'Toponymy': FIDMarseille Review

Courtesy of FIDMarseille
A landmark in structural documentary

Jonathan Perel's documentary on Argentinean urban planning won the critics' prize at the French festival.

The practices, impacts and legacies of repression are chronicled with a scientific rigor and an artistic eye in Jonathan Perel's superb Toponymy (Toponimia), which deserves to provide the 39-year-old Argentinean with his belated international breakthrough. After world-premiering quietly at Buenos Aires' BAFICI, it made much more of a stir at France's FIDMarseille where it nabbed the prize of international critics' organization CAMIRA. Further play at adventurous, cinephile festivals is a given for a low-key, unassuming but cumulatively stunning work that stands comparison with the finest achievements by Perel's creative forefathers, James BenningJohn Gianvito and Heinz Emigholz

None of those veteran directors has exactly been a "name" at the box office, but all have proven productive, politically engaged examiners of both landscapes and man-made structures, attracting steadily increasing followings over the years. Toponymy, 82 minutes of narration-free observation, may appear something of a tough sell — but with appropriate handling, it should go on to gain fruitful exposure in both cinema and installation settings.

Previously responsible for shorts and a trio of mid-lengthers — The Property (2010), 17 Monuments (2012) and Tabula Rasa (2013) — Perel now focuses intently on four villages built close to each other in Tucuman province, in Argentina's far northwest. This was the location of an armed rebellion of mountain-dwelling peasants in the early 1970s, crushed in brutal fashion by the country's military during what was officially known as "Operation Independence."

To prevent the repetition of such an uprising, the surviving indigenous population was relocated to the four new settlements where they could be more easily kept under surveillance and thus controlled. By the time the settlements were completed, the whole of Argentina had come under the murderous rule of a military dictatorship.

After a brief, expository prologue, Perel compiles a forensically contemplative report on each of the villages: the result is a quartet of chapters, each assembled along identical lines, comprising 68 shots lasting 15 seconds apiece. Ten preliminary shots glimpse excerpts from official documents relating to the settlement's founding, with certain key phrases highlighted (Perel eschews narration throughout). The village's modern-day ambience is then captured in 58 live-action shots, each of which corresponds directly to the equivalent shot in the other chapters.

That is, at least, the ostensible, robotically precise "grid" upon which Toponymy (the odd-sounding title refers to the practice of attaching names to places) is built. In fact, the eagle-eyed viewer will spot that Perel actually diverges from the rigid four-square plan on a couple of occasions — this becomes more apparent on a second watch — thus subtly and crucially both rejecting and subverting the military mind-set that created these artificial towns in the first place.

And while the government may have succeeded in quelling the troublesome populace, the condition of the villages 40 years on displays the triumph of human individualism over externally imposed uniformity. Despite certain underlying similarities, these four places have developed into scruffy but characterful spots where kids play noisily and happily in the streets — their ebullience enlivening Perel's sensitive sound design.

As is the case with most of Benning's, Gianvito's and Emigholz's projects, the visuals here at first glance fall into the "but-nothing-is-happening!" category. Every ounce of effort on the part of the viewer yields rich rewards, however, not least because of the elegantly exact compositional sense that marks the widescreen images (and which reach their payoff in a bosky, poetic, haunting epilogue). Indeed, it's easy to become drawn into — even perhaps a little bit obsessed with — what is simultaneously a serious and sober engagement with a nation's troubled past, and also an elaborate memory puzzle whose dry, enigmatic humor would surely have tickled Perel's illustrious countryman Jose Luis Borges

Production company: Jonathan Perel
Director/Screenwriter/Producer/Cinematographer/ Editor/Sales: Jonathan Perel

No Rating, 82 minutes