COLOMBIA: Is there any link between the production of images and our experience of war? Colombian director Federico Atehortúa Arteaga poses this question in his debut film Mute Fire.

Sevara Pan
Sevara Pan
Sevara Pan is a journalist and film critic.
Published date: August 3, 2019

When we talk about Colombia, we have to speak about its war. Hailing from the country that has suffered significant losses from its protracted conflict, the director attempts to find a link between Colombia’s violent history and the country’s cinematic tradition. According to Atehortúa Arteaga, the beginnings of Colombian cinema could be traced back to the 1906 assassination attempt of then-President Rafael Reyes Prieto, which resulted in the capture and the execution of the four assailants. Following the incident, Reyes and photographer Lino Lara went on to recreate the attack and the apprehension of the assailants. Out of the 22 images of the photographic report, 14 were what the director called «theatrical reenactments» invested with the same degree of veracity as the pictures taken during the actual execution.


Used and abused

Atehortúa Arteaga locates the birth of Colombian cinematic tale-making in the 1906 incident. The claim seems unsettling, yet the film leaves it at that, denying an opportunity of further elaboration on the created narrative and its legacy. Since the onset of the 20th century, images have been used and abused for a variety of purposes. Some unified and inspired hope, others divided and disheartened. Technological innovation has brought war closer, granting millions of people access to battlefields from the comforts of their homes. Civilians were pulled into war, allowing them to experience it almost exclusively through images. They could follow the progress of their armies, trace the lines of retreating enemies, and witness its grim actualities.

Atehortúa Arteaga is not wrong in saying that Colombia’s long-standing conflict has been marked by an «obsession» with images. The desire to see an image of a dead guerrilla murdered at the hands of government forces was «furiously demanded» and tirelessly satiated. The demand to see a dead guerrilla every day was voiced by the country’s leadership and was «heard in schools, bars, stores, churches, houses, and among friends and family. And then the horror came». The discovery of the so-called «false positives» came with the realisation that certain images were instrumental in the creation of favourable war narratives. Numerous civilians were allegedly killed and disguised as fighters belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) for one purpose only – to flaunt the army’s effectiveness and simulate its military successes.

A mother’s silence

The documentary also seems to allude to the issue of desensitisation of civilians to the war imagery. Just like the director’s mother who grew bored of a recurrent nightmare where she appears to be the dead person inside a coffin, civilians too may eventually find the gruesome war imagery mundane.

His mother’s silence then becomes an anchor in the story, around which he builds a meditative essay on Colombia’s violent history.

As Atehortúa Arteaga navigates his homeland’s visual history, he gets side-tracked when his mother is struck by what appears to be mutism. To find an answer to his mother’s sudden disease, the director shifts his attention to his personal memories and relationship with his mother. His mother’s silence then becomes an anchor in the story, around which he builds a meditative essay on Colombia’s violent history. As the film unfolds, the filmmaker learns that his mother’s silence is perhaps a «volunteer decision» rather than a medical condition. Could his mother’s silence be a bodily response to the nation’s weariness amid the country’s decades-long conflict? And could she be «punishing us all» – as her husband infers in the film – by resorting to silence?

Mute Fire, a fim by Federico Atehortúa Arteaga

The documentary straddles between the personal and the political. «The personal is political», as the 1960s’/1970s’ rallying slogans read. The documentary freely alternates between the archival footage and home videos to recount Colombia’s collective and personal memories. Images that have dominated the public imagination in the past decades take turns with home footage, some filmed by his now silent mother, a former sympathiser of the country’s insurgent groups.

Elusive truth

Tension between the staged and «the real» is also palpable in the film. The truth seems elusive even in the footage of a children’s theater play, which recreates a scene from the military operation that saw captured farmers being forced to put on guerrilla uniforms as part of the army’s attempt to «reveal» their identities and find out if they were guerrillas or not.

The documentary lays bare the perceived hypocrisy of the public over its dead and whom it deems «worth» mourning.

The film offers a fresh perspective on the staging of (his)stories; however, one would desire less breadth and more depth. I believe that the film would have benefitted from a less scattered approach in the probe of Colombia’s violent history and its image-creation. Mute Fire concludes with startling thoughts that concern the relative value of [staged images of] death. The documentary lays bare the perceived hypocrisy of the public over its dead and whom it deems «worth» mourning. It rails against the public’s failure to honour its dead as it shows apathy towards «false positives» while appearing deeply hurt by images that recreate the death of a beloved political leader.

Modern Times Review