissal of basic ethical notions like guilt and innocence. And shouldn’t they be?
There do not seem to be any good guys in the Colombian saga, just varieties of butchers grinding up the innocents between them, which may account for this movie’s quizzical aloofness, extolling in every interview the virtue of not judging others. Correa himself crafts what amounts to a battery of debate prompts, but holds back from taking on the big questions that the whole country is trying to avoid. The social surrealism has a kind of dream logic: Pretend the past is unknowable or tacitly irrelevant, for the sake of tomorrow.
Which is a conundrum not a small number of countries have had to face since the storm surge of violence in the mid-20th century, and have addressed in their own way, none with remarkable success. That’s perhaps the most dire takeaway of Correa’s film: Given the scale, savagery and shared barbarities of contemporary civil conflict all over the globe, Colombia’s state of rationalization might be something like a modern paradigm, a New Normal, all too common.