108 (Cuchillo de Palo): Film Review

108 (Cuchillo de Palo) - H 2013
Intimate doc looks at mistreatment of gays in 1980s Paraguay.

Filmmaker Renate Costa investigates the mistreatment of gays in 1980s Paraguay as well as the suspicious death of her uncle.

The numerical title of Renate Costa's 108 is code in Paraguay for homosexual, referring to lists of gay men that were issued for public ridicule during the long dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Costa is concerned with one of the names on those lists -- that of her uncle Rodolfo, who died when she was a child and whose life is a mystery to her. Costa's inquiry into that life offers a deeply felt angle on the broader realities of life in Paraguay during the '80s; while the intimate film is unlikely to expand beyond niche theatrical bookings, it will affect many who see it.

Costa begins and ends with her father Pedro, a deeply religious man who, throughout Rodolfo's life, begged him to "change." Pedro was content to go without answers to many of the questions his brother's death raised -- how he died with so much money in the bank despite having no job, for instance. But his daughter tracks down the man's neighbors and many of his old friends, gay men who remember him as an artist and who suffered many of the same indignities (and, we learn late in the film, brutal police abuse) that surely contributed to the sadness Renate is told killed Rodolfo. The doc's most moving moments are between father and daughter, as each struggles to decide how much information to share with the other.

The filmmaker's investigation is a word-of-mouth affair, avoiding broader historical perspectives to interview only those with firsthand knowledge of Rodolfo (or those who can look up his police records). Carlos Vasquez's grainy, low-light videography is appropriate for these sometimes secretive exchanges, acknowledging that even today many Paraguayans are frightened of having their names seen alongside those of men they love like family.

Production Company: Estudi Playtime
Director-Screenwriter: Renate Costa
Producer: Susana Benito
Executive producer:  Marta Andreu
Director of photography: Carlos Vasquez   
Editor: Nuria Esquerra        

No rating, 91 minutes