I started working in documentary film almost by accident. In 2001, I was going to graduate with a thesis about the war in Bosnia Hercegovina. Some friends invited me to spend a winter in Mostar, in the south of the country which was still in ruins, to make a documentary about the youth associations that were struggling to re-emerge and overcome, by means of creativity, the ethnic fractures that had left 3500 dead in the city. I went with a friend and a camera that would look like a toy today. Before us we had six months, a little money, a winter of -15º in a house badly restored by the UNHCR, a coal stove, a 1985 Golf 2 to scale the mountains that separated us from Sarajevo and to lose ourselves on snow-covered trails leading to Goražde and the Republika Srpska. Ice, haystacks, toppled minarets, elusive priests, mystics of Medjugorjie, the memory of the last ethnic cleansing in Europe. And freedom. To find out, to ask, to lose ourselves, to tell. And to laugh with the Bosnians about everything, even the mines.
After 15 years devoting myself heart and soul to the cinema of reality, it is plain that I never returned from that journey. The vertigo produced by the openness, the other and the road that lies ahead, have drawn me forcibly to unobtrusive parts of the world to listen to dozens of lives lived face to face with the obstinate pain of rebirth. I have listened to the grief of mothers in the suburbs of Algiers for children torn away and dissolved into nothingness by a murderous state. I have seen illiterate women in earthen houses who learn to defend themselves from the violence of their men in a makeshift theatre in the dust of the Sahara. I have counted the bones scraped from the bottom of a mass grave high in the mountains of Castile and listened to the voice of a 95-year-old man recalling how they killed his schoolmaster there. With barely a hesitation, with another friend I followed the impalpable thread of his memory to a region of forests that overlook the Gulf of Mexico, and I went to tell his story to the children in the last school in Patagonia. Just around the corner, in the deep shadow of anonymous houses in a city in the Mediterranean, I have seen lives fleeing from persecution and hate, seeking nothing more than a place with a little love. Meanwhile, in a tiny school on a lost island, where I partly grew up, I have met children who even build barricades to hide from life. Perhaps it is this that I’ve been chasing throughout so many journeys, without quite knowing why: the thread of inquiry that always binds the immanence of pain and the irredeemable need of the world to start over. And from this insoluble enigma, I have simply tried to salvage the imprint of the eye.
We live in a prostituted, sponsored world that we can hardly call our own, because it really is the world of just a few who make life miserable for many others, with the added risk of condemning future generations to a life of insecurity on a ravaged planet. Two of the things we need most are education (not just what they call “awareness”) and social criticism—that is, control of the excesses of the political powers that be, the powers have a monopoly on what they call legitimate violence.
As a great lover of collective projects at the service of the yearnings that drive many, Alberto Bougleux is an intelligent, sensitive filmmaker whose work deserves to be known to more people. He presents us with real stories in an attempt to understand others; sometimes sad stories about escape and breaking with the past, but which highlight the rebirth that is sometimes inherent in them, offering encouragement and confidence to those who find themselves in this type of situation. His is a respectful, serene, reflective look at “dozens of lives faced with the intractable pain of being born again”.
His documentaries work with open screenplays, with an eye to what is going on during filming, to what is called for, using his camera (Bougleux is an excellent cameraman) as an instrument of research. Aesthetically, he adopts the metaphor of Sicilian Vittorio da Setta (maker of one of the most beautiful films about shepherds, Banditi a Orgosolo, his first work, in 1961), where the poetry of the film is like salt: it conserves food—the content—perfectly. (Though we know there is no such thing as eternal beauty or truth, that both are historical and that there are epochs in which, as Valéry said, “Virgil is useless”.)
In the editing process, his musical training comes to the fore, structuring the soundtrack like music or, as he says, using the film’s elements and characters as “an orchestra of involuntary instruments”. Bougleux has digested all the films he saw in Bologna as a student, producing a serene style that is an invitation to empathy with and reflection about his characters.
His work is concerned with education (The Last Day and The Island are examples)—not the double-dealing kind that purports to educate the masses, but education about people, for people. “The education of the masses-child! That would be Herod’s own pedagogy, absolutely monstrous”, as Antonio Machado’s Juan de Mairena said. The problem of identity (religious, cultural, national, ethnic, etc.), of the necessary coexistence between different identities in today’s globalized world, is one of the most complicated yet most pressing issues to address in this accelerated age in which we live. As the teacher in The Island says (2013): “Giving space means offering possibilities of socialization, exchange and dialogue; the possibility of constructing something…” More space in the general media should also be given to works like Alberto Bougleux’s. Some of his work, created with a particularly light touch, has nothing to envy in recent celebrated Spanish documentaries.
Félix Pérez-Hita (filmmaker and cultural critic)