Bodies at War: Introduction
From the Series: Bodies at War
The plane’s menacing blades take hold of the corner of the frame. The green from above turns into unpaved-road beige, then to concrete gray as the plane lands. During flight, we’re told of La Violencia—somewhere between a historical period in Colombia (1948–1953), and an everyday saying pertaining to the widely diffused war and insecurity that saturate everyday life here. An ambiguous and all-encompassing signifier often used to fill the gaps of silence that grow from the unexplainable. Bodies at War (2015) is a gripping film by anthropologist and filmmaker Emily Cohen. The film centers on the bodies of those arguably most torn by the Colombian armed conflict—those who suffered lower limb injuries due to land mines. Technologically mediated bodily dismemberments are added to the inventory of ways everyday warfare leaves its markings. We’re told of other practices from other decades: rows of bodies murdered, the “necktie,” the “flower vase,”—grotesque forms of bodily transformation that gesture towards an aesthetics of violence (see also Uribe 2004). The film moves between the Colombian Pacific region and the capital city, Bogotá. It follows the trajectories of men after the war has struck. Trajectories to return home. Trajectories toward a new form of life, a “new ordinariness” (Wool 2015, 132).
Movement, kinesthetics, and the textures and rhythms of the places men move through are foregrounded alongside conventional interviews. “You never think about the risks. They appear between the night and the day,” an amputated soldier tells us. The sounds of metals clinging soon take over as men in crutches and prosthetics play soccer. Earlier, Colombian troops march down 7th Avenue in downtown Bogotá. The bodies of injured soldiers in uniform are escorted in wheelchairs as they grip on to Colombian flags. Tanks and combat vehicles stroll down as crowds gather. The muscle power of the state flexed. The wounds of its soldiers sacrificially flaunted. Symbolic and affective currencies are transacted from the state to its citizenry. The scene cuts to the site of surgery, where open flesh procedures are undertaken. The torn leg. Its jagged opening turns extremely visceral for viewers, as insides are out and exposed. The dangling of open flesh; insides are burned and worked upon. We are punctured by these images. Their hapticity, their too-muchness spills out the frame and unto an “us,” that could be “them.” There are other scenes that arrest the viewer. Like the compilation of mannequins from military storefronts in downtown Bogotá. They look like they know too much, or at least enough about the war they are part of. A mannequin with a missing hand models army pants. Another is missing an arm. They pose standing before war paraphernalia that saturates the walls in the form of military badges and emblems.
Bodies of War does a lot of work for us. We are taken into the process of being fitted for a prosthetic. The walking, balancing, the pressing down on closed wounds—the adjusting to new bodily norms. Later, two land-mine afflicted amputated citizens speculate whether soldier amputees are left to fend on their own like they are. One of them is skeptical of state aid, noting that soldiers too become “enredados” or entangled, knotted—tied up in the impasses, the lies, and trickery of state bureaucracy. One gets a different experience of life after injury from these two men as they move in crutches through Bogotá and its unwelcoming topography—mired with physical obstacles and social stratification. Their exposed maimed bodies become legible as the “font for the rhetoric of suffering” (Desjarlais 2018, 154). “One basically has to beg,” the former campesino tells us, explaining the critical stakes for getting by in the city.
I want to close by reflecting on the contemporary moment. The land mine hidden beneath the dirt patch symbolizes the grounds where life is forged for way too many Colombians. One that is fraught with instability and the potential for world-shattering violence. Five years after the film’s release, Colombia stands amid a foggy horizon where post-peace war is slowly resurfacing as paramilitary and guerrilla groups are quietly and not-so-quietly rekindling. In short, the proclamation that things could fall apart “between night and day,” continues to be a common experience for many Colombians after the peace talks' white garments were sported, and the white doves were flung in the air. We hope the film prompts questions about the mutilating and lethal effects of the armed conflict and the current moment in Colombian history.
I'd like to thank Emily Cohen and Reversa Films for allowing this open-access screening, Laura A. LeVon and the Teaching Tools section for engaging with this film and for their collaborations on the series more broadly, Patricia Zavella and Lina Pinto García for their incisive reviews. I'd also like to thank our SCA Publications Manager Jessica Lockrem for her editorial insights and generous support, as well as Adam Fleischmann, Scott Ross, and SCA's social media team for fruitful discussions on the Screening Room film series.
Desjarlais, Robert. 2018. The Blind Man: A Phantasmography. Fordham, N.Y.: Fordham University Press.
Uribe, María Victoria. 2004. "Dismembering and Expelling: Semantics of Political Terror in Colombia." Public Culture 16, no. 1: 79–96.
Wool, Zoë. 2015. After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.