That you don’t need more than one riveting talking head and a little intelligence to make a terrific docu is amply demonstrated by “No Man’s Land,” from Portuguese vid artist and scribe-helmer Salome Lamas. Sixtysomething subject Paulo de Figueiredo recounts his experiences as a bloodthirsty soldier in Portugal’s African colonies and his subsequent career as a mercenary and hired gun for orgs including the CIA and the Spanish government. Lamas constructs her pic from tiny snippets of interviews with Figueiredo, a somewhat shady but otherwise captivating raconteur. More fests will want to get their hands on “Land.”
This production from O Som e a Furia, which produced last year’s Berlinale hit “Tabu” and Manoel de Oliveira’s “Gebo and the Shadow,” further consolidates the shingle’s investment in visually striking, intellectually rigorous cinema that’s nonetheless accessible for festival and, potentially, arthouse auds.
Lamas’ interviews with Figueiredo all consist of medium shots, with the conspicuously mustachioed subject, always wearing a dark sweater, seated ina chair lit by a single soft box. A black backdrop draws attention to Figueiredo’s weathered, lived-in face, while the framing allows for a glimpse of his body language as he speaks about his experiences as a paid killer.
As he himself recounts, Figueiredo got his start in Angola and Mozambique as a soldier, serving from the mid-1960s to 1981 (Portuguese West and East Africa became independent in 1975), and subsequently worked for the CIA in El Salvador and GAL (the secret, government-funded “antiterrorist” group that liquidated members of Basque terrorist org ETA) in France and Spain.
Lamas’ questions, if there were any, aren’t heard, and Figueiredo often simply seems to be talking about the good old days, with the caveat that his day job was killing people. The matter-of-fact tone as he rattles off names and places is convincing, and when he notes, “We never took back prisoners, just bodies,” there’s a pride in his voice that probably couldn’t be faked. Ditto the glimmer in the old man’s eyes when he talks about his love of blood and how his addiction to its “sweet smell” made him pay visits to an ER in Portugal, needing the adrenaline rush that only the odor of fresh blood could provide. The difference between the pic’s subject and a Tarantino character is that Figueiredo is a probably a real person.
Probably, because Lamas, rather refreshingly, is not interested in historical veracity per se. The film’s fixed-camera view of its subject widens somewhat in the latter reels and even visits Paulo at home, raising some doubts about the exactitude of what he’s said. The director’s thoughts, occasionally heard in v.o., further suggest that what interests her is not whether all the man says is true, but whether it could be; indeed, the shocking banality with which Figueiredo describes how to best bury a body is so chilling, it certainly has the ring of truth.
Clearly asking more questions than it can answer, “No Man’s Land” is a thought-provoking exercise and an astute reminder of how much the so-called civilized world still resorts to violence to solve its conflicts, entrusting the job to (often invisible) professionals. Tech credits are crisp except for a maddeningly mannered detail: Lamas numbers each of her interview fragments for no clear reason, with many snippets running less than a minute each (there are about 90 in the 73-minute film).