Director: Federico Atehortúa Arteaga
Arteaga initially set out to make a documentary about the origins of Colombian cinema; itself a fertile ground for exploration. In the process of doing so, however, he came to realise that the medium’s tentative first steps were inherently connected to the country’s history of violence and civil unrest; something that has defined it ever since. His finished film -released as Mute Fire in the UK but known as Pirotecnia in its native Colombia – takes the form of a fascinating visual essay, one rendered all the more engaging for Arteaga’s openly personal approach to the project.
His initial proposal tells a great story of it’s own. On 6th March 1906 four men were executed in public for an attempt on the life of president Rafael Reyes. Their deaths were caught by a photojournalist, who then recreated the events leading up to the incident in an effort to tell a story through images. Those archival still images are presented here, with Arteaga making the case for their collective existence as a kind of cinema in itself. A lie to tell the truth.
Arteaga uses this as a jumping off point for an exploration on the relationship between film and politics in Colombia, where cinema has been consistently used to shape the public image of its internal struggles, for its inhabitants and for the world at large. His film is a lesson in how a national identity can be distorted through propaganda. His initial point of reference – the 1906 executions – endemic of a kind of ‘fake news’ that has recurred ever since, met with apathy( in Arteaga’s eyes) by its populous. Arteaga calls such acts “false positives” and in the late stages of his film examples how their ilk are still rife in the country today.
Mute Fire does not serve as a starting point for those looking for a reel of highlights from Colombia’s cinematic export over the years. This is no quickfire clip show. Arteaga is cannier than that. His sources more creative and insidious. Archival footage of Thomas Edison gets drawn into this increasingly strange tale of images holding agendas. He shows us news reel footage, contemporary images, photographs, even a football game to illustrate his points and to fold truths over fictions. This last serves dual purposes. The fateful tumble of Cesar Cueto in the closing minutes of the 34th Colombian professional football tournament hones in on the porous line between the real and pretend. Arteaga has a personal stake in this conversation. His mother, seemingly close to dying, has become mute, but Arteaga and other family members doubt the validity of her condition. Arteaga starts to ponder whether there’s a difference in an affliction being real or pretend, casting us back to the wider idea of a national identity built on false pretenses.
His film offers a unique opportunity to see Colombia in the way generations of Colombians have grown up experiencing it; secondhand through their televisions, through their media, and Arteaga argues that this version of their back garden has been artfully, deceitfully adjusted. Arteaga goes one further, himself recreating the opening shot of a long lost and controversial film reel charting the funeral procession for Rafael Uribe Uribe. It’s an act of self-awareness or complicity as this director confronts his own ability to editorialise, his own authorship and subjectivity. Still, this is an openly passionate argument from an articulate filmmaker who makes his case with magnetism.
What lingers is how powerfully connected Colombia’s images are to its politics. How intermingled. Even in spite of Arteaga’s claims that his countrymen are too apathetic and ambivalent, its striking how much less engaged we in the UK seem in contrast. Or perhaps that’s a reflection of how cocooned and comforted we are, how safe and secure compared with Colombia’s continual struggle with war and violence.