'Absence of Me': Film Review | IDFA 2018

Courtesy of International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
A sensitive immersion.

Melina Terribili's tribute to seminal Uruguayan performer/writer Alfredo Zitarrosa premiered in the main competition at the long-running Dutch documentary festival.

The painful plight of exile finds sharp focus in Absence of Me (Ausencia de mi), a poetic but fiery bio-documentary on Uruguayan singer-songwriter Alfredo Zitarrosa (1936-1989). A lifelong leftist forced out of his homeland for nearly a decade during its period of dictatorship and reactionary repression, Zitarrosa became a trans-national emblem of resistance, and then of rebirth when he was finally able to return.

This somberly affecting and informative chronicle of creativity and defiance, a solo directorial debut from Melina Terribili, enjoyed a high-profile launch when world-premiering in the main competition at Amsterdam's IDFA. It has strongest theatrical prospects in Uruguay and Argentina, where Zitarrosa — who specialized in stirringly lugubrious laments about exploitation and poverty — remains a household name nearly three decades after his death. Elsewhere, it should prove a popular choice for non-fiction festivals, especially those favoring political, human rights and/or musical subjects.

Uruguay (1973-85) and Argentina (1975-83) were, of course, far from being the only countries in Latin America to suffer under the yoke of dictatorship within living memory. And the impact of authoritarian regimes all over the world in the present decade — in China, India, Russia, the Philippines and Turkey, to name a few — provides further evidence that outspoken artists such as Zitarrosa are often still the first to come under direct attack.

October's elections in Brazil, which borders both Uruguay and Argentina, are widely seen as potentially heralding a return to the "dark days" of the 1970s and early 1980s; current geo-political trends thus endow Absence of Me with a chilling undercurrent of topicality. Working once again with seasoned editor Valeria Racioppi — who cut her co-directed 2012 debut Igual al Mar — Terribili assembles a fragmentary compendium of images and sounds, making copious use of the Zitarrosa family's collections of home movies and audio recordings. These vividly conjure Zitarrosa's complex inner life while placing it in its proper historical and social contexts.

Her starting point is in 2014, when Zitarrosa's daughters belatedly hand over his personal archives to the state. This diverse collection of clothes, belongings, recordings and scribbled writings are reverently sifted through and classified; present-day scenes alternate with images and sounds taken from the archives themselves. Occasionally the latter show some signs of excessive manipulation; Terribili adds what looks like a slight but artificial-looking layer of flickering grain to some of the 8mm and 16mm footage, visible even during the presentation of certain stills. The material is sufficiently strong to obviate the need for such lily-gilding.

We grasp the crucial role of environment and place in Zitarrosa's creative processes ("the surroundings are always very important") across the course of a film divided up into section devoted to each stage of his exile: Argentina, Spain, Mexico. His return to Uruguay is crowned by a massive concert in 1984 — the tumultuous reception he receives underlining how colossal his heroic status had become.

This frenzied attention brought with it considerable pressures; Terribili emphasizes how much Zitarrosa struggled under the burdens of responsibility and expectation, and the collateral consequences all of this had on his family. Balancing the intimately domestic with the pressing concerns and messy consequences of the wider world, Absence of Me is a soulful ode to resilient creativity in tough circumstances. It proves that while Zitarrosa's own "song" may have ended, his spirit's melody lingers indomitably on.

Production company: Bella Sombra
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Melina Terribili
Producer: Maximiliano Dubois
Editor: Valeria Racioppi
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Sales: Bella Sombra, Buenos Aires

In Spanish
82 minutes