A personal docu with a broad scope, “108” is Renate Costa’s gently probing exploration of her late gay uncle’s life under the Paraguayan dictatorship. Alternately straightforward and impressionistic, Costa’s moving take on homosexuality in a tyrannical country encompasses the aftermath of such repression on society at large, and thanks to a symbiotic relationship with d.p. Carlos Vasquez, the quietly inquisitive lensing picks up textures and details that reveal as much as the spoken word. This is an ideal candidate for fests looking to show that docus can be as full of quiet artistry as any feature.
“108” is the derogatory moniker Paraguayans use for homosexuals, a term stemming from the first of many lists of arrested (and frequently tortured) gay men that political strongman Alfredo Stroessner had posted in public places as a way of intensifying their humiliation. The docu’s original-language title, “Cuchillo de palo,” translates as “useless knife,” an insulting phrase directed at Costa’s uncle Rodolfo and, presumably, other gay men considered ineffectual members of society.
The helmer’s ambivalent relationship to her home country (she now lives in Spain) is clear from the start, when she speaks of her penchant for going down to the Paraguay River and turning her back on the city of Asuncion to “look at what she doesn’t see.” She’s returned to learn more about her father’s brother Rodolfo, the black sheep of the family, found dead 15 years earlier. Ambiguity cloaks Rodolfo’s life, and while Costa allows hints to surface, she maintains a confluence of facts and rumors left unsupported or unexplored.
The reasons for this are clear: In Paraguay, 21 years after Stroessner’s fall, silence is still the default mode, and self-censorship remains ingrained. The shadow world in which Rodolfo and other gay men lived in Paraguay still exists, and while there’s a glimmer of hope as more men and women come out, theirs is still a parallel universe. Entrenched in a blinkered evangelism, Costa’s father Pedro speaks proudly of beating up his brother’s friends in the belief he could keep Rodolfo from acting on his desires — the helmer isn’t squeamish about revealing her anger toward her father, who evasively returns her questions with talk of God.
Costa understands the power of awkward silences, holding the camera to explore discomfort and her own accusatory gaze. Even when discussing the horrors of the dictatorship, she maintains an unwavering calm that cuts through the hedging and the calculated avoidance of larger issues — hers is a selfless righteousness that nevertheless confronts her personal history.
Via a felicitous partnership with lenser Vasquez, the docu plays with grainy textures and unexpected focal points to heighten a sense of melancholy loss, fully contained in artfully composed images without resorting to artificially manipulative music.