Tiempo de violencia
(Time of Violence)

Canogar with sculpture.

Rafael Canogar

Tiempo de violencia is a documentary about the work of Rafael Canogar in the late 1960s. The artist took his subjects directly from news photographs in part to document the violence and repression of those times and in part to overcome the apathy that resulted from the sheer volume of those images. Constant exposure to tragedy in newspapers and on television dulled the public’s response to them. The most terrifying images were reduced to little more than abstract mosaics.

One way in which Canogar revived these images was to transform them into hybrids of painting and sculpture. He would select a few important details to cast in three-dimensional form. The fragmentary reconstruction, together with the human scale and real elements, provokes an empathic response. (Not all of the images he chose were of violence or repression. Some were chosen for aesthetic reasons, employing the third dimension to express other ideas.)

Tiempo de violencia was an experimental documentary, intended to break with the more-useless traditions of that genre. The core of the film does follow the creation of a single work of art, from photo to the final painting/sculpture. Along the way, however, the film shifts back and forth to other images, often with disconcerting associations. This structure was invented largely in the scripting stage by brainstorming images that seemed to express the artist’s intentions. Some of these were based on existing art works, others were not. These images were then organized in ways that would make the viewer reconsider them. For example, one shot opens with real legs crossing the screen—to reveal a painting/sculpture of legs standing in the street. Throughout, emphasis was on the visual and not the spoken word.

Canogar’s objectives and techniques corresponded in many ways to those of the filmmaker, and at times they are strikingly similar. For example, the film often takes a scene or object out of context—as when a white hand jabs at a severed black hand with scissors.

Wax poured on hand.

The artist uses hot wax to make
a mold of his own hand.
Like the artist, the filmmaker wanted these techniques to revitalize a form that has lost its ability to communicate. But where the news photo has made frightening images seem tame, the documentary lost its edge by becoming less and less visual. For many documentary makers, the written word has become far more important than the image on the screen. Voiceovers have allowed explanation to replace demonstration. Talking heads abound, and documentaries have become too much like textbooks: boring, predictable, and filled with more information than is necessary.


Since the time that this film was made, quite a few things have changed—mostly for the worse. Some documentary makers have adopted the MTV credo, which holds that most people have attention spans as short as those of network executives. Editing of some films is now so choppy that many images are on screen for too short a time to identify them. Others have come to lean even more on the verbal crutch, filling the soundtrack with monotone commentary. The writers virtually ignore the visual. these works give a new meaning to the phrase “books on tape.” And finally, videotapes and digital video, unknown in the 1960s, have made the whole process much easier and much less expensive, which will no doubt dilute the genre even further.

Copyright © 2004  William Dyckes