How to Remember a Dictatorship: Paz Encina’s "Memory Exercises"

February 9, 2017

In May 1954, Paraguayan General Alfredo Stroessner overthrew President Federico Chávez, instituting a dictatorship that would violently rule over the country for thirty-five years. The regime regularly tortured and murdered political opponents and infamously sheltered Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele. In 2008, the country’s Truth and Justice Commission counted no less than 59 summary executions and more than 300 disappearances, nearly 19,000 incidents of torture, and nearly 20,000 arbitrary detentions during the dictatorship. Though Stroessner’s rule ended with another coup d’état in 1989, he never faced justice and his Colorado Party has ruled the country since with only a five-year interruption.

Martín Almada, a victim of imprisonment and torture during the regime, spent fifteen years searching for documents that would prove his experience to the many that doubted him. In 1992, a tip-off led him to a cache of 700,000 documents detailing terror by Stroessner’s regime and a network of CIA-backed dictators in South America’s Southern Cone. These documents, which include mugshots, family photographs, surveillance tapes, and meticulous records, became known as the Archive of Terror. Almada described its find as “like an explosion of memory.”

Twenty years after the discovery of the archives, Paraguayan filmmaker Paz Encina began to mine them for material that would result in a number of installations, short films, and a recently released feature film, Memory Exercises (2016). Encina had close relationship with the dictatorship while growing up, as she explained during a recent lecture at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The filmmaker spent the first eighteen years of her life under the dictatorship, her father was arrested numerous times, her house was raided every week or two, and the police state was so familiar in this small country that her mother would sometimes instruct her to invite the person surveilling the family into the house when it rained. After spending time with the Archives of Terror, Encina knew the work she needed to create was documentary. In partnership with her residency at UC Berkeley, Encina will be screening Memory Exercises and two fiction films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from February 10 to 12.

Agustín Goiburú—a doctor, dissident, and father—was one of the hundreds of disappeared Paraguayans catalogued in the Archives of Terror. Memory Exercises tells the story of his life and disappearance. In light of Almada’s struggle to validate his experience, the film’s title suggests that recalling and acknowledging trauma requires hard work on the part of those who remember it and those who are keen to forget it. Despite the pervasiveness of the dictatorship, Encina says that Paraguay is not a country that has “worked on memory.”

Memory Exercises straddles the line between documentary and poetic fiction. One of two long opening sequences features a young boy swimming in the murky waters of a river paired with the voiceover of a child recounting how her great-grandfather would pray on a hill near a river, with subsequent generations of his descendants demonstrating decreasing devotion. The second sequence is a number of interior shots of a modest rural home. The house appears lived in—with tea cups on the table, half eaten fruit on the ground, and voices in the distance—but ominously empty. A new narrator, an adult woman, speaks sorrowfully about exile. The cutlery, the shoes, and all the signs of life in this house suddenly appear more fleeting, like a snapshot of a family’s life moments before receiving a phone call instructing them to flee. Eventually, a solitary woman is found embroidering in one of the rooms listening to a mournful ballad on the radio, but she is like a ghost in this house that seems to want for human activity. She pricks her finger, and the scene ends.

Here the film slides toward documentary while honoring the artist’s debt to video art and experimental film. Photographs, files, and fingerprints from the archives appear on the screen, paired with audio of an informant conversing with a police commissioner. Viewers witness primary evidence of Stroessner’s crimes.

Goiburú’s adult children and wife narrate the rest of the film, detailing their relationship with Agustín, his activities against the regime, and the family’s life under the dictatorship. Their words form a tapestry of remembrance; the various narrators are edited together with sentences trailing off and cutting into one another. Like Encina, these children were well acquainted with their country’s political reality. They began using guns as young as six years old and moved from house to house to evade the authorities. “Because of our ages,” one of the sons adds, “our childhood also had those moments of happiness of hiding up in the hill, of playing nature.”

Much of the film focuses on three young boys and a girl playing in a forest. They act as stand-ins, either metaphorically or literally, for the narrators. The camera lingers on the children as they spend an idle day exploring their surroundings before being called home by their mother. Their house is the quiet home from the opening and their mother is the woman embroidering. There is no father nor does there appear to be one expected home.

The film returns again to documents from the archive specifically related to Goiburú. Custody records and surveillance photographs are coupled with pictures of a seemingly happy Goiburú family. The most heartbreaking is a series of photographs of a man in snorkeling gear playing in a children’s above ground pool with his family looking on. It is unclear if the man is Goiburú, but he is someone’s father, husband, or son, and his inclusion in the Archives of Terror is a grim sign.

No signs of technology indicate whether the on-screen characters live in modern times or the 1970s, when Goiburú was disappeared. As the film ends, a report on the radio offers a clue, but only if we trust that time has been depicted linearly. This family could be both the Goiburús of the 1970s and a modern family eternally awaiting news of their disappeared loved ones.

Memory Exercises is itself the act of exercising memory. At one point in the film, one of Goiburú’s sons mentions Encina by name in his testimony. That one aside lends a sense of autobiography to the film. The story of the Goiburú family is not the same as that of the Encina family, but this film is the “work of memory” that Encina must conduct. Telling their family’s story is the work Goiburú’s children and wife must do. Through the semi-fictional characters on screen, the film also creates memories—memories of those who never lived to tell them or who are not capable of offering testimony now.