directed by Tiago Hespanha
Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, runs April 25-May 5, 2019 at Toronto's Bloor Cinema. Visit the fest's official site for more details.
by Bill Chambers Despite its occasional stop/start rhythm, Campo is a consistently hypnotic audiovisual essay that ventures onto the Herzogian turf of Alcochete, Portugal's Field Firing Range, called "Campo" for short after the Portuguese word for "field." At 7,539 hectares (i.e., around 47 square miles), it's Europe's largest military base--so large that there's room for livestock, including a herd of sheep, to graze on its grass, mostly undisturbed. A series of vignettes alternates drills and wildlife, though these juxtapositions aren't quite that uniform, and oftentimes humans are present in the animal sequences, where they're cooperative and not a blight. (A beekeeper closely monitors a hive to make sure his bees aren't losing their radar like they have been all over the world.) Some scenes smudge the lines of fiction as indicated by this being a training facility, such as when medics labour to stop the bleeding of an allegedly wounded trainee who says, coughing up blood (for effect?), "When my father hears about this, he'll shoot himself." One camera angle, so peculiar it must be intentional, reduces a jeep and the soldiers inside it to action figures straight out of Marwencol.
The film visits with a little boy and his mother, who works at Campo's headquarters and lives nearby. The boy has composed a song for the piano, "Battle in the Stars," so named because, he tells an offscreen interviewer, it's meant to evoke the dogfights from Star Wars, et al. His mom interjects, saying he actually came up with it during a thunderstorm, which leads to a discussion of whether they can hear, where they live, all the shooting going on. They can. Sometimes they feel it. In fact, the "airplane explosions" send shockwaves through their home. She says the sound of bullets used to scare the kids when they were little, yet still you wonder what kind of long-term effect it will have on them. You wonder what it's doing to the animals, too, who are seen at one point shrouded in dust from all the gunfire. Campo's not a real war zone, but is it?
In a segment shot entirely in silhouette, a telescope sparks a debate between stargazers about whether the universe is expanding infinitely or destined to shrink again, and soon the subject turns to quantum memory: "[I]f there is this memory at quantum level, you hold data from the beginning of time," says one to another. "People haven't realized yet that we are all soil. What distinguishes us from a stone is just our mobility." This seems to tie into the narrator's particularly grim retelling of the Prometheus myth, wherein the only vestige of history left at the end is the rock Prometheus was chained to, rendered inexplicable by life forgetting itself. Blunt philosophizing is not the name of the game here, though (this isn't Waking Life), and Campo doesn't exactly taper to a point. But its inscrutability isn't vexing, and only once, when the veterinary help leaves a dead sheep and her stillborn lamb to rot in the dirt, does the picture's existentialism strike one as cynical, contrived. Programme: Animal Magnetism