FQ columnist Manuel Betancourt muses on the difference between responsibility and accountability in the context of nonfiction cinema’s impulse towards and history of speaking up and back to power. In keeping with his preference for poetic nonfiction over traditional documentary, he considers recent Latin American documentaries that fight against narrative rules in order ask more of their audience. He suggests that filmmakers such as Jonathan Perel, whose Corporate Accountability (2021) he discusses at length, extend this notion of accountability not only to their subjects but to their audience through untraditional approaches that force viewers to sit with their discomfort and actively engage with the images before them.
The English-language title for Jonathan Perel’s Responsabilidad empresarial (2021) is Corporate Accountability. Linguistic slippages like these, especially in title translations, fascinate me to no end. They’re often necessary, especially when one is hoping to capture the spirit of a film without reflexively resorting to literal translations of titles—the kind that may end up coming off clunky in another language. But they also tend to reveal and deepen the meaning of a film, as in Tatiana Huezo’s Noche de fuego (2021), which turns the evocative image of a “night of fire” (or a “night in flames”) into the poetic title Prayers for the Stolen, giving a clearer picture of the young girls that make up the Mexican production. Or Natalia Meta’s El prófugo (2021), which shifts the focus from the singular Spanish word for “fugitive” to a more thriller-esque title: The Intruder.
In Perel’s case, the move from “responsabilidad” to “accountability” may feel minor. In Spanish, in fact, there’s no way to uncouple the two words, since the concept for the latter is contained in the former. Yet thinking about the differences between responsibility and accountability gets at one of the key aspects of Perel’s nonfiction project. The Argentine filmmaker, known for Toponimia (2015) and 17 monumentos (2012), has here set his sights on the corporations that aided and abetted Argentina’s junta during that country’s dictatorship (1976–83) in carrying out human rights violations in which the junta disappeared, tortured, and killed hundreds of workers all over the country. By 2021, what Perel is highlighting is a verifiable truth, but his presentation on-screen of the details of what transpired during those years is an attempt to hold those companies up to further scrutiny.
To be responsible for something, after all, is very different from being held accountable for the same thing. The impulse to use cinema to speak up and back to power has a long history, especially in Latin American cinema—one that continues to this day with programs like the Ambulante Film Festival in Mexico, founded by Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal (which just celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in 2020); the Muestra Internacional Documental de Bogotá (MIDBO), started by documentarian Ricardo Restrepo (and running for over two decades); and the Festival Internacional de Documentales de Santiago (FIDOCS), created by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán (which will be celebrating twenty-five years with its 2021 edition). The range of projects presented at these nonfiction-film showcases speaks to the breadth of strong work produced all over the region—much of which is conceived with the precise aim of holding states, entities, and individuals accountable.
But there’s no denying that Perel’s sparse provocation stands out within a landscape for nonfiction filmmaking that is rife with expository exposés, especially in the United States and thereby affecting production and distribution models globally. For instance, Juliana Fanjul’s Radio silencio (Radio Silence, 2020) and Netflix’s docuseries Private Network: Who Killed Manuel Buendía? (Red privada: ¿Quién mató a Manuel Buendía?, Manuel Alcalá, 2021) paint a dire picture of the state of a free press in Mexico with their portraits of two brave journalists who refused to remain silent in the face of injustice. Similarly, documentaries like Anaïs Taracena’s El silencio del topo (2021) and Pamela Yates’s 500 años (500 Years, 2017) are helping to make visible the cruelty of the Guatemalan dictatorship, using testimonials to elevate oft-marginalized voices, while features like La niebla de la paz (The Fog of Peace, Joel Stangle, 2020) and Cicatrices en la tierra (Gustavo Fernández, 2021) are mapping out Colombia’s recent reckoning with its decades-long violent conflict.
The role of the documentary film as chronicle and cudgel, then, is alive and well. Yet—and this is very much a personal preference—I’ve long gravitated toward more-poetic nonfiction propositions and away from the traditional documentary models that, as filmmaker Susana de Sousa Dias argued in this very journal, “still too often present historical contents articulated according to causal relations, promoting a feeling of conclusion and completeness in accordance with a positivist conception of history.”1 Documentaries like Perel’s Corporate Accountability fight against those narrative rules to get at something much more probing, if necessarily elusive. His meditative approach asks more of its audience than intermittent gasps and knowing nods; his concept of accountability demands more of them. More than just their attention, that is.
There’s a welcome simplicity to Perel’s project. The sixty-eight-minute film is composed of a series of still shots. In each, Perel’s camera lingers on factory storefronts, busy business gates, and company facades (active or abandoned). They’re all preceded by a single title card bearing the logo of the company in question—from multinational corporations like Ford, Fiat, and Mercedes-Benz to regional ones like Alpargatas, Molinos Río de la Plata, Acindar, and Loma Negra. The unbroken shots, filmed stealthily from inside Perel’s own car, feature the filmmaker’s own voice-over. Except he’s not narrating or opting to offer his own words. Instead, he reads aloud selected excerpts from a report published by the Argentine Ministry of Justice and Human Rights in 2015: Responsabilidad empresarial en delitos de lesa humanidad: Represión a trabajadores durante el terrorismo de Estado (“Corporate responsibility in crimes against humanity: Repression of workers during State terrorism”). Many of these accounts open with numbers and statistics (“At least twenty-two workers at La Veloz del Norte were victims of crimes against humanity”), and the clipped, clinical language of the book offers bleak portraits of many of the scenes that took place at these businesses: “The police arrested him in his house carrying a picture of him taken in the plant,” Perel recites at one point. “During the arrest, they were holding an Acindar orange file. Only the company management had that information.”
Even as scenes like the one above crop up in several of these vignettes, narrative is of no particular interest to Perel. Neither is the expository mode of nonfiction filmmaking. This is not a film invested in giving audiences the context for the junta, the dictatorship, or the current socioeconomic state of Argentina. Instead, what Perel is offering is a study in accretion, in accumulation—to deadening effect. Numbers begin to jumble together, and there’s an intentional unavoidable monotony in hearing similar stories over and over again.
The effect is a crushing realization that, even as the report is citing history, the images ground the audience in the present. So many of these corporations are still thriving, unbesmirched by their past. They’re clearly responsible. But it’s obvious they’ve never truly been held accountable. This, Perel notes at the end of the documentary, is because the language being used already absolves these businesses of the damage they did. As he explained in an interview:
The notion of “complicity” is insufficient because it understands the actions by these companies as an extraneous addition to an action being done by another actor, lending them a secondary role. Meanwhile, the notion of “accountability” [the “responsabilidad” of the title] exceeds it, understanding that these companies played an active role in the repression of their workers: delivering the lists of personnel to be kidnapped, providing files, addresses, vehicles and even private security personnel at the service of the repression.2
“This accountability,” as he says at the end of the film, “should be further studied by new investigations in the name of memory and truth and also in the name of justice.” Like the mostly ignored (if not outright forgotten) report that Perel cites throughout, Corporate Accountability is but one step forward. It’s why the film was designed with such restraint in mind: Perel not only trusts his audience but expects them to want more. More information. More history. More action. As he has commented:
The problem is that cinema usually does the work for the audience, facilitating the process for them. And I don’t believe in this kind of cinema. I prefer a film that gives the audience space to work together in the construction of the meaning. The information is out there, and the work should continue after the film is over. Of course, this implies accepting that the meaning of a film is multiple and open, and there is no way a work of art can deliver a message transparently to its audience. But many filmmakers still want to secure a meaning for their films. This is cinema as entertainment, which I am not interested in. For me, cinema should be a tool to question and modify the world, to propose and try to build alternative ways of imagining the world.3
There’s no need to look far afield to find other documentarians equally uninterested in crafting films that spoon-feed audiences in the name of entertainment and who instead, as Perel does in Corporate Accountability, force viewers to sit with their discomfort and actively engage with the material being presented to them. For example, Natalia Almada’s Sundance award–winning film Users (2021), Alonso Ruizpalacios’s Una película de policías (A Cop Movie, 2021), and even Rodrigo Reyes’s 499 (2020) are all projects that may seem far afield from Perel’s own but that are, in their own way, equally interested in pushing the boundaries of how nonfiction cinema can engage with audience and world alike.
Taken together, they form an ever-growing vanguard of Latin American nonfiction filmmaking. Closer to an essay film than anything else, Users is a meditation on parenting in the age of technology, on the frightening ways technology is remaking our personal relationships with one another, with nature, with history, with memory, and perhaps even with ourselves. Using an AI voice-over modeled on Almada’s own voice (a tech-enhanced performance that aims to mimic intimacy and spontaneity even as it reveals itself to be wholly constructed), Users is constantly both asking questions of, and questioning, its audience.
Meanwhile, Ruizpalacios’s meta-take on the broken system that is the Mexican police force relies on a dark sense of humor: its verité sequences follow two cops who turn out to be fictional re-creations built from real-life testimonials. The discussions of performance that follow and that reframe pulsating cinematic moments that were first witnessed as “real” deconstruct the role (pun intended) of the cop in this cheekily titled film.
Similarly, Reyes’s magical realism, which imagines what would happen if a sixteenth-century conquistador found himself stranded in modern-day Mexico, becomes a fruitful framework through which to expose the cruelty and contemporaneous effects of the Spanish conquest. These thematics—about modern-day technophobia, police corruption, and violent colonial histories—are not new. But these formally inventive documentaries give them renewed vitality and urgency.
This constellation of films embodies something that is at the heart of Perel’s simple if sometimes obfuscating project: accountability sometimes needs to move beyond the screen—not toward entities or governments or individuals in power, but toward viewers. The self-reflexive moves that these films encourage—be it with oneiric imagery and self-aware commentary, or meta-fictional conceits that defamiliarize red-hot debates—lead audiences to look within. In forgoing the ease (and entertainment) of narratives and tidy conclusions, they prevent viewers from seeing these issues as handily contained within the frame of their work. There’s a push outward, as viewers examine their own complicity, perhaps, and also are encouraged to seek answers outside of what’s been presented in front of them. As Perel’s Corporate Accountability exemplifies, it’s time to push viewers of nonfiction cinema to understand that their responsibility can and should go beyond mere witnessing, mere entertainment.
Susana de Sousa Dias, “Weak Memories: Archives of Futurability,” Film Quarterly 73, no. 4 (Summer 2020): 27.
Horacio Bernades, “Jonathan Perel: ‘Filmar empresas privadas es más difícil que filmar bases militares,’” Página 12, October 14, 2021, www.pagina12.com.ar/374540-jonathan-perel-filmar-empresas-privadas-es-mas-dificil-que-f. The original reads: “La noción de ‘complicidad’ es insuficiente porque entiende este accionar de las empresas como un acompañamiento de una acción que es desarrollada por otro actor, dándoles un rol secundario. Mientras que la noción de ‘responsabilidad’ la supera, entendiendo que hubo un papel activo de las empresas en la represión de sus trabajadores: entregando las listas del personal a secuestrar, facilitando legajos, direcciones, vehículos y hasta personal de seguridad privada al servicio de la represión.”
“Jonathan Perel Introduces His Film ‘Corporate Accountability,’” MUBI Notebook, October 13, 2021, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/jonathan-perel-introduces-his-film-corporate-accountability.