Real life gets borderline Brechtian at times. Take the phrase “theater of war,” which closely allies the concepts of mass conflict and performance and gives Argentinian director Lola Arias’ intricate documentary debut its perfectly appropriate title. Or take the ex-Royal Marine it features: What sort of meta reality do we live in when a man struggling to understand his bloody participation in a conflict forgotten by most of the world, is called Lou Armour?
Arias’ film is built on ironies, on the juxtaposition of the real and the staged, the random and the deliberate, the factual and the remembered. Bringing together six veterans of the Falklands War (or “Guerra de las Malvinas” in Spanish) from both sides of the conflict, and having them act, react, and interact on sets and locations that draw attention to their artificiality, Arias makes their experiences explicitly into theater. The difference is that this time, they know it.
The war they dissect in these improvised scenes and semi-scripted skits occurred over a couple of months in 1982, between Argentina and the U.K. on the tiny territory of the Falkland Islands. It ended, with just over 900 lives lost, in an Argentine surrender, which is still a source of considerable shame in the region. But it’s quickly established that the victorious/defeated dichotomy, like the other language and cultural divides that separate the men, is not so wide it can’t be bridged. Sometimes awkwardly: It’s faintly ridiculous when the six of them perform together as a rock band, but perhaps all the more touching for it.
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There is precedent for finding hidden truth in the overtly theatrical re-creation of violence. Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is only the best-known recent exploration of an impulse that dates back to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and probably beyond. But Arias’ aim is not to catch the conscience of a king, not to ensnare. Instead her witty, compassionate docu-dramatics are designed to break the men free of the maddening cycle of trauma. Words and images and place-names recur: “belly wound,” “mortar man,” “Mt. Kent,” “Mt. Harriet.” The Argentinian Marcelo admits to drug addiction, while others come across as eccentric or lonely or plain cantankerous. The damage is different but all of them are partially trapped in a replaying moment, like a record needle forever stuttering back into the same groove.
Arias incorporates imperfections and glitches into every scene, in an attempt to shock the system out of those hamster-wheel cycles and memory loops. A knife fight staged on a flight of steps is amusingly interrupted when a dog runs in and won’t stop barking at the mock-combatants. Oftentimes, the very discomfort of the veterans in their roles as “actors,” creates that grit in the gears. In a faux-candid bar scene they grouse about each other and Arias herself. “Typical Argie,” mutters one of the Brits, darkly hinting that she’s biased. But the next moment he’s compliantly following her off-screen direction, as though aware there’s some deeper reason why this show must go on.
Arias, who comes from a background in performance art, recently claimed that her name was used in Ruben Östlund’s art-world satire “The Square” without her consent (the eponymous artwork, an empty square of light, is attributed to her in the film, though is not her work). And certainly, the association is a little misleading because here, Arias’ “square” — the stage that is her film — is anything but empty: It’s full of her subjects’ conflict and trauma, and it does seem like, after the curtain falls, they get to walk offstage leaving a little of it behind.