If the first day of the year is auspicious about the rest of it, I’ll be watching photography-related movies all throughout 2013. But I bet you could’ve guessed that even if I didn’t watch a couple of them on January 1 🙂
One of them was the mesmerizing – in a quiet, subtle way – Brazilian film Found Memories (Julia Murat, 2011). Just like eavesdropping on a conversation and slowly realizing it’s about you, I realized this story could be about me: raking through a past with a camera lens and trying to bring it back to life, when the camera can only capture what’s here and now. Full of metaphors and lightly paced, it’s delightful to watch and ponder on the interweaving connection between photography and life.
So it’s a movie about Rita, a young photographer fascinated with old things, who walks the tracks of a canceled train to a long-forsaken village whose inhabitants forget to die. They follow the simple old routines of a life off the grid of modernity and worry that after they pass away all memory about them will vanish. But that never happens – the priest has locked up the cemetery and so they can’t die.
Rita settles in with Madalena, the old baker who writes letters to her dead husband in a stubborn attempt to keep the slipping memory of him alive. Guarded at first, Madalena welcomes her into her heart and teaches her how to make the village’s bread. Shows her the pictures she’s kept of other people who have died. Distanced at first, Rita gradually becomes assimilated in the village life.
And she takes pictures of the villagers’s memories, unattainable as this sounds. She puts away her digital camera, its battery impossible to recharge, and makes pinhole images of the houses, the streets and eerie double exposure portraits of the people populating them. These are images that are to be developed in the dark, just like dreams need their nighttime to come to float.
But Madalena refuses to have her picture taken. She is too messy, she says, and the picture doesn’t show her in a way she was imagining herself. That’s why she’d covered all the mirrors in the house and had not looked at herself in them for a long time.
Pictures are indeed like mirrors, truthful or deceptive. We can trust them as much as we choose to trust a mirror. An outsider may see Madalena’s wedding portrait, but will not know that it was actually recreated after the wedding. It’s just one way photography can bring back the past and lock it in. My grandparents’ portrait that hung over their bed was actually made by assembling two separate photographs of them, taken at different times.
Yet despite extending or creating the memory of those pictured, photography also kills. If you wonder why Madalena has to be childless and worry that nobody will remember her, it turns out that her only son died as an infant. Her husband wanted a memento of his babyhood and propped him on a cupboard for the purposes of having his picture taken. And the baby fell on the ground.
Do we always kill something when we want to preserve it in a memory, at least a little bit? I am willing to accept we do. Consider, for example, the fact that our memories are shaped by the pictures of past events that are continuously in front of our eyes. We think we remember the events, but in fact our memories are hijacked by the frozen images. Perhaps otherwise they would completely fade anyway. But freezing them in is like stunting them, denying them the chance to evolve and be corrected by other means and senses. “Pictures fade when you caress them”, Rita warns, and indeed a photograph is a connection to the past that also distances us from it.
It’s not a chance that when Madalena finally agrees to have her picture taken, true and nude, is when she dies. And Rita is the reason. Attracted by those forbidden markers of memory that tombstones are, in trespassing the cemetery and opening its sealed gates – out of curiosity? in defiance? – the photographer unleashes the death of her subject. It happens just on the next day after she takes her picture.
And while Rita came to the village to take pictures and recover a past she wishes she was born in, she is now locked there. She must stay on because with her host gone, she is the only one who can make bread for everyone and continue the life of the village. It’s like going native in the past. Perhaps this is actually a ghost community and by entering the cemetery Rita has become one, too.
That’s how I feel sometimes.