Like last week’s video for Nicanor Parra’s “El hombre imaginario,” this is a Moving Poems production in homage to a great, recently deceased Latin American poet. A post by poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbot first alerted me to Claribel Alegría‘s death on January 25, drawing attention to the poem “Soy Espejo”:
In the 1990’s I taught that poem to classes that included very few Hispanic students. Then I moved to South Florida and taught that poem to people who had fled the Central American civil wars that Alegria wrote about. The poem worked well across a wide variety of boundaries.
I used a new translation by my friend Jean Morris. Rather than try to depict the horrors described in the poem directly, I wanted to focus on the speaker or speakers who’d witnessed them, so went looking for footage from asylums and the like. I found what I needed in the Prelinger Archives: a 1938 documentary about mental illness, for which patients were made to wear crude masks to protect their privacy. Shots of a woman repeatedly touching her face, other women standing or sitting frozen, and one, afflicted with echopraxia, mirroring the gestures of an interlocutor, provided points of connection with the text. I used some noise music by Stabbed Empath, the project of another friend, for the soundtrack.
To me, Alegría’s poem isn’t about war but trauma, and that’s where I tried to put the emphasis. I realize that the result may not make for pleasant viewing; it’s basically the complete opposite of the famous sequence from Good Morning, Vietnam where footage of the horrors of war is juxtaposed with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” As great as that scene is, it doesn’t challenge the dominant conception of war as a tragic, horrific, but ultimately somehow inevitable, larger-than-life spectacle, nor does it really explore other perspectives than those of the soldiers. It’s part of a whole genre of “anti-war” filmmaking that focuses on the cost in terms of soldiers and veterans but rarely acknowledges, or actively downplays, the usually much greater cost in civilian casualties and wounds of all kinds. And as long as voters in the U.S. and other aggressor nations continue to ignore these impacts, the news media will be allowed to continue in their role as cheerleaders for the military-industrial complex, depicting war as a regrettable cost of doing business, from Afghanistan and Syria to Yemen and now, once again, Central America.