As a ticket to peer into the culturally cluttered imagination of artist/filmmaker Jim Finn, take his 2000 photograph Snow and Farm, a faux landscape diorama featuring a model farmhouse and its surroundings that’s unremarkably true to its title but clearly a labour of fastidious reconstruction. Undermining the scene’s pastoral gloss—and, more crucially, possibly restoring it—is the use of Prozac pills and powder, reportedly looted from a pharmacutical-toting family member, to fabricate the natural landscape. In Finn’s hands, manipulation is less an act of deliberate subversion than an organic play between personal and political cultural effects. His films are like anamolous inside jokes that deceptively partake of broader worldviews, wherein a pet gerbil, skimpering before a crude scrim of found footage, might become a symbol of New World capitalism (wustenspringmaus, 2002) in its incessant energy. In his typically unclassifiable body of work, which includes a series of very homemade shorts and two feature-length “re-creations” (as well as a traveling roadshow of hand knitted pillows featuring communist heroes), Finn’s wayward vision can at least be described as perfectly pathetic.
Finn’s follow-up to his cult-credible communist cosmonaut romance Interkosmos (2006) finds him in equally insular (and pinko) territory, but decidely more earthbound. La Trinchera Luminosa del Presidente Gonzalo (The Shining Trench of Chairman Gonzalo) is an improbable re-enactment of daily life in a Peruvian prison, circa 1989, among women inmates, combatant followers of Abimael Guzman’s Maoist revolutionary-terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path). Grounded in historical record, the film nevertheless reflects the director’s desire for “the bootleg video that I would have wanted to find in a market in Lima.”
Maybe therein lies the film’s originality—who would want to find such a thing, let alone in a market in Peru?—and likewise its shaky aesthetic; La Trinchera resembles an in-house amateur documentary of the prisoners’ dogmatic daily rituals, shot in Hi-8 analog video, with an ensemble cast of nonprofessionals (many cast from an Albuquerque theatre group of artists from marginalized communities). La Trinchera sees Finn’s nearly-patented sense of irony bordering on sincerity for the duration: so firmly has the director’s oft-quoting tongue become embedded in cheek, any traces of a smirk have taken on the appearance of a scowl.
La Trinchera’s plotless “action” is confined to the Canto Grande prison, which Finn scrupulously resurrects using a 4H youth dormitory at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds. Just as Interkosmos relied on a garage aesthetic in the recreation of a fictional space program, with its charmingly tin-foiled space capsule cradling most of the screen time, La Trinchera employs a built-from-scratch milieu that intentionally flirts with credibility: Playtime it isn’t. Reconstruction in Finn’s films seems half the point: there’s a performative, rather than narrative, element to the interplay between actor and set, however droll. And the banality of seemingly strange locales becomes all the more fertile for teasing out incongruities. It’s this fundamental absurdity that is Finn’s stock-in- trade, the basis for such dryly comic contrasts as the Trolley Song mumbled over crackling interplanetary airwaves in Interkosmos, or La Trinchera’s uneventful pick-up soccer match among inmates scored to agitprop ballads about brandishing machetes.
La Trinchera consists mostly of Shining Path inmates espousing ideology, by way of daily rituals of guerilla training, or in parodically earnest interviews that situate inmates before lovingly crafted murals extolling class revolution via bloodshed—all while the bouncing handheld camera seems to bob with curiosity, in spite of the smudged lens. Favoring expository sequences of the inmates in risibly mundane states of work or play— some brushing up on self defense, a little needlepoint—the film is still unavoidably crammed with revolutionary rhetoric that isn’t entirely obsolete in the 21st century. Communist kitsch has become a virtual thrift store for artistic tropes, but beneath La Trinchera’s schema of fake replica, with its color-coded pageantry and proud marching songs, there lies a not so didactic consideration of leftist ideology. Finn’s rather ironic use of genre—the space odyssey, the women’s prison movie—becomes a sly means of broadcasting a litany of found textual footage. Sure, capitalism may be like a lame llama with bloody hooves retreading its path, but there’s no doubt that someone in Peru in the last 27 years has felt that a revolution is a means of giving the people what they need. And that perhaps a dead father is better than a live traitor.
La Trinchera airs many such convictions from historical sources, culling much of its seemingly incidental rhetoric from the pages of Mao, Abimael Guzman, and testimonials from Shining Path prisoners. That many of the prisoners were women isn’t coincidental, as the movement included an unprecedented number of female combatants, which Finn highlights interrogatively as well as a matter of course. Invoking the ethos of Bolshevik feminist Alexandra Kollontai, in which there is no true revolution without gender equality, Finn may be cheekily praising Shining Path for its inclusive membership policies while wondering how it carried out, and still carries out, such extreme violence. Was this an historically aberrant constituency or, as the director states in his press notes, more in common with 21st-century guerilla tactics? Still, there are no guns to be found in La Trinchera, but there are ladles, notebooks, and violins.
La Trinchera references Shining Path’s foothold among Indian groups by incorporating Navajo (Dine’) into the mostly Spanish-language proceedings, but the in-film revolutionary theatre performance of Macbeth in Navajo, while touching on issues of betrayal, fails to fully register the connection. Whatever dramatic thrust the film musters involves a trial of comrades who’ve strayed from the party line (“Do not call your fellow comrades ‘lazy asses’!”), and are summarily expelled to accusatory chants of ”Deng Xiaoping—traitorous Chinese rat!” The thread of prisoner interviews woven into the film’s reflexive content, conducted by an unnamed and unseen source, provides a cursory review of the group’s dogma, but scarcely acts as a critical consideration of its actions. If, as the filmmaker has proclaimed, La Trinchera creates a ”unique, fictional world based in fact,” it is in the context of imaginative history practiced by Washington Irving, himself name-checked in the prolix script. La Trinchera may be an anomaly—a women’s prison movie without the nudity, guerilla warfare without the guns, and Shakespeare without the drama—but it is also a deliberately framed portrait of Peruvian history without any direct recognition of atrocity. Does it go without saying?
No sooner does the question arise that it becomes subsumed by the absurdity of Finn’s conceit. Clever, but I still want some answers. Cut to a scene in which night has engulfed the compound, and the women take to the courtyard to shake some revolutionary booty, with a retro-electro salsa groove embedding yet another party imperative: “We are sustained in the inexhaustible beat of revolution” chirps the lyric. With his penchant for the pageantry of organized politics and an uncanny ear for its drumming-up of fervour, Finn is likewise induced. The poker-faced director, who has a penchant for appearing in his own films to often naturally comic effect, wisely excludes himself from La Trinchera’s nominally serious proceedings—though it’s worth imagining what kind of recreated archival footage Finn may have dreamed up, with himself in the Gonzalo role. Modestly scaled, La Trinchera scores a minor conceptual coup for occupying politically charged territory with the levity of, well, highly evolved karaoke video. Call it a party favour.