(Historia de mi Nombre, dir. Karen Cuyul, Documentary; 78 mins; Chile, 2019)
Karen Cuyul’s Historia de mi nombre received the CAMIRA Prize at Márgenes Festival 2019.
Karen Cuyul’s voice-over recounts the loss of her family’s entire belongings, as Historia de mi nombre begins. With nothing left but a memory of the fateful day and the fire that destroyed everything, Cuyul commences a journey to remember, recollect and reassemble her past, building a memory bank based on interviews, borrowed archives and reconstructed footage.
She longs for her scrapbook collection and the different things that remind her of the places she has lived in. Realizing her family never took pictures, Cuyul starts watching the archives of others. This triggers a recurring memory of a chance encounter her parents had with the father of Karen Eitel, the FPMR activist after whom Cuyul is named. (The director herself is born in 1988 – the year of the Chilean national referendum that took place 15 years into Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.)
Cuyul shores up her memories with another family’s archives, filmed between 1989 and 2000. She shoots additional footage by revisiting the places her family once traveled to. Most of this is filmed from the back seat of a car, which she describes as a safe place from where she observes people and places. Cuyul frames much of the documentary within the car window, transiting from one scene to the next with a clicking sound, similar to that of a View-Master.
We join Cuyul in this ‘safe space’ as she progresses from one location to the other, reconstructing family trips in order to recollect lost and forgotten memories. Her parents recall significant events that mark their time in each location, and Cuyul’s voice-over accompanies the exploratory drive through time as she traverses flatlands, and desolate towns.
These reflect the different degrees of temporality – or permanence - that characterize her ride down memory lane, and her attempts to extract information from her parents and from Eitel, who was arrested, and tortured on primetime television for her role in the kidnap of an army general.
Cuyul’s mission is not without roadblocks. When the filmmaker believes she has discovered old footage of herself in a school video, her mother debunks this. Memory, like the imagination, is elastic and static. “Whenever I move forward, my mum tells me ‘no’. It looks like she doesn’t want to remember anything.”
By Cuyul’s recollection, her mother worked with families of people buried in the desert but she is quick to dismiss this memory too. Her mother however admits to having worked with victims of the dictatorship. “Until today I’ve never thought that everything can be destroyed,” Cuyul says, “…everything can disappear eventually.”
Including the filmmaker’s memories.
Historia de mi nombre is however more than a personal documentary: As the story weaves across Chile, it takes on a national and geo-political relevance, especially once we discover that Cuyul’s parents have left certain things unsaid.
A fire is not the only disaster the family survives. A mudslide coincides with their arrival in Antofagasta, ensuring their time there was spent on perpetual alert for natural disasters. Yet, the family’s constant relocation has less to do with such disasters. Over the years, many memories had disappeared into ‘a black hole’, ‘a blank page’, ‘a bald spot’ - to use Cuyul’s words – because of the “things that could not be said”.
In attempting to fill the void, Cuyul asks the broader question: “What bits have we omitted when creating a new memory or identity for ourselves?”
Her history is as well the history of her country. She takes on the role of interrogator to her parents and Eitel, revisiting stories they would rather keep buried. Yet she questions the purpose of her own digging and questioning: “I don’t know what I am doing, searching in houses that [yield] me nothing.”
Her parents, like Eitel, vehemently refuse to speak of certain things. As one of them says, “Some things can’t be said. Things we just don’t talk about.” According to Cuyul’s father, this is because, “Chile is a very long country and history can repeat itself at any moment.”
This history of conflict, of national dissent, of violent politics stereotypically characterizes Chile and most of the continent. On an even more personal level, a generation’s individual experiences of these years has influenced a reluctance in talking about it.
The taciturnity, indifference, and a lack of hope bother Cuyul. She however appears to comprehend that such a stance is an acceptance of the status quo brought on by a loss of place and unrealized dreams.
Towards the end of Historia de mi nombre Cuyul’s ride changes direction, away from uncharted territory, yet looking back. Perhaps she has found what she is looking for; perhaps it is merely time to turn back.